Chicago Bears Q&A: Were other needs more urgent than WR? Why support a punter in Round 4? Are the playoffs realistic?

The 2024 NFL draft is in the books, and the Chicago Bears have a new pass-catching combination in No. 1 pick Caleb Williams and No. 9 selection Rome Odunze.

So how excited should Bears fans be after the additions? Are the playoffs — or even a division title — a realistic possibility this season? And what’s up with drafting a punter in the fourth round?

As he does every week, the Tribune’s Brad Biggs breaks it all down in the Bears mailbag.

Sentiment for the Rome Odunze pick is overwhelmingly positive and I get it, but do you find it a tad odd the Bears have a defensive head coach and in three seasons, not one first-round pick has been used to select a defensive player? I know they’ve only had three picks (0 in 2022, 1 in 2023, 2 in 2024) and they have mostly been used to fill holes, but was wide receiver really a hole this draft with DJ Moore and Keenan Allen ready to go? Feels like a defensive end counter to Montez Sweat or another cornerstone offensive tackle may have seemed more imperative? — Gerry M., Chicago

I like the selection of Odunze and believe he has a chance to be a terrific player for the Bears. One personnel man described him back in the fall as a bigger version of Moore. Can he be that physical and difficult to bring down after the catch? Time will tell. Moore is like a running back with the ball in his hands after making a catch downfield.

It’s a mistake to look at the roster in the vacuum of only the 2024 season and talk about filling holes and remaining needs. You have to take a long view when evaluating draft picks, especially first-round selections, and project them over the course of three or four years and the impact they can make on the roster. Allen is signed for only this season, and absent an extension for him, the Bears would have a gaping hole opposite Moore if they didn’t add a legitimate option this year.

Focus on how the Bears used all of their resources when wondering about roster construction. You’re right, in a small sample size, they’ve yet to use a first-round pick on a defensive player under general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus. However, they’ve made some big moves on defense in free agency, trades and contract extensions. I’d also note they had two second-round picks in 2022 — their top two selections — and used them on cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker. After using the 10th pick on right tackle Darnell Wright last year, the Bears used second-round picks on cornerback Tyrique Stevenson and defensive tackle Gervon Dexter and circled back in Round 3 to add defensive tackle Zacch Pickens.

I could write a long column supporting the selection of an edge defender or offensive tackle in the spot where the Bears chose Odunze. But it’s easy to support the decision to bring Odunze on board and — when you look toward the future — have a situation where Moore is one of the higher-paid receivers in the league and Odunze is on a rookie contract. It’s not like the Bears have been pouring more resources into the offense. I’d argue there was a heavier tilt to the defense during the first two seasons for Poles and Eberflus.

Who did the Chicago Bears select in the 2024 NFL draft? Meet the 5-player class.

There’s a reason teams almost never draft a punter in the fourth round or earlier: because it’s dumb. And they have to be the only team in history to draft two punters two years apart (Trenton Gill in 2022 and now Tory Taylor). Instead of questioning it, you laud it. Ho-hum. Why possibly question an abysmal, dysfunctional organization doing more dumb? I suppose when you suck as much as the Bears do, having a punter as your MVP makes sense. Why doesn’t anybody ask the uncomfortable question, “Hey, what about Gill now?” Other than being an extension of the Bears PR department, where is journalism? Suffice to say, Bob Verdi and Bernie Lincicome would not be perpetual cheerleaders. In fairness, back then papers were king and the teams needed them. Today it’s the other way around. — Bill C.

You’re right. It’s rare for punters to be drafted in the fourth round, and often teams can wait until later rounds or pick up a free agent. I think it was a wise move because Taylor, whom the Bears drafted with the 122nd pick, was head and shoulders above the rest of the class in the estimation of evaluators I spoke with, including scouts and — more important — special teams coaches.

Yes, the Bears used a seventh-round draft pick on Gill just two years ago, but their punting game was abysmal in 2023. They ranked 25th in gross yardage (46.1 yards per punt), 31st in net (38.0), 30th in touchback percentage (11.9%), 30th in punts inside the 20-yard line (26.9%) and 25th in return yards allowed (381). Not all of that is a function of Gill’s ability. There are 10 other players on the field, but he took a step backward after his rookie season and the Bears had a clear weakness whether you want to acknowledge it as such.

