Chicago Bears Q&A: Will this be known as an offensive team very soon? Which 2023 draft pick will step forward?

The Chicago Bears will get their first look at Caleb Williams, Rome Odunze and the rest of the first-year class on the practice field during rookie minicamp this weekend at Halas Hall.

As for the 2023 draft class, there is no shortage of options to take a step forward in Year 2. The Tribune’s Brad Biggs dives into that question and many others in his weekly Bears mailbag.

Do you think with the investment on offense this season that it’s possible the Bears will be seen as an offensive team as early as this year? Could the offense be rated higher than the defense? — @jermaine611

That has to be the hope, right? If the Bears aren’t making a big ol’ jump in a lot of offensive categories over the next two seasons, something has gone awry. Ultimately the goal is to be very good on both sides of the ball, as it’s difficult to be a Super Bowl contender if you’re excellent in one phase and way below average in the other.

There are a lot of ways to look at offensive and defensive numbers, but ultimately the biggest factors are points and points allowed. Since 1995, the Bears have finished in the top 10 in scoring four times (eighth in 1995, second in 2006, second in 2013 and ninth in 2018). In that same span, they’ve finished in the top 10 in scoring defense eight times, ranking No. 1 in 2001, 2005 and 2018. Before I looked up the numbers, I would have guessed the defense had more top-10 finishes in that span.

The Bears have made some huge moves on offense, none bigger than using the No. 1 draft pick on quarterback Caleb Williams. Including the additions of wide receivers DJ Moore, Keenan Allen and Rome Odunze over the past year-plus, as well as running back D’Andre Swift and tight end Gerald Everett, and it’s a totally new-look offense under first-year coordinator Shane Waldron. Everyone should expect some growing pains, but there’s definitely reason for optimism that the Bears offense can be more formidable after a handful of lackluster seasons.

Will that change your view of the team? Will the Bears become one of those teams that you think about their potent offense first? If that’s the case, that means they’re probably cooking with Williams and the new cast of offensive players. General manager Ryan Poles also has made major investments on defense the last couple of years, so it’s not like that side of the ball has been overlooked. The Bears have a defensive-minded head coach in Matt Eberflus, so I think that will remain a major part of their identity.

As I said, the goal is to be good on both sides of the ball, and the salary cap creates inherent challenges in roster building and leads to difficult decisions at times. But the Bears have a young roster with flexibility to make moves as desired. This is a storyline worth monitoring because you have to believe the Bears are hoping to have a much different identity in the near future.

How much do you think Ryan Poles valued the D-line class next year to pass on some of the top edge rushers? — @dabearszach

I understand what you’re saying but I don’t look at it that way, and I’d be a little surprised if Poles applied similar logic when he used the No. 9 pick on Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze. The evaluation he and his staff made was Odunze versus other players available at that spot, including Texas defensive tackle Byron Murphy II and the four edge rushers who went in Round 1 between the 15th and 21st picks.

It’s really early to begin evaluating the 2025 draft class, but there looks to be a nice crop in the trenches beginning with Tennessee’s James Pearce and including other edge rushers such as Texas A&M’s Nic Scourton, Penn State’s Abdul Carter, Ohio State’s Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau, Mississippi’s Princely Umanmielen and Louisville’s Ashton Gillotte. Add tackles Mason Graham of Michigan and massive Deone Walker of Kentucky and you have the makings of a talented group.

But I don’t think you can look at the draft a year out and project how those players will develop this season while having no idea where you will be picking or how you would evaluate these players against guys at other positions. That just can’t be a deciding factor in what to do with a pick this year. I believe there’s a good chance the Bears would have wound up with Murphy had Odunze not been available, but that’s just a hunch. They went with the player they feel will help them most over the long haul.

I note a lot of questions regarding their needs for an offensive line improvement. So I have a question that’s not Bears-specific, but hope you can provide an answer. When offensive linemen go down, it seems most often that it’s with a knee injury. I’ve noticed that many teams in college have their linemen wear knee braces. I’m not sure exactly how effective they are in terms of limiting injuries, but why doesn’t the NFL consider taking that tack? — Mike P.

Interesting question and to get a good answer, I reached out to former Bears Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long for his take on playing in the trenches with or without knee braces.

“When I went to junior college, I was at D-end my first year and we didn’t have to wear knee braces,” Long said. “My second year, I went to offensive tackle and our O-line coach had mandated knee braces and I told him I’m only going to wear one and it was on my right knee because I was playing left tackle. I was trying to protect myself from getting rolled up on the inside. These colleges, they wear the knee braces because it’s been done for so long. I don’t know if you take them off that you’ll have that much of an increase in blocking ability.

