First-and-10: If not DeAndre Hopkins, Bears still need a No. 1 receiver

Bears general manager Ryan Poles said he’s not “gonna go crazy” with the $118 million in salary-cap space he has. But maybe a little crazy? Like DeAndre Hopkins crazy?

It’s a long shot, given Hopkins’ age (31 in June) and recent injury history (nine missed games the past two seasons), but the availability of a legit No. 1 receiver — reportedly on the trading block in Arizona — has to be at least a little intriguing for Poles after seeing the impact top-flight receivers had with young quarterbacks this season.

Jalen Hurts became an MVP candidate in 2022, with his passer rating improving from 87.2 to 101.5, after the Eagles traded for A.J. Brown (88 receptions, 1,496 yards, 11 touchdowns).

Tua Tagovailoa led the NFL in passer rating this season (105.5, up from 90.1 in 2021) after the Dolphins traded for Tyreek Hill (119-1,710, seven touchdowns).

And Trevor Lawrence took the kind of step that Justin Fields’ needs to make — from a 71.9 rating in 2021 to 95.2 in 2022 — after the Jaguars seemingly overpaid for free agent wide receiver Christian Kirk (84-1,108, eight touchdowns)

Hopkins has a history of excelling with young quarterbacks. He made the All-Pro team in Deshaun Watson’s first three seasons with the Texans (2017-19). And Kyler Murray blossomed into an MVP candidate after the Cardinals acquired Hopkins from the Texans.

Hill (28), Brown (25) and Kirk (26) are younger, but Hopkins still has it at 30. After serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing drugs, Hopkins averaged 96.3 yards a game, with three touchdowns in four games with Murray this season and 89.1 yards in eight games with Murray and Colt McCoy.

But Hopkins has a no-trade clause in his contract that has two years remaining — and will have cap numbers of $19.5 million in 2023 and $14.9 million in 2024.

Poles doesn’t seem prone to making that kind of move and taking that kind of chance. When he was asked about offseason priorities Tuesday, he notably ignored wide receiver (“pass rushers, offensive linemen, corners.”). Unless it was one of those public feints to throw everyone off the scent, he seems content to ride with 24-year-old Chase Claypool as his best option to develop a No. 1, go-to receiver.

Poles doesn’t want to go crazy with his salary-cap bonanza. But DeAndre Hopkins reported availability — even if Poles isn’t interested — is a reminder to keep your eyes open and be ready to pounce. Three of the top four receivers in the NFL this season were traded last year (Hill, Davante Adams, Brown) and No. 5 Stefon Diggs was traded in 2020. When you have the opportunity — and wherewithal — to splurge on a proven difference-maker, you’d be crazy not to.

2. Just how far do the Bears have to go? Three-win teams historically struggle to get back on their feet. But for three-win teams in the Bears’ situation — with a first-year head coach who gets a second year — the prospect of improvement not as daunting.

The last six three-win teams in that category have made progress the following season: The 2021 Lions (9-8); 2011 Vikings (10-6 and the playoffs); 2009 Buccaneers (10-6), 2006 Lions (7-9); 2001 Bills (8-8); and 1998 Colts (13-3 and the playoffs).

3. Fields is significantly ahead of Mitch Trubisky’s standing heading into 2019, but even the most well-meaning compliments — like about his leadership, competitiveness and wanting to own the city — are null and void until he proves it on the field.

For as much as coaches and teammates love and respect him, Fields didn’t show much of the “it” factor as a quarterback in 2022. He didn’t finish. He didn’t compel his team to finish. He didn’t make players better. Most of the plays that made opponents fear him were accomplished with his legs. Trubisky hated to lose, too.

Fields can be an elite quarterback, but from what we’ve seen so far, it’s more than just a matter of time. He’s got to not only refine, but improve.

4. A lot of questions at Tuesday’s media availability were left on the cutting-room floor because Bears media relations curiously (and oddly) limited the question-and-answer session to 21 minutes — with a general manager who had not spoken to the entire media corps since prior to the season opener. (Maybe new president Kevin Warren can fix that.)

Poles wasn’t able to address the aftermath of the Roquan Smith trade. In effect, he traded the 25-year-old Smith and at least 23 spots in the second round (pending the Ravens’ playoff results) for Claypool and a fifth-round draft pick.

Clearly, Smith is more valuable to the Ravens’ defense than he was to the Bears’ — the Ravens signed him to a five-year, $100 million contract Poles refused to agree to. It’s true Smith didn’t provide the takeaways the Bears were looking for. Then again, they only gave him eight games in a new defense with an underwhelming defensive line to prove it. If their minds were made up that early, it might have been better to trade Smith in the offseason.

5. Heading into this season, the Bears had the eighth-easiest 2022 schedule in the NFL (based on 2021 records of their 17 opponents). But as it turned out, the Bears had the most difficult schedule in the league. Their opponents had a combined record of 149-119-3, a .555 winning percentage (excluding games against the Bears).

6. The Bears were arguably a play away from winning four games they lost this season — the Commanders (a 12-7 loss), Dolphins (35-32), Lions at Soldier Field (31-30) and Falcons (27-24).

If they had won those games, they’d have finished 7-10 and with the accomplishment of finishing close games against quality competition. But they’d also have the 13th overall pick. Instead, they were 3-14 with the first overall pick. Which is better?

7. Colts general manager Chris Ballard’s vow to do “whatever it takes” could be a good omen for the Bears. “Whatever It Takes” was the Bears’ slogan in 1977, when they almost miraculously won their final six games to finish 9-5 and end a 14-year postseason drought.

A trade with the Colts that would give the Bears the No. 4 overall pick (and other picks) and likely get either Alabama’s Will Anderson or Georgia’s Jalen Carter would be close to a best-case scenario for the Bears.

8. The List: The 3-14 (.176) season was the Bears worst winning percentage since they went 1-13 (.071) in 1969. But the Bears have had many more difficult seasons to watch since they won Super Bowl XX, including just about any post-Ditka season following a playoff year: 1. 2007; 2. 1989; 3. 2014; 4. 2011; 5. 2019; 6. 2021; 7, 2002; 8. 2009; 9. 2017; 10. 2020.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Year: Saints quarterback Andy Dalton started the final 14 games in relief of Jameis Winston and had a 95.2 passer rating (66.7% completions, 18 touchdowns, nine interceptions) — ninth best in the NFL and his highest passer rating since 2015 with the Bengals.

10. Bear-ometer: 7-10 — at Lions (L); at Packers (L); at Vikings (L); at Chiefs (L); at Chargers (L); at Saints (L); at Buccaneers (W); at Commanders (L); at Browns (L); vs. Lions (W); vs. Packers (W); vs. Vikings (L); vs. Falcons (W); vs. Panthers (W); vs. Broncos (L); vs. Raiders (W); vs. Cardinals (W).

(The order of the schedule will be announced in April).

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