As the Chicago Bears prepare to face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Brad Biggs is back with another weekly Bears mailbag. This week, some readers are wondering if a playoff berth — something unimaginable a few weeks ago — isn’t entirely out of the question and what the team’s biggest needs are in 2022.
Should the Bears rally behind the fact that they are one game out of the final playoff spot in the NFC? Not sure it’s realistic given the way they are playing but why not dream big? — William P., Tinley Park
What’s relevant for the Bears is they still are in the mix with six games remaining. That matters and gives them purpose. There’s way too much football remaining to play the what-if game and start wondering about how the NFC race could shake out. It makes no sense for those at Halas Hall to spend time looking at the standings. If the playoffs started this week, Washington would be the seventh seed with a 5-6 record. Five other NFC teams currently have five wins and the Bears are tied with the New York Giants at 4-7.
In other words, there is a lot of climbing for the Bears to do and the only thing they should spend time and energy focusing on is Sunday’s opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, who come to Soldier Field with a 9-2 record, best in the conference.
“When you look at the NFL in general, the parity of this league, it’s so crazy when you look at these games and how they go,” coach Matt Nagy said. “You look at the records and you see, I don’t know the number, but it seems like half the teams in the league have five, six or seven losses. I think that shows the parity in this league. At the same point in time, the biggest thing for us was to make sure that we snapped that losing streak. And when you snap that losing streak now, you come back in, you reset and now you have to start back to 1-0.
“Now you get to start with one of the best teams in the NFL coming off a bye week. That’s a heck of a challenge. But when you break that losing streak, the mentality, it just helps you. That’s just natural. You feel better about it, no matter how it comes. To see that, that you’re one game out, with all of those teams that are in that mix for that last spot, I don’t care who you are, if you’re a competitor, you care about that.”
Nagy is correct. Sixteen teams currently have between five and seven losses. Some are going to push into double-digits. The ones that can get on a roll with the calendar turning to December will be in position to battle for a playoff berth in the first 17-game regular season.
“Me personally, I haven’t looked into it,” free safety Eddie Jackson said. “I just know we’re not out of it, so just keep it in the back of our mind. Right now, it’s playoff football for us. If we win out, there’s a lot of good things ahead. We’ve got the guys in the locker room, we’ve got the coaches. We’ve just got to continue to go out and let it show on the field week in and week out.”
If the Bears can claw their way back to .500, then I think they can take a glance at the standings, the remaining schedule and wonder how realistic a playoff chase is. They’ve got to stack some wins before that happens. If not, the storyline will shift quickly.
If Teven Jenkins is healthy, do you think he should be inserted into the starting lineup? If so, what do you think the lineup should look like with Jenkins? — @jdwest13635097
The Bears are probably as eager as the fan base is to see the second-round pick in action this season. Barring a setback, I would expect him to be moved to the 53-man roster before Sunday’s game against the Cardinals. Jenkins will go through his second practice in full pads this week. That is where this gets complicated because the Bears likely want to create a situation in which Jenkins can excel, and throwing him into the fire immediately might not be ideal.
“I thought Teven moved around really well,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said last week. “I’m going off my memory of him from like June, comparing it to that. And I’m not a physical therapist or trainer. I’ve seen a few linemen in my day, I thought he moved really well. That’s really what you can evaluate at this time of year with no pads on. And Teven and I actually had a decent conversation about that.
“I think when you’re a college player and you’re coming into the NFL and you hear, ‘Hey, you only practice in pads this many times. And then once the season starts, at most once a week. And only a certain number of weeks can you do it.’ And they say, ‘OK, yeah, I get it. I understand.’ But then when you’re like Teven, you missed a whole bunch of the padded practices and now you’re in the throes of it. I’m assuming he would tell you he wants to put the pads on and play again. I think it’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to develop offensive linemen in this league, because the No. 1 job you have to do you’re only able to actually practice it so many days a year. It’s just really hard.”
If the Bears want to bring Jenkins along slowly, there are a few different approaches they could take. He could be used on the field goal/extra point team. The offense could utilize him in a heavy goalline package with a sixth offensive lineman. Maybe the Bears could use him for a certain number of series or plays in a game. Unless an injury arises and a move is necessitated, my guess is they would bring him along slowly at first, let him get a little action and then evaluate that. That is a long way of saying it’s a little premature to forecast when and where he’s inserted into the starting lineup. He has missed so much on-field time and playing catchup during the season, as Lazor detailed, is difficult.
“Probably the biggest thing with Teven’s situation is now that you’re into the season and where we’re at, we just keep an eye on how our offensive line is doing and how they’re going,” Nagy said Monday. “Jason Peters, I think, has done a really good job in so many different ways. Right tackle with (Larry) Borom coming in and doing what he’s done, he’s helped us out with injuries that we had to (Germain) Ifedi. And so I think for us we always just prepare for if this guy gets injured or if we feel like this guy is not playing well, kind of play it out. But right now we feel good with where we’re at. So if anything (Jenkins’ potential return) provides major depth for us. And then we just play out the scenarios.”
When former first-round pick Chris Williams had back surgery during training camp in 2008, he returned midseason and was used on special teams and in heavy short-yardage packages. He didn’t make his first start until his second season. I would imagine, provided Jenkins’ strength has returned, there is a chance he starts before the end of the year but it would be pure speculation as to when.
Rank the Bears’ needs from most to least: WR, OT, C, edge, LB, CB. — @joeywhitc
That’s a good question and with six games remaining and uncertainty for the organization, there are no wrong answers. Given the challenge in stopping passing offenses in the NFL, I’d probably put cornerback at the top of the list. But you can make just as strong a case for wide receiver. The thing the Bears have in common at these positions is they need multiple cornerbacks and multiple wide receivers.
