Our 2023 NFL Preview takes us to the Windy City, where the Bears look to make a sizable leap in what appears to be a fairly wide-open NFC North. After a veritable Zero Year under the new leadership of (General Manager) Ryan Pace and (Head Coach) Matt Eberflus, Chicago effectively tore down the existing structure and started from scratch, opening a wealth of cap space while amassing a plethora of valuable draft picks to rebuild around (young Quarterback) Justin Fields, who emerged as a dynamic playmaker midway through the campaign. With fresh, new faces surrounding him and a renovated defense taking shape, have the Monsters of the Midway made enough strides to compete within the division? Will Fields reach another level of success? Let’s stroll through Soldier Field and see what’s going on with Da Bears…
Field(s) of Dreams
At this point last Summer, the brain-trust of Pace and Eberflus had to figure out what they had in the form of Justin Fields, whom the previous regime drafted eleventh overall in the 2021 NFL Draft with every intention of him becoming the franchise Quarterback that the Bears have been longing forever for. Needless to say, the Ohio State product struggled MIGHTILY throughout a miserable rookie campaign in which he completed just 58.4% of his passes for an average of 155.8 yards per game on 5.25 net yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and ten interceptions in twelve appearances. There was certainly a transitional phase under the new coaching staff, as Fields (pictured above) showed little progress as he became accustomed to (new Offensive Coordinator) Luke Getzy; through the first six games, he completed only 54.7% of his attempts for an average of 144.8 yards on 6.40 net yards per attempt with four touchdowns in comparison to five interceptions, all the while suffering twenty-three sacks in that span. However, it was during a watershed victory at New England on Monday Night Football that saw the sophomore enjoy his coming out party, completing a relatively modest 13-of-21 passes for 179 yards, a touchdown and interception apiece, though tormented the Patriots in rushing for eighty-two yards and a touchdown on fourteen carries. That performance would serve as the second in a string of ten games in which he would churn out nearly 1,000 rushing yards (949 to be exact) on a healthy 8.04 yards per carry, along with seven touchdowns. Coincidentally, his passing numbers improved marginally in completing 62.1% of his throws for 156.3 yards on 5.65 net yards per attempt with fourteen touchdowns opposed to seven interceptions. A second year in Getzy’s system and the hope that he will be able to continue to grow as a passer, as opposing defenses look to adjust to his considerable talents rushing the football. For those wondering if that can in fact happen, keep in mind that Pace and Eberflus initially held the number one overall pick in last April’s NFL Draft, which means that they could have very well selected their choice of any number of potential franchise passers, but instead opted to stick with Fields and build around him. As we’ll detail in the next segment, they set about the offseason with a clear plan in mind to bolster the supporting cast around the 24-year-old as he enters his third season in the league.
Building around a young Quarterback on an affordable contract has become the easiest way to build a contender in the National Football League, and the Bears clearly think that they’ve found their centerpiece in the form of Fields, who as we detailed earlier, made great strides over the second half of his sophomore season. The past four months have been all about building around him, and it is hard not to like what Pace and Eberflus have done with the resources at their disposal. First, Chicago traded down from number one overall in last April’s NFL Draft, accepting quite a bounty from the Panthers, who shipped THREE first round picks and a pair of seconds from 2023 to 2025, along with the services of (young Receiver) D.J. Moore (pictured above) to the Windy City. One of the more underrated players in the NFL, the 26-year-old had posted three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Carolina before falling just short of that mark last year, though did haul in a career-high seven receiving touchdowns. This deal came just months after the club acquired (former Steelers Wideout) Chase Claypool at the Trade Deadline, adding a pair of physical, athletic pass-catchers with differing skillsets. Keep in mind that the Bears ranked twenty-third in points (19.2) and twenty-eighth in total offense (330.1) despite Fields’ rushing success, with Getzy looking to open things up a lot more now that he has the weapons to do so. Furthermore, Chicago spent the tenth overall pick on (Tennessee Tackle) Darnell Wright, adding an athletic pass-protector to the Offensive Line, while signing Moore’s teammate from Carolina, (veteran Tailback) D’Onta Foreman, fresh off a career season of 914 rushing yards and five touchdowns. If Getzy can get this unit to improve to at least the middle of the proverbial pack, then this is a team that can suddenly find themselves capable of competing in an NFC North that is viewed as ripe for the taking.
With all the talk of Fields and the new faces on offense, it is easy to forget about a defense that was well, very forgettable last season, posting arguably the worst campaign in franchise history. For the Bears, a club that has a RICH defensive history, finishing dead-last in points allowed (27.2) and twenty-ninth in total defense (375.9) is unbearable (pun intended), with major improvements called for on every level of the unit this offseason. Thankfully, Pace and Eberflus had the benefit of having the most cap space in the NFL, with just over $102 million at their disposal. While the offense received a lot of attention during Free Agency, the defense wasn’t left wanting as Chicago handed out some hefty contracts to (Linebackers) Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, along with (veteran Defensive Linemen) DeMarcus Walker and Justin Jones. Edmunds (pictured above) is the headliner here, folks, with Eberflus having BIG plans for the 25-year-old; a two-time Pro-Bowler in Buffalo, the 6′-5″, 250-pounder has freakish quickness and athleticism at his size, with the ability to run from sideline to sideline while also proving adept in coverage. For those of you who remember Eberflus’ work with (2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year) Shaq Leonard during his time in Indianapolis, you will understand what is expected of Edmunds in Chicago. The Bears also addressed the defense via the Draft, adding (Defensive Linemen) Zacch Pickens and Gervon Dexter from South Carolina and Florida respectively, along with (Linebacker) Noah Sewell from Oregon and (Cornerback) Tyrique Stevenson from Miami to further the transition from the previous regime’s 3-4 base defense to a more zone-based Cover-Three scheme placing an emphasis on speed, quickness, and reaction time. We stated earlier that if the offense can improve to the middle of the pack, then Chicago can be competitive within the NFC North, but if the defense can do the same then they can expect to be in playoff contention in the NFC as a whole.
Projected Record: 6-11
As entertaining as the Bears were over the second half of the season, it is easy to forget that they technically finished with the worst record in the NFL at 3-14. Sure, Fields’ emergence as a playmaker was truly something to behold, but the defense was a sieve and there just weren’t enough weapons around the sophomore Quarterback to threaten opposing defenses through the air. Now, after an offseason in which there has been an infusion of talent on both sides of the football, there is an expectation that Chicago will be a much more competitive team in 2023, particularly within the NFC North, which is as wide-open as it has been in years. However, there are still plenty of concerns that remain. Can Fields continue to grow as a passer, or is he a proverbial one-trick pony? Did Pace and Eberflus invest enough in a defense that is still littered with holes? Doubling their win total should be viewed as the floor for their improvement, though they’re likely one year away from doing much more than that.