So their choices were pretty simple. Sign a veteran to take over the job from Gill. Draft a player to replace Gill. Or sign a street free agent or undrafted player to compete with Gill for the job. But they had to do something because they struggled in that phase last season.

What happens to Gill? I don’t need to ask that question to know what his future holds. I fully expect the Bears to release him at some point, and I’ve already written as such. I don’t expect the Bears to have a charade of a competition between Taylor and Gill, and the sooner Gill can get a jump on competing for a job elsewhere, the better off he will be.

Back to using a fourth-round pick on a punter. When I chatted with a couple of scouts, they thought Taylor was a likely fourth-rounder and one said he could envision a team making a move for him in the third round or even at the back end of Round 2. His thinking was that while it would be unorthodox, if you have conviction that Taylor would transform your punting game and make you one of the better units in the league for five-plus seasons, it makes sense. You’ve passed on the opportunity to take a player at a position with greater significance for a punter you believe is more of a sure thing. Most personnel folks will tell you a fourth-round pick has maybe a 50% chance of panning out as a productive NFL player, and some might say the odds are a little less than that.

The San Francisco 49ers have done a masterful job of building a competitive roster under John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, and they have one of the better punters in the league, Mitch Wishnowsky, who was a fourth-round pick in 2019. I think we’d agree the Baltimore Ravens have been one of the better drafting teams for the last 10 to 15 years. They used a fourth-round pick on Jordan Stout in 2022. The Seattle Seahawks drafted Michael Dickson in the fifth round (No. 149) in 2018, and he has averaged 44 or more net yards in four seasons. Bryan Anger, who entered the league as a third-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, led the NFL in net punting last season for the Dallas Cowboys at 45.3 yards.

As far as where journalism and balanced coverage is, not sure if you saw the column I wrote on Day 2 of the draft after the Bears selected Rome Odunze with the ninth pick. While I’m on record that I think that was a good selection — and in all but one of my mock drafts, I had the Bears landing Odunze at No. 9 — I took a close look at the decision to pass on an offensive lineman with that pick. I called former Bears Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz, who has openly questioned the team’s lack of significant investment in the line for quite a while, and got his opinion.

“How do you not take the left tackle?” Kreutz said. “I still can’t figure that out. I like Odunze. He’s awesome. But I don’t know how you don’t take the left tackle with the problems they’ve had. Look at (Los Angeles Chargers coach) Jim Harbaugh; he went and took (Joe) Alt. You’ve got a former quarterback who wants to win in the trenches and you’ve got two former O-linemen (Ryan Poles and assistant GM Ian Cunningham) who want to win with skill players. It’s interesting.”

I think you can agree I took a balanced look at the decision in that column. I have a ton of respect for the incredible careers Verdi and Lincicome had, doing marvelous work for the Tribune for a very long time, but I don’t know what else to tell you. There are plenty of cheerleaders covering the Bears these days, and I don’t think writing that Taylor was a solid choice makes me one. Maybe you do. Like every other pick, we’ll have to wait a few years to see if it was a good move.

Photos: Chicago Bears introduce No. 1 pick Caleb Willams and No. 9 pick Rome Odunze

I’m more excited about the Bears than I have been in a long, long, long time. The dreams of an offense that doesn’t give me heartburn finally seem like a legitimate possibility. That being said, and not to be a Debbie Downer, do you think the offensive line will be up to the task to complement the new group of offensive skill players? I understand Justin Fields had a penchant for holding on to the ball too long, but there were also several times where he never had a chance. Is bringing in a mid-tier center enough to truly improve the pass protection? — Ryan, Chicago

That will be one of the big storylines when the team gets to training camp and the preseason. Can offensive line coach/run game coordinator Chris Morgan elevate that unit with essentially 80% of last season’s line returning in place? The Bears traded for Ryan Bates and he is mid-tier when you evaluate pay for centers with an average annual salary of $4.25 million. Bates is expected to get the first crack at the job, and the Bears also have Coleman Shelton on a one-year, $3 million contract.

