The Bears’ offense must prioritize these young players

The Bears’ upset of the 49ers in Week 1 caused some to think of this season in terms of wins and losses instead of what truly matters.

No, the purpose of this season is to identify who will be part of the Bears’ next good team — and that won’t be this year. It matters most on offense, where quarterback Justin Fields is being monitored with every pass.

However, Fields isn’t the only young offensive player with something to prove. Here’s a look at the talents — all 24 or under — whom the Bears need to develop over the rest of the season. The franchise’s future is at stake.

Justin Fields

After his first preseason game as a rookie last year, Fields, the former Ohio State standout, pushed back against the notion that he had to adjust to NFL speed. Compared to Bears practices, he said, a game was nothing different.

“It was actually kind of slow to me,” he said.

It hasn’t looked that way. Since the start of last season, 34 quarterbacks have thrown at least 200 passes. Among them, Fields is No. 32 in passer rating, No. 33 in completion percentage and No. 31 in passing yards and attempts. He has been sacked on 12.09% of his dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL.

The good news: Field is young. Injuries, illness and coaching malpractice by Matt Nagy limited Fields to 10 starts last season. He has 12 under his belt now– the same number Mitch Trubisky did in his first season in 2017.

The bad news: Time is running out. There’s time for Fields to prove himself, but probably not more than another 15 games. At the end of the year, the Bears will have to decide whether to use their first-round draft pick — and it figures to be a high one if they struggle as expected — on a quarterback.

Fields’ athleticism allows him to make jaw-dropping plays. Now he needs to make the basic ones. His passes need to come out of his hand on time and with conviction.

Despite throwing just 11 times against the Packers last Sunday, Fields said he still thinks the Bears believe in him. But when he detailed what goes into a successful play, it was clear he needs help from the Bears’ other young offensive players.

“The passing game, you’re going to need a few things for everything to go right,” he said. “First, you’re going to need protection, and then, second, you’re going to need, from me, is timing, footwork, making sure I’m on schedule. Accurate and making sure I’m getting the ball out of my hand.”

Cole Kmet

For a tight end expected to be the Bears’ second-most reliable receiver, it’s hard to decide which is most damning: Kmet having two targets this season, him dropping one of them, or him having as many receiving yards as a lump of coal.

Kmet took blame for the drop against the Packers — “I just let the ball get into my body a little bit there,” he explained — but said the offense needs to be looked at in context.

“That first game [against the 49ers] was still a monsoon,” he said. “So [I’m] remaining optimistic with this all. And we’re remaining optimistic with the pass-game stuff. We’re going to get this figured out.”

The narrative that Kmet’s production has been hampered because he needs to help the Bears’ young tackles is false. When he has been lined up on the line of scrimmage, he has only had to pass-block twice.

Still, he’s not used to being this irrelevant in the passing game. His 935 snaps last year were third-most among NFL tight ends. His 93 targets were tied for eighth-most, and his 60 catches were tied for 13th.

His role is different now than it was under Nagy. Last season, he was in-line 53% of the time and in the slot 34% of the time. This season, he has been in-line 67% of the time and in the slot 27% of the time. He considers himself a classic “Y,” or in-line, tight end. He shouldn’t need to be in the slot to be productive.

“We need to start making plays downfield,” Kmet said, “and we’re looking forward to doing that.”

Khalil Herbert

Only three NFL running backs averaged more yards per carry than Herbert through two weeks: the Lions’ D’Andre Swift, the Packers’ Aaron Jones and the Chiefs’ Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Despite averaging 6.4 yards per carry, Herbert has run only 11 times. The second-year player helped to salt away the Bears’ opener but was actually used less in Week 2, when he played 20% of the snaps, than in Week 1 (29%).

David Montgomery is the Bears’ workhorse running back, averaging 4.6 yards per carry on 32 rushes. His contract is up at the end of the season, though. Next year, Herbert likely will have the No. 1 role.

“We feed off each other,” Herbert said. “Whoever is the hot hand, the other person gets that person going.”

They’ll both play prominent roles this season. For an illustration, look no further than the team that beat the Bears on Sunday. The Packers — with whom Luke Getsy spent his entire NFL coaching career before becoming the Bears’ offensive coordinator — split carries between Jones and AJ Dillon. Jones played 40 snaps and Dillon 39 against the Bears. On the season, Dillon, the nominal backup, has touched the ball 34 times to Jones’ 26.

After the game, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said that “tonight was really about 28 and 33 getting the football,” referring to Jones and Dillon. Coach Matt LaFleur called the two “1A and 1A.”

The Bears don’t have such an even split — but they could.

“David’s been doing a hell of a job,” Herbert said. “So I try to come in and make sure there’s no dropoff.”

Braxton Jones

Jones hasn’t been overmatched at left tackle in his first two NFL games.

On 41 pass plays, he has allowed two sacks and five pressures and has yet to commit a penalty. Pro Football Focus ranks him No. 51 among tackles — in theory, 64 are starting-caliber — but compares him favorably to higher-drafted rookie tackles. Among the 2022 draft class, only first-round picks Tyler Smith (No. 27) and Charles Cross (50) and third-rounder Nicholas Petit-Frere (40) rank higher than Jones.

His two sacks allowed came in the opener, by 49ers All-Pro Nick Bosa and veteran Samson Ebukaum.

“I have a lot to clean up,” Jones said. “But I think I’m out there fighting for the right things [against] really cemented edge rushers. That’s the biggest thing: It’s possible.”

At the start of training camp, the Bears had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. That might still prove to be the case, but early returns are encouraging. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Fields has, on average, 3.26 seconds to throw — the most time in the NFL and a product of his scrambling. However, he has been sacked on 15.2% of his dropbacks, worst in the league. PFF considers the Bears middle of the pack in pass blocking (tied for 16th) and sixth-best in run blocking.

Darnell Mooney

In the days after the Bears beat the 49ers, Mooney said he wasn’t upset about his share of the targets. He claimed he’d be happy if he didn’t catch a single pass and the Bears won.

The Bears didn’t keep winning. And Mooney caught a pass — but just one.

The player the Bears built up as their clear-cut No. 1 receiver has just two catches this year. The average depth of those routes: negative yards. Both of Mooney’s catches have come on screens behind the line of scrimmage. They’ve totaled four yards.

He has only five targets this season. Two were deep balls and one was from 10-19 yards.

He had two targets Sunday, despite playing 90% of the Bears’ snaps. The incomplete pass came on a play-action deep shot. Fields said Mooney needed to run a more precise post route.

The two worked on the same route after practice Wednesday.

“Worry about what I can worry about,” Mooney said. “Then the opportunities are going to come. [The Bears] believe in me, the players believe in me, my team believes in me.

“There is eventually going to be a time that I do get a ball or whatnot, when I take it to the crib. Then everyone is going to go, ‘Oh, there he goes.’ “

Read More

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *