In the midst of general manager Ryan Poles’ roster teardown that has left the Bears with a dearth of proven players, there was a brief flicker of hope Tuesday when No. 96 was spotted doing calisthenics with teammates on the far practice field behind the Walter Payton Center.
Could it be? Could Poles have thrown Bears fans a bone and re-signed defensive end Akiem Hicks to fortify a no-name defensive line?
Alas, it was not to be. It turned out that No. 96 actually was LaCale London, a second-year defensive end who spent most of last season on injured reserve and the practice squad.
That No. 96 was Akiem Hicks last season and is LaCale London this season is a fitting illustration of just how big of a transition the Bears are going through from former general manager Ryan Pace to Poles.
Gone are Hicks, linebacker Khalil Mack, wide receiver Allen Robinson, guard James Daniels, nose tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Bilal Nichols among others. In are a bunch of draft picks and a nondescript group of free agents.
At least three rookies — cornerback Kyler Gordon, safety Jaquan Brisker and wide receiver Velus Jones — will be given every chance to start in 2022. The free agent haul had zero star power — defensive tackle Justin Jones, center Lucas Patrick, wide receiver Byron Pringle, , linebacker Nick Morrow, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and tight end Ryan Griffin among others. All were signed to no-harm, no-foul contracts that won’t strap the Bears if things don’t work out.
Though Poles’ offseason moves haven’t excited the masses, it’s arguably the most prudent approach to the rebuild. While Poles didn’t sign any big-name players, he also avoided signing past-their-prime veterans to prop up the roster and get in the way of developing player — like Pace did with safety Antrel Rolle and wide receiver Eddie Royal in 2015.
The roster purge has cleared a path toward 2023, when Poles will have much more salary cap space and better draft capital, and left the Bears trying to find The Sweet Spot of Bad in 2022 — losing enough games to garner a top-5 draft pick while still keeping Fields healthy enough to develop into a future star.
The Sweet Spot of Bad can be a high-wire act, but with the right quarterback has a big payoff. The Colts set the standard with rookie quarterback Peyton Manning in 1998. They went 3-13, but Manning started and finished every game and was sacked only 22 times — the second-fewest in the NFL. The Colts drafted Miami (Fla.) running back Edgerrin James with the fourth overall pick in the draft and were on their way to a long run of success, including Super Bowl XLI over the Bears after the 2006 season.
Even with pitfalls, a team of destiny can find The Sweet Spot of Bad. Just two years ago, the Bengals went 4-11-1 with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow getting sacked 32 times in 10 games (a 16-game pace of 51) and suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 11. But even while going 2-7-1 as a starter, Burrow made progress. The Bengals took LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick of the 2021 draft — and Burrow and Chase sparked the Bengals to the Super Bowl last season.
Are the Bears set up to find The Sweet Spot of Bad? Poles’ teardown of the roster is a good starting point. The Bears have just five players on their 90-man roster who have started the last three seasons –linebacker Roquan Smith, defensive end Robert Quinn, guard Cody Whitehair, safety Eddie Jackson and running back David Montgomery. Only three players on the roster have made the Pro Bowl — Quinn (three times), Jackson (twice) and Whitehair (once).
The big questions are obvious: Can the Bears protect Fields with a newly assembled offensive line where Whitehair is the only returning starter at the same position he played in 2021? And do the Bears have enough weapons to give Fields a chance to develop?
The Bears are putting their faith in Poles on the first one –and in offensive coordinator Luke Getsy on the other.
“So fired up that our GM is a former offensive lineman,” Patrick said Tuesday after the Bears’ offseason practice, “because I think he gets it to the core — what it takes to build an offensive line. It’s tough, competition, smart. Just guys who love football and just want to compete. I think it’s great.”
As it often is with an offensive line, the Bears will need their offensive weapons to be greater than the sum of their parts for Fields to succeed — wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. But don’t discount Getsy getting that done. Take it from Patrick, who called his belief in Getsy “unshakable.”
“Every time I’ve seen him work with players, I’ve seen them progress,” Patrick said. “In the wide receiver room he started with in Green Bay –a bunch of studs that he made better. He went to the QB room and I’m pretty sure that guy [Aaron Rodgers] won an MVP.
“Now he’s coming to be our OC. Everything he does, he does well. He’s a really good person and it’s really easy to go and run through a brick wall for a coach you believe in.”