Center play will be important for rookie quarterback Caleb Williams, but the bigger issue in my mind is how left tackle Braxton Jones performs in Year 3. Can he take a step forward to nail down that job and carry it into the future? Then you need to focus on the development of right tackle Darnell Wright and hope for a bounce-back season from right guard Nate Davis. Add the durability of left guard Teven Jenkins, who is entering a contract year, and there are plenty of subplots on the O-line.

Is there potential to add a rotational defensive lineman off the street? Maybe a June 1 cut? The Bears still have some cap room, correct? A lot of last year’s snaps have left. A full year of Montez Sweat and increased roles of young guys will help, but the Bears seem to be short a vet. — @therealphedog

According to, the Bears have roughly $12.5 million in effective cap space, which accounts for room needed to sign the draft class. Yes, there is some flexibility to make a move or two for players who wouldn’t command a ton of pay. This was far and away the most popular question this week, and a lot of people are overlooking defensive end DeMarcus Walker, who had some production last season and remains a clear starter, especially in the base package.

I wouldn’t rule out the Bears adding a player or two with experience between now and the start of camp, but I’d also point out a consideration they must make. The last thing they want to do is stunt the development of young players such as tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens and rookie end Austin Booker by blocking them from needed experience. They also picked up some options for reserve roles in Byron Cowart, Jake Martin and undrafted rookie Keith Randolph of Illinois.

I imagine this is a situation the Bears will monitor closely, and if injuries pile up, they will have to spring into action. But the goal has to be to see young players prove they are worthy of time in the rotation, and that can be difficult to achieve when they’re blocked by veterans who have experience but also clear and identifiable ceilings that don’t offer a lot of room for growth.

What makes Austin Booker a different prospect than Dominique Robinson? Both were seen as raw talents with great athleticism and length. Why will the Booker pick end up being successful when Robinson is likely not to make the roster in 2024? — @coachsmyth

We don’t know if Booker will be a hit, while Robinson, barring something unexpected at this point, has been a miss. Robinson was more of a raw defensive player when the Bears drafted him in the fifth round two years ago from Miami (Ohio). He started out at quarterback and then wide receiver in college. So Booker is a more natural defensive player.

The Bears view Booker as an ascending player. He has a long and narrow frame and more defined pass-rush moves than Robinson had coming out of college. He has good short-area athleticism and plays with a high motor. Yes, there is projection involved with Booker, and some believed he would have greatly helped himself by remaining in school for another year. He’ll have to do some quick on-the-job learning to earn playing time.

I guess the short answer is the Bears must feel like he’s less of a project and more NFL-ready than Robinson was because Booker isn’t a converted pass rusher. That’s what you’re usually doing in the fifth round: identifying a player with traits that fit your scheme and taking a chance.

My concern is are there enough pass plays to go around? Per Pro Football Reference, last season with Luke Getsy the Bears had 513 pass plays, 30.2 per game, 49% of plays (not counting pre-snap penalty plays). In Seattle, Shane Waldron had 575 pass plays, 33.8 per game, 60% of plays. The Bears have six good pass receivers: 3 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB. — @badasswarthog

It’s a good problem to have for Waldron and Caleb Williams, and it sure as heck beats the alternative we’re accustomed to in these parts with a critical lack of skill-position players who can aid the quarterback. I don’t think this is an actual problem at all.

One thing most of these skill players have in common is they are selfless team guys. DJ Moore didn’t complain a peep last season, especially early, when there were games he didn’t see the ball enough. Tight end Cole Kmet is always the consummate pro. I can’t imagine Keenan Allen will want to rock the boat in a contract year. This is what you want in a high-powered offense, and it probably looks unusual because you’re simply not used to the Bears having so many legitimate options to challenge defenses.

The Bears seem to be better this year on paper but they were 7-10 last year with an easy schedule and good health. While starting a rookie quarterback, are the playoffs a reasonable expectation in 2024 or would that be setting the team up to fail? — Tom S., Chicago

I don’t see why the Bears wouldn’t go into 2024 with the playoffs as a realistic and legitimate goal. It’s a heck of a lot easier to qualify for the postseason with a seven-team field that includes a third wild card, and the schedule doesn’t appear very daunting this season. We don’t know how it will be laid out yet — my guess is the league will unveil the 2024 schedule next week — but the opponents don’t look to be overly difficult.

