Chicago Bears Q&A: Which direction will they go at left tackle? What are the most important factors in the Matt Eberflus decision?

posted in: News | 0

After a fourth-quarter collapse resulted in a crushing loss for the third time this season, the Chicago Bears have three games remaining before facing major offseason decisions on their coaching staff and quarterback.

Before the Arizona Cardinals arrive for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field, Brad Biggs digs into the weekly Bears mailbag.

With all the attention on the fate of Justin Fields and the possible selection of a top QB prospect and whether or not to keep the head coach, will the Bears also seriously address fixing the OL, which can’t hold up at all against a good defense? The Bears’ D-line with Montez Sweat is greatly improved. — @jamespazdan

No question the future of the coaching staff and Fields are front-burner topics for the Bears when the season ends. That doesn’t mean they are the only issues. Most have expected all along the team will construct a plan, perhaps multilayered, to upgrade at center. It’s probably not a popular opinion, but the Bears might have been better off sticking with Sam Mustipher than turning to Lucas Patrick. The Bears know they need a solution at center, and the best plan, in my mind, is to sign a veteran in free agency and draft a center in the middle rounds and allow them to compete. If the Bears really like Doug Kramer, they could sign a veteran and then see how Kramer develops after making some solid gains in the last offseason.

The defensive line still needs work. To have an elite front, the Bears must add another pass rusher opposite Sweat. But as you allude to, they have to figure out what they want to do at left tackle. Braxton Jones has played pretty well this season, but he had a rough go of it against Myles Garrett — not unlike what a lot of left tackles experience. Ultimately you want to judge Jones by how he performs against the best in the league. He was far from the only lineman to have a rough afternoon Sunday in Cleveland. I thought right guard Nate Davis struggled some too.

So how do the Bears go about considering an upgrade? I’ve been looking at the team’s own first-round pick and thinking about four possibilities for a while. This goes off the theory they will use the first-round pick coming from the Carolina Panthers on a quarterback. If you are of the mind the Bears will not choose a quarterback with their first pick, there are any number of possibilities. Here are the four possibilities I have mulled for their second first-round pick, currently No. 5:

Draft a left tackle. The question is will one be available for the Bears to pick. Penn State’s Olu Fashanu and Notre Dame’s Joe Alt are likely to come off the board early. Would either be there if the Bears are picking at No. 5? Maybe. That would depend greatly on how many quarterbacks go in the top four. After Fashanu and Alt, I’m not sure there is a left tackle in the class worthy of a top-10 pick. If not, you can’t reach here.
Draft a wide receiver. It’s a great class at the position, and while Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. has dominated the headlines, there is a ton of legitimate talent after him. Washington’s Rome Udunze, LSU’s Malik Nabers and Florida State’s Keon Coleman are potential top-10 picks. Grab one of them to pair with DJ Moore, and a rookie quarterback would have no shortage of skill-position talent to work with.
Trade down. The goal would be to stay in the top 10 (or very close to it) and be in position to grab the best available wide receiver or edge rusher. The right trade offer has to be there from a team presumably moving up to get a quarterback. Again, I’m not sure there is a left tackle worth picking in a trade-down scenario.
Draft an edge rusher. This need could be filled in free agency. If not, it has to be an option if there is a player the Bears believe in.

Maybe a left tackle would be around in the 10-16 range where the Bears could trade down. But figuring out what they want to do — keep Jones and bank on him improving or find an upgrade — is a big topic for the offseason.

What are the most important factors the Bears will have to weigh in determining the future of Matt Eberflus at the end of the season? — O.C., Elmhurst

That’s a good question, and while there has been a ton of focus (rightfully so) on his super-aggressive defensive play call on third-and-15 with less than a minute to play in Sunday’s loss in Cleveland, I think the late-game meltdowns in losses to the Browns, Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos are just part of the equation. I’ll reiterate what I wrote after the game: The six-man pressure on that play, with defensive tackle Justin Jones dropping off in zone coverage, was a great example of a coach bringing the heat late in a game at a critical juncture and not playing “prevent” defense for the crowd that regularly clamors for more blitzes.

Maybe more important than how the team fares this season — the Bears can finish anywhere between 5-12 and 8-9 — is how general manager Ryan Poles and his staff, President/CEO Kevin Warren and ultimately Chairman George McCaskey see the team and roster trending heading into 2024. Are the Bears headed in the right direction? Has a young roster improved? Do the decision makers envision Eberflus being the right guy to take the team to the next level?

