Going into the season, it looked like the Bears didn’t have enough wide receivers to cobble together a viable group. Now they have more than they know what to do with on game days.
The long-term goal surely is to build from the top down by finding a wide receiver, perhaps with their upcoming first round pick, even better than Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney. In the meantime, though, assuming Claypool is ready to operate at full capacity, they have a solid group already.
It has been a deliberate acclimation for Claypool, who played 33% of the snaps over his first two games since coming over from the Steelers in a trade that cost the Bears’ a second-round pick. He has three catches for 21 yards and one rush for four.
“It’s not going to work out every single week where everybody gets involved and everybody gets the touches that they need or want, but we’re certainly trying to do that,” coach Matt Eberflus said when asked if getting Claypool more involved is an urgent matter. “We’re trying to get Claypool the touches and highlight his athletic skill, like with all of our players.”
But Claypool isn’t like the other players. He was arguably the best receiver on the team the moment he entered Halas Hall, and the Bears paid a high price to land him. They’re also evaluating whether to give him a massive contract extension in the offseason.
Claypool said he was “prepared to be more involved” after getting just 19 snaps against the Lions on Sunday, but didn’t express any frustration.
“I’m not letting that get to me,” he said. “I just got here.”
Claypool indicated last week he expected to have a handle on the playbook by the time the Bears visit the Falcons, so perhaps those last two games were the soft launch and Sunday will be the grand unveiling of the new weapon.
Or, maybe it’ll still be a while.
Quarterback Justin Fields said Wednesday that Claypool is progressing well despite changing teams midseason and having missed the Bears’ foundational work of installing the offense in the offseason, but the playbook is complex.
“You kind of have to work him in slowly,” said Fields, who has been putting in extra time with Claypool daily. “Our routes have a lot of details in them, so it’s tough for him to come in and learn every little detail of every route.”
Everything the Bears do needs to be concentrated on next season, so beyond Claypool and Mooney, they need to use the last seven games to get clarity on which other receivers — if any — are part of their future.
That means rookie Velus Jones and reclamation project N’Keal Harry can’t continue to be inactive unless Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles have already concluded they aren’t part of the plans. That’s unlikely in either case.
Pringle is a curious situation because he was a high-priority signing by Poles coming off a career year of 42 catches for 568 yards and five touchdowns with the Chiefs, but he’s the Bears’ oldest wide receiver at 29 and has missed a lot of time with injury since early August.
“[He’s a] physical guy who can really block the point in the run game,” Eberflus said. “He’s a big body… a good route-runner. That’s what we see.”
Eberflus has rejected the idea of treating this season largely as a runup to 2023, repeating Wednesday that his intent is to play whoever gives him the best chance to win each week, but it’d be prudent to reconsider.
Equanimeous St. Brown, for example, is highly valued because of his playbook mastery and run blocking, so he plays more (65% of the snaps) than any receiver but Mooney. But he wasn’t targeted once against the Lions.
In the long term, the Bears need playmakers at that position. It’s time to find out how many they have.