“It’s a feel thing, man. As an offensive lineman, when you wear those braces you feel less athletic. You and I know better than anyone that the elite offensive linemen are just really, really big athletes, and when you put the knee brace on there, you’re kind of neutering your athlete. Look good, feel good, play good. Part of that is feeling good, and if you have a knee brace on and it comes undone after every play and you’ve got to strap it up and it’s digging into the back of your hamstring, you’re not focused on the mission. So it’s one of those things you can eliminate a distraction.

“Do I understand why guys wear them? Yes, from the side and front-on collisions and not hyperextending it, I get all that. But at the end of the day, I think you stand to gain more from being athletic and being able to make blocks in space and change direction laterally with great efficiency and give ground grudgingly than you do protecting yourself from an injury.”

Braces will help prevent knee injuries, but as Long noted, they don’t prevent all injuries and they don’t make linemen bulletproof below the waist.

“People don’t understand the knee brace limits the knee movement,” Long said. “But if you have a fulcrum on your leg and you have something braced, the energy is going to travel elsewhere. That’s when the ankle becomes a thing, the leg, tibia, fibula, all that kind of stuff. It may not be knee but it will be something else.”

I hope that gives you a glimpse into what linemen consider when deciding what equipment to use.

Who wins the right guard spot out of camp? Will it be Nate Davis or will another player emerge? — @ebrown1481

This doesn’t look to me like a job that’s legitimately open for competition. Yes, every player has to compete for his job, beginning in the voluntary offseason program and carrying through training camp and preseason. But the Bears made a significant investment in Davis when they signed him a year ago to a three-year, $30 million contract in free agency. His $8.75 million base salary for this season is fully guaranteed, so I can’t imagine there are plans to potentially push him aside.

Davis wasn’t great last season and I think the Bears would say as much. His training camp was interrupted some because his mother was ill, and when she passed away early in the season, he missed time. The hope has to be with more consistent preparation this summer that Davis will be in a better spot when the season begins.

Which member of the 2023 draft class will take the biggest step forward in their second season? — Walter H., O’Fallon, Mo.

That’s a good question and there are no shortage of options as nine of the 10 players the Bears drafted a year ago remain on the roster. Obviously the hope is that right tackle Darnell Wright, last year’s first-round selection, turns out to be the answer. He was solid throughout his rookie season but needs to play with more consistency to reach the next level.

I’d imagine cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, a second-round pick, will be able to build off an impressive debut season. But I’m going to assume you’re looking for another answer. It would be a terrific development for the team if defensive tackle Zacch Pickens, a third-round pick from South Carolina, has a better feel for the pro game and can be more consistently disruptive at the point of attack.

I would keep an eye on running back Roschon Johnson, a fourth-round pick from Texas. He’ll need more work than he got last season and that will be based in part on how free-agent signee D’Andre Swift performs, but Johnson flashed at times in 2023. He had 352 rushing yards (4.35 per carry) and was targeted 40 times in the passing game with 34 receptions. He also showed the ability to handle pass-protection assignments. But Johnson got more than six carries in only four games, so it was tough for him to make a mark on a regular basis. I don’t believe the addition of Swift was a knock on Johnson. They have different skill sets. Swift has big-play ability and I think the team remains pretty high on Johnson.

Also keep an eye on cornerback Terell Smith. The fifth-round pick from Minnesota had a good training camp last summer, battled an illness and then appeared in 12 games with four starts. Cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke does a really nice job developing young players, and Smith’s ascent was overshadowed at times by Stevenson’s play. There’s not a clear path to playing time with Jaylon Johnson, Stevenson and Kyler Gordon ahead of Smith, but this is a good problem to have as there’s no such thing as too much cornerback depth. Smith had six pass breakups and seemed to learn from his mistakes. He was a sneaky-good pick and has a bright future ahead if he continues to improve.

Is there one addition to the roster that hasn’t been talked about a whole lot that will have a big impact? Love all the focus on Caleb Williams and the wide receivers, but Ryan Poles has made a lot of moves. — OC, Sterling Heights, Mich.

The guy I imagine the Bears are looking at to be the answer to this question is veteran free safety Kevin Byard. Poles deviated a little from his usual approach in free agency by signing an older player to replace the departed Eddie Jackson. Byard will turn 31 in August and is entering his ninth season.

It’s pretty evident the team hopes Byard will galvanize a young secondary that has only one other starter, cornerback Jaylon Johnson, not playing on a rookie contract. Byard was a standout for several seasons with the Tennessee Titans before being traded midseason last year to the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s fair to say he’s not the player he was in his prime, but he has been remarkably durable — he hasn’t missed a game because of injury in his career — and he had a career-high 122 tackles last season. He has 28 career interceptions, fifth among active players, and ball production is a significant factor.

“He’s going to be a really good addition on the back end,” Poles said. “Communication, leadership. He still has speed. He still has ball skills. And I really think he’s going to affect the defensive group at a high level.”