Kindle Vildor was benched last week before the victory at Detroit and while I don’t believe this closes the door on him moving forward — or from potentially returning to the starting lineup later this season — he has struggled. The team has acknowledged as much. The Bears have had a revolving door of players at the nickel position with Duke Shelley (hamstring) on injured reserve and could use an upgrade. The Bears gambled Vildor would grow into his role similar to how Jaylon Johnson did as a rookie last season. That hasn’t happened and the Bears are left with Johnson and some real needs/question marks looking ahead to 2022.
At wide receiver, the Bears have Darnell Mooney and not much else after this season. That’s assuming Allen Robinson heads elsewhere as a free agent. Marquise Goodwin and Damiere Byrd are on one-year deals and have not been regular contributors. The case for making wide receiver the No. 1 need could be made as the Bears try to surround quarterback Justin Fields with playmakers as he heads into his second season.
Offensive tackle is a really interesting position when contemplating the future. The hope is the Bears have a pair of bookends moving forward but we don’t know how much action Jenkins will get and we’re still looking at a small sample size for Borom. He has made four starts and if he remains in the lineup, there will be more than a half-season of tape to evaluate, a good amount. It would be a boon for the Bears if both pan out as starting tackles or even starters on the line. Center Sam Mustipher has struggled against some of the more powerful interior linemen the Bears have faced this season, and the schedule has put them up against some of the better defensive tackles in the league.
The edge position will be interesting as well. Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn are signed for big money in 2022. If the Bears are in transition next season, do they want to pay Quinn at age 32? How will they feel about Trevis Gipson at the end of this season? He’s going to have a ton of playing time to study when the year is over. The Bears will need an inside linebacker to pair next to Roquan Smith. This is the player that is often going to come off the field in the sub package, so I would move this down the list of needs. You can find a player that can start in the mid-rounds of the draft.
One thing I would keep in mind is that when you rank needs, you need to evaluate what positions are available in free agency and the draft. If cornerback is the most pressing need but the options in free agency are expensive and thin after that, there is a dilemma. So keep that in mind when considering needs and the Bears are also short on draft capital.
Does the seeming disfunction from last week negatively impact the candidate pool should the Bears move on from Matt Nagy and/or Ryan Pace? — @mmesq11
I don’t think so. It’s not the kind of thing potential hires would be hung up on when considering the possibility of working at Halas Hall. If the Bears have more wacky weeks down the stretch, perhaps it’s something that could remain problematic for the organization. If the team is making a move or multiple moves, candidates are going to want to feel comfortable with the power structure in place, the ability to enact their plan and compensation. Candidates are going to judge the roster against that of other teams that might be pursuing them. It remains to be seen what shakes out but I am confident if the Bears do make change(s), they will do everything required to make Lake Forest an appealing destination.
How many more wins do you think the Bears would have if they had found a way to keep Kyle Fuller? — @porteram1
It has been easy to criticize Pace for hanging on to some veteran players too long. Danny Trevathan certainly comes to mind. I think there’s a chance he cut bait on Fuller at the right time. Fuller still has talent but he hasn’t been great in Denver and it will be very interesting to see how the league evaluates him as becomes a free agent. Would Fuller be better than Kindle Vildor or Artie Burns in the starting lineup? No question. But his play, in what’s a similar defensive scheme with the Broncos, hasn’t proven him to be a top NFL cornerback, and that’s the kind of contract the Bears opted to walk away from. A precursor to the move was the restructure the Bears did with Fuller before the end of the 2019 season. That reduced his cap hit for 2020 by $6 million to $11.5 million and pushed the 2021 cap hit to $20 million, something the team couldn’t handle this year.
Would the Bears have an extra win with Fuller? Maybe, but his play for the Broncos reportedly has regressed this year and Pace might have moved on at the right time in this instance. What Pace didn’t do was strongly challenge Vildor with a veteran for the starting job, adding some veterans such as Artie Burns and Desmond Trufant on minimum deals, leaving the team thin on the outside.
Do you think Tarik Cohen is out for the season? If so, do you think he’ll be cut? — @getintothis
Nagy was asked about the running back on Monday and didn’t shed a lot of light on the situation other than to repeat that Cohen is working hard. Time is running out quickly, and if the Bears thought he was close they would have started a three-week window to evaluate him in practice. He’s now more than 14 months removed from tearing the ACL in his right knee, and clearly the rehabilitation process has been complicated. It’s difficult to speculate on Cohen’s future without knowing who is going to be in charge. Cohen has a base salary of $3.9 million in 2022 that becomes fully guaranteed in March, creating a deadline if the Bears want to move on without potentially owing him money. In a perfect world, he’s full strength by then and adds a dimension to the offense and special teams next season.
If the Bears’ identity is supposed to be as a running team why do they call so many running plays with David Montgomery out of the shotgun? He is obviously a better runner when the quarterback is under center. The most maddening example was a third-and-2 when the Bears were driving and he was stopped cold. — Steven D., Chicago
I get your point here and Montgomery has been a little more productive when the quarterback is under center, but I think the Bears deserve credit for shifting a lot of what they have done this season and moving away from shotgun more. Has it unlocked the offense? No, nothing has. But the coaching staff has adjusted. In the instance you cite from last Thursday’s 16-14 victory at Detroit, I wouldn’t say the offense was “driving.” Montgomery was stopped for no gain on the third-and-2 play on the Bears’ own 28-yard line midway through the third quarter. The shotgun formation gave the Bears some options and presented the pass as a threat to the Lions. My guess is Detroit was counting on a pass there. It didn’t work so it’s open to criticism, but I’d probably start elsewhere. Montgomery has 67 carries with the QB under center and has averaged 4.5 yards. In 46 carries from the shotgun, he has averaged 3.7 yards.
Source: Berkshire mont