I’d be stunned if the powers that be at Halas Hall aren’t placing significant expectations on this season. The Bears should be better than a seven-win team unless they get hit with a slew of critical injuries.

What grade are you gonna give the draft class? — @mybears2

Incomplete. It’s folly to assign grades to draft classes within days, weeks, months or even a full season. It’s about draft and development, and that takes two or really three years to play out. There’s reason to be optimistic about the Bears selecting the top quarterback, Caleb Williams, and third wide receiver, Rome Odunze, but this draft will be judged on how they perform.

We should gather some signs from Williams in his rookie season. The quarterbacks who emerge as elite performers in the NFL almost always flash with some regularity early in their careers. That’s why the idea the Bears should have continued to build around Justin Fields was not realistic and never could have been a serious consideration. Those flashes were too far apart and too often limited to second-reaction plays.

Let’s circle back on this question a couple of seasons down the road when we can truly judge how the Bears have done in the developmental department.

Do you think the Bears should try to lock in DJ Moore to a long-term extension before the season starts? My worry is the expected drop in production due to more weapons will lead him to want to leave in two years when his contract is up. — @schechschech10

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears engaged Moore in contract talks at some point before the season, but there’s no rush. The goal of going to a player with two years remaining on his contract — Moore is signed through 2025 — is to get a bit of a discount. That would require negotiations. We don’t have any idea how those would play out.

At this point in his career, I believe Moore wants to be on a winner and he has come across as pretty happy with where he is. I don’t think any potential drop in targets with Keenan Allen and Rome Odunze on board would sour him on the Bears. It’s very possible with a more productive passing game that Moore’s target volume and statistics don’t dip at all.

Is re-signing Yannick Ngakoue a possibility now post-draft? — @r0me0dunze

I’m a little surprised by the number of questions I’ve received about the possibility of another season for Ngakoue. He wasn’t good for the Bears last season, and that was sort of overlooked after they traded for Montez Sweat and Sweat ignited the pass rush. Ngakoue looked like a veteran who was just about out of juice. He wasn’t winning consistently with his quickness and the power appeared gone. That was a one-year, $10 million move that didn’t work out. Maybe the Bears will seek a veteran at some point to play a reduced role, but I don’t think that player would be Ngakoue.

Do you see Tory Taylor as an option on kickoffs? — @danieronk

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It will be interesting to see if the Bears toy around with that at some point, but Taylor didn’t do anything related to kickoffs at Iowa. Does he have the athleticism to dabble in that area? I imagine he does. But I believe the Bears will want him to get comfortable with his punting duties first.

The focus from the start will be on his get-off time, which is the challenge for all rookie punters with different rules in the NFL than in college. As a general rule, the punter needs to have the ball off his foot within two seconds of the snap. Speeding up that process is a learning curve for all punters and will be for Taylor as well. If opposing teams see a punter is sometimes taking 2.1 seconds to get the ball off, they’re going to scheme rushes to bring pressure.

Bears roster looks good, lots of optimism. But where do you rank them in the NFC North? — @djs815

The Bears are in a better position in the NFC North than they’ve been in quite a while, and I don’t believe it’s a stretch to suggest they can compete for the division title this season. But they have to beat the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers to do that, and as Ryan Poles has said, the Bears’ improvements to this point are on paper. They’re running third right now until they prove they can overcome their rivals.

“I’m pumped,” Poles said after Round 1 of the draft. “We’ve done good work. It’s one thing to bring talent in, but it’s another to bring talent that they’re good people and they’re great teammates. And the stuff that these (veteran) guys have been doing over the last few weeks has been incredible. We’re seeing how close everybody is.

“But, yeah, we were looking today at what the roster looks like and it’s been a journey. I know it hasn’t been that many years, but it feels like it’s been a lot of years. So we’ve done good work. But obviously, like I said the other night, we’ve got to win.”

That’s the key: going out and winning with an improved roster.