Said coach Matt Eberflus: “Smart. Experienced. Very good communicator. And ballhawk. To me, those things are what you’re looking for. He’s got great range. He’s still got really good speed.”

I will note that a couple of teams I spoke with were surprised by what the Bears paid Byard, who got a two-year, $15 million contract in a crowded free-agent market for veteran safeties. Byard will earn $8 million this season, and the sentiment among some folks I chatted with was that supply and demand would have provided more economical options.

That being said, the Bears clearly are placing faith in the intangibles Byard brings with a belief that his athletic ability and range still make him an upper-tier defender in the middle of the field. It’s only a two-year deal with a guarantee of $11 million, so it’s not like the team tied up a bunch of money in him. Given Poles’ history thus far of being selective with older free agents, he’s probably due the benefit of the doubt here that Byard has ample gas remaining in the tank.

Given a rookie QB and a new offense with multiple changes at the skill positions and center, how much do you see the starters playing in the preseason? Or will they get more than enough work in joint practices and vs. their own defense to be able to hit the ground running Week 1? — @jtbcubs

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That’s definitely a question coach Matt Eberflus will be asked as training camp gets rolling. With an extra preseason game in the Hall of Fame Game, there will be more opportunities, but we’ve seen the last several years that a lot of teams keep all of their starters out of that game. The key, as you know, is entering the season with good health across the board, and I would imagine that was a significant factor in scheduling joint practices.

Maybe the Bears will give the first-team offense a little more work in the preseason to acclimate Caleb Williams to the NFL, but I wouldn’t expect to see a ton of him. It’s just the way it works in the league these days, and there’s a fine line between getting players reps in meaningless games and doing everything possible to keep starters healthy for games that actually count.

Last summer Justin Fields got 20 snaps in the preseason. Recall that Eberflus said the starters got in so much good work in Indianapolis during joint practices with the Colts that he opted to hold them out of the second preseason game because he didn’t want to tax them too much. Obviously the offense was not good in the season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers. Would more preseason action have made a difference? Maybe. That’s probably debatable.

Just for reference, I checked what the Houston Texans did with rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud last year. He logged 43 snaps in preseason games. While Fields sat out the second week of the preseason, Stroud got 22 snaps in the Texans’ second game, basically accounting for the difference.

You’d have a difficult time convincing me a difference of 23 preseason snaps would make a big difference when it comes to Week 1 performance.

Are Coleman Shelton/Ryan Bates really the centers the Bears are going to roll with or is Bates’ positional versatility masking the fact that the Bears are going to make another move at the position in the form of signing Connor Williams or a trade? — @balakay

There were multiple questions along this line this week, and for a month-plus now, folks seem to doubt the Bears are serious about entering the season with Bates and Shelton as their top options at center. There was a possibility — and it almost certainly would have required a trade down from the No. 9 pick — that the Bears could have landed one of the better center prospects in the draft. That didn’t happen, so what you see right now is what you get.

I’ve written multiple times that Bates will get the first shot to win the starting job and that Shelton projects as the backup as we sit here in early May. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Bears to trade for Bates, sign Shelton and then have an over-the-top third move waiting to happen. I don’t believe Ryan Poles would have traded a fifth-round pick for Bates with an eye toward him being a swing interior lineman, especially when there was a chance the Buffalo Bills might have released the veteran. That move was made with the thinking that Bates has a good chance to start.

Williams, who played really well for the Miami Dolphins, isn’t healthy enough to sign with any team right now. He suffered a knee injury last season that was more than just a standard torn ACL. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, described it in March as a “pretty significant” injury, explaining that Williams was focused on getting healthy. So I’d put him out of your mind until we hear differently about his status.

Will the Bears add another receiver to the mix? Currently, they have Tyler Scott as the assumed WR4. Dante Pettis, Collin Johnson and Velus Jones Jr. are all on the roster. Will there be another WR added that has a chance at compete for playing time before training camp or OTAs? — @coachsmyth

I doubt the front office has this earmarked as a need area right now. The Bears’ top three receivers can stack up against just about any big three throughout the league. A position that has been mostly problematic for a long, long time is suddenly a strength, and that creates a situation in which Scott can develop without a lot of pressure.

The Bears really liked Scott when they selected him in the fourth round out of Cincinnati last year. He made a couple of high-profile mistakes that happen for rookies and the Bears had subpar quarterback play, and Scott finished the season with only 17 receptions for 168 yards. I don’t see any reason the Bears would want to block Scott’s opportunity to develop by signing a player with more experience and success who might be near the end of the line. Nsimba Webster is also in the mix with the players you mentioned.

I could certainly see the Bears adding more receivers to the 90-man roster to have camp bodies. They currently have nine and sometimes that number can reach 11 or so. But why not allow Scott and even Jones, whom I have reservations about, to do everything they can to carve out a role?