Chicago Bears Q&A: How does Las Vegas view the over/under win total? What’s the game of the year on the schedule?

The Chicago Bears now know their 2024 schedule, and thoughts quickly turned toward what kind of record they might end up with.

Early odds show Las Vegas sees the Bears as right around a .500 team, and the Tribune’s Brad Biggs begins his weekly Bears mailbag with one analyst’s thoughts on that figure.

Now that the schedule is out, what’s the feeling on the over/under win total for the Bears this season? — Chuck R., Plainfield

Let’s turn to a professional — my friend Joe Fortenbaugh, a betting analyst for ESPN and longtime contributor to the “Mully & Haugh Show” on WSCR-AM 670 — for some insight into how he feels about the current number of 8½ wins.

“The Bears have seen quite a bit of an action,” Fortenbaugh said. “In the week after the draft, the two biggest bets in terms of the most number of tickets for NFL futures were the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl and the Bears over 8½ wins.

“For a couple years, I’ve liked the under for the Bears. I was on over 8½ wins and ‘yes’ for them to make the playoffs as soon as they both hit the market, and they’ve become very popular bets. I don’t care. I especially like the win total. There are, I don’t know, 30 reasons. Everyone will look at Caleb Williams, that they won seven games last year and they closed strong. The defense was really good at the end of the season. Everyone has those statistics. Everyone sees the same thing.

“One thing no one dives into is the schedule. They’ve got a bunch of great games on there. The Patriots, the Titans, the rest of the AFC South, which I know a few will be good. Seattle is on there, Washington, Carolina. So you’ve got a bunch of teams that look like they will struggle and four or five toss-up games, and that’s before we even talk about the division. They should be able to grab one from Minnesota. They should be able to grab one — minimum — from the Packers and Lions. I’m looking at that and I’m saying, ‘I just need them to get to nine.’ I see them as a nine-win team.

“I don’t need Williams to be great for that either. That’s the one pushback I always get. (Justin) Fields wasn’t good last year and they won seven. They don’t need the kid to be awesome. They’ve got a good defense, a bunch of weapons and they’ve got an easier schedule.”

Per Fortenbaugh, the Bears opened at 8½ wins with the over at minus-125 and the under at minus-105. It moved to minus-150 for the over and plus-120 for the under before the schedule was released Wednesday.

I’m wondering if the Bears’ over/under win total could climb from 8½ to nine.

Chicago Bears 2024 schedule: Here’s who they’ll play — and our predictions for each game

“That’s a great question,” Fortenbaugh said. “They can take that north of minus-200 (at 8½ wins) sometimes. It’s all going to come down to what they think they’re going to see the other way. If they go to nine wins, what kind of action is coming the other way? I don’t know how many people are going to line up to bet their under. That’s the thing. And I think they’re going to take a ton of money (on the over). This is one where at some point I wouldn’t be surprised if they moved it up to nine.

“On some of the over/under totals, they have a great number and they don’t want to move it under any circumstance. They just want to adjust the juice because they know the second they move it, they’re going to end up taking a ton of money the other way. That’s a situation here I think with the Bears you could see enough public money where they eventually move it to nine, but I would imagine it gets up to minus-200 (at 8½) before that.”

How does Fortenbaugh feel about the Bears at nine wins?

“Books try to avoid the even number because no one wants to tie up money for that long for a possible push,” he said. “That’s one thing they try to keep in mind. Now we’re talking about the Bears having to get to 10 wins to win this bet. I would still lean over on that. Because like I said, I’m pretty confident in them. That doesn’t mean I would go bet nine, but I would be leaning over on that. That’s a full additional win and that means it could be a situation where you can’t have them donk one off in the fourth quarter.”

While I had Fortenbaugh on the line, I asked for his take on Williams as a rookie of the year candidate.

“He’s a big favorite and he’s been 3-1 or 3½-1, and I think a lot of people expect it because there’s been a lot of hype and there’s going to be more hype,” Fortenbaugh said. “He’s going to start from Day 1. He’s going to have the opportunity to put up big numbers with a good team around him. If you’re winning games and putting up numbers, it’s going to be tough to beat the guy, like C.J. Stroud last year.

“I wouldn’t play it only because I think it’s priced accurately. He’s a big favorite as he should be. You never know what happens with an injury or some other guy has a big season. J.J. McCarthy was out there at a pretty lofty price and I was looking at that — not because I like him — but Kevin O’Connell is a pretty good coach and the Vikings have got weapons and J.J. could step in and win some games in Minnesota. The defense is getting better. I’m looking at more long shots in that market, but it’s not going to surprise me at all if Williams wins it.”

What are your biggest takeaways on the schedule? Game of the year? — Max W., Clarendon Hills

The thing that initially struck me is the Bears will wait until Week 11 — a Nov. 17 home game against the Green Bay Packers — to begin divisional play. The 10th game of the season is the latest the Bears have ever started divisional play. They didn’t start until Week 5 in 2008, 1999 and 1987.

Several years ago, the league made a push to pile up divisional games at the end of the season, but teams often would have a smattering of rivalry games early in the season. This year the Bears play NFC North opponents in six of their final eight games with the only outliers being Week 14 at San Francisco and Week 17 at home against the Seattle Seahawks.

That makes a 12-day stretch from Week 11 through Week 13 critical. The Bears host the Packers on Nov. 17 and the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 24, then have a quick turnaround before the Nov. 28 Thanksgiving game in Detroit. If they want to challenge for the division crown — and that should be the first goal at Halas Hall — they probably need to win two of those three.

As far as a game of the year, there are a lot of good options. The Bears have to beat Jordan Love and the Packers before they can declare they’ve turned things around, right? The Lions are the defending NFC North champions. Facing the Houston Texans in prime time in Week 2 is a big game with C.J. Stroud on the other sideline. But I’ll pick the Dec. 8 game at San Francisco because the 49ers are the defending NFC champions. Measure yourself against the best.

I am excited about Rome Odunze but I also liked David Terrell and Kevin White when they were drafted. Can you reassure me that the Bears don’t have a “curse” of top-10 receiver busts? I consider Willie Gault a break-even selection and he wasn’t a top-10 pick. — David W., Malvern, Pa.

The bigger “curse” — if there is such a thing and you don’t attribute it to serial mismanagement over a span of decades — has been at quarterback. I don’t care who you have on the outside, if you lack a legitimate trigger man, it’s going to be tough.

I’m not sure how I can reassure you about Odunze other than to say I thought it was a good pick. He’s a big guy with a lot of physical ability and a lot of strengths as a wide receiver, even if he’s not elite in any one area. He enters a great situation, too, because there won’t be huge pressure on him to deliver big numbers with DJ Moore and Keenan Allen at the position.

It’s tough for wide receivers to make huge impacts as rookies, although we’ve seen more breakout Year 1 performances over the last decade. With two veterans in the room who have produced at a very high level throughout their careers, it looks like a good situation for Odunze.

Is there room on the roster for Tyler Scott and Venus Jones? They both need developing and seem to have a similar skill set. — @raven65

I don’t see why not. After the big three of DJ Moore, Keenan Allen and Rome Odunze, it’s not like there’s a ton of competition for those two to make the roster. They’ll have to show up and perform, but Scott needs more opportunities after playing in a broken passing offense as a rookie, when he made some mistakes. I think the Bears still believe Scott has room to grow and develop, and he’s a more polished route runner than Jones.

I don’t necessarily view them as having similar skill sets. Jones is a gadget player and will have to carve out a role on special teams to make the roster. I think he can do that. Challengers for a roster spot would include Collin Johnson, Dante Pettis and perhaps recently signed Freddie Swain.

Do you see them bringing in a veteran quarterback, even just for guidance? — @spdavis3577

This was a popular question this week with a couple of folks wondering about the depth chart in that room. My first reaction is what veteran quarterback is on the street who is worth a look and would want the job? My hunch is the Bears like the idea of developing Tyson Bagent as a No. 2 quarterback, and with Brett Rypien having some experience and undrafted rookie Austin Reed in place, I’m not sure the Bears are looking at this the same way.

I’ve always thought the idea of a veteran quarterback in the room to help a young starter has been overblown. Did it do much the first couple of seasons for Justin Fields? No. Did it help Mitch Trubisky when they had that guy? Not really. Plenty of stories were written about it, though.

Caleb Williams is his ‘authentic self’ on and off the field. And the QB plans to use his confidence to lead the Chicago Bears to greatness.

The Bears have a collection of coaches to develop Caleb Williams, starting with offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, quarterbacks coach Kerry Joseph, passing game coordinator Thomas Brown and offensive assistants Ryan Griffin and Robbie Picazo. Williams will have no shortage of support staff to lean on as he adapts as a professional.

Why are rookies willing to practice without signed contracts? It seems like there must be some injury insurance in the mix somehow, but I’ve never heard how it works. — Jim S.

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Good question. Most teams have a rookie participation agreement that more or less ensures the player that if he’s injured in rookie minicamp or the voluntary offseason program before he has signed a contract, the team will negotiate in good faith on the eventual contract — which, as you know, is slotted. So in the event something bad happened — if one of the draft picks suffered a torn ACL during an OTA, for example — he’d be in position to get the same contract he would have received if he remained healthy.

Do you see the Bears interested in extending anyone prior to the start of the season? They have very few starters who will be free agents after 2024. — @jtbcubs

I addressed this question in recent weeks in a roundabout way. Wide receiver Keenan Allen and left guard Teven Jenkins are the only projected starters set to be unrestricted free agents after the season. As I have written multiple times, I don’t envision general manager Ryan Poles rushing into anything with Allen, especially with Rome Odunze on board. Jenkins has a lot to prove this season, and that could be a really good thing for him if he maximizes his opportunities, considering how the market for interior linemen has taken off.

The next veteran contract could be for wide receiver DJ Moore. That’s not so much a prediction as it is a little something to look out for. Moore is under contract through 2025, but my guess is the Bears at least would be interested in entertaining where things stand beyond that. It always takes two parties to be interested in getting something done, but I could envision Moore being paid before Jenkins and certainly before Allen — if Allen is extended.

With such a low purchase price for Justin Fields and reports indicating the Steelers have little to no interest in letting him see the field this year (and it being a near certainty he’ll be a free agent next year), is there any scenario you can envision where Pittsburgh cuts bait and Justin and the Bears reunite this offseason or the next? — Gregory M., Beverly

You have a different view of Fields’ situation in Pittsburgh than I do. Russell Wilson looks like the starter right now and unless he struggles, my bet is he enters the season as the starter. But the Steelers traded for Fields, so I imagine they’re happy to have him on the roster. Yes, they didn’t have to pay a lot — a sixth-round pick in 2025 — but no one is just handing out draft picks. The pick improves to a fourth-rounder if Fields takes 50% of the offensive snaps.

Do I see a path for Fields to return to Halas Hall? Never say never, but that seems highly unlikely. Fields will be seeking an opportunity to compete for a starting job in 2025, assuming he doesn’t nail down that role in Pittsburgh, which is probably a bit of a long shot. That wouldn’t be available with the Bears, and I find it implausible they’d pursue him as QB2. What would be the appeal for the Bears? I don’t see a reunion as a goal for either side.