Eberflus and his staff deserve credit for keeping the team locked in through a series of distractions that could have knocked this season off course much earlier. The Bears are playing hard, and that’s evident when you watch them and when you talk to evaluators and opposing players who understand what they’re seeing. Can they match that intensity now that their slim playoff hopes are minuscule? Can they rebound from a dispiriting loss in Cleveland?

Another factor, and it’s not a small one, is Poles’ vision for the offense moving forward. If he wants to pursue a quarterback in the draft, would he prefer to align a rookie quarterback with a head coach who has an offensive background? What does he think of Eberflus’ plans for the offense if the coach is a candidate to return in 2024? There are a lot of variables and one thing the Bears probably want to avoid is having Eberflus return for a season with heightened expectations with a rookie quarterback and then have a setback. The last thing the Bears want to do is draft a quarterback, have him learn the system and then make a complete coaching staff change after 2024 and have that young quarterback learning a new playbook with new coaches in Year 2.

There is a lot to mull over, and the Jan. 7 finale at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers surely will carry a little weight. The Bears have two games to play before then, and they are also part of the evaluation.

After watching the Bears lose to Cleveland, it strikes me that 38-year-old Joe Flacco, fresh off the couch, steamrolled the Bears in the fourth quarter with a patched up offensive line and clearly outplayed Justin Fields. He threw for almost 400 yards despite three interceptions. I’ve been riding the fence on whether or not the Bears should draft a QB. After Sunday’s game, it became clearer to me that Fields is not a difference maker they need. I don’t think he can elevate the Bears to the next level. Your thoughts? — R. Niedermeier, Peoria

That’s what everyone was looking for from Fields coming into the season, the ability to elevate the team and the players around him, especially at key junctures in games. Flacco wound up passing for 212 yards in the fourth quarter, a remarkable performance for any quarterback, let alone one who wasn’t on a roster when the season began and started last week on the Browns practice squad. Flacco didn’t outduel Fields; he outperformed the Bears defense in crunch time. In comparison, Fields has more than 212 passing yards in only nine of 35 career starts.

Elite quarterbacks have a way of making the players around them better. That’s what Patrick Mahomes does in Kansas City. That’s what Aaron Rodgers did for the longest time in Green Bay. They help players who would be average on other rosters become high-level performers with regularity. That’s missing with the Bears and it’s where I disagree with the idea they should continue to build around Fields to make him better. Would another elite receiver and a perennial Pro Bowl left tackle make Fields better? Indeed. Is he going to be able to elevate other players consistently? Is he going to have the team in the hunt for a deep playoff run year after year? I have a difficult time envisioning that.

It’s a different conversation if the Bears had one first-round draft pick or even if they had two but both of them were going to land somewhere in the middle of Round 1. They project to have the No. 1 pick (maybe No. 2 if the Panthers get on a mini-heater and the New England Patriots lose out). They will be able to consider a handful of highly touted quarterbacks a year after they passed on a QB when they could have had C.J. Stroud.

Let’s consider a scenario in which the Bears trade the No. 1 pick again and collect a trove of draft picks. What if the quarterback selected in that spot transforms the team the Bears trade with and the future picks the Bears wind up getting are outside the top 10? What if the 2025 and 2026 quarterback classes are not as talented or as deep? Then what? From my perch, it’s impossible for the Bears to be this deficient throwing the football and be at or near the top of the draft for two consecutive years without selecting a quarterback.

Do you think Jaylon Johnson and DJ Moore’s public support for Justin Fields is just standing up for their starting QB or could it be a warning sign that a rookie QB (probably Caleb Williams) would step into a hostile locker room? We’ve seen it happen on the coaching side after Lovie was fired. — @tarpeianrock83

Johnson and Moore are being good teammates and supporting the starting quarterback for a team that, mathematically, still has a chance to sneak into the playoffs. What do you expect a player to say when asked directly about the team’s starting quarterback? Moore’s public comments about Sam Darnold when they were teammates in Carolina were nothing but supportive. Darnold wasn’t the right quarterback for the Panthers, was he?

Moore is counting on Fields to get him the ball as he aims to set career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He needs 14 catches, 71 yards and one touchdown for personal highs in all three categories. The Bears aren’t doing anything well enough on offense for players not to understand that changes/upgrades at some positions — and perhaps a coaching staff change — will be warranted at the end of the season. If the Bears do make a move at quarterback, the new starter would be greeted with the strongest level of support.

As far as the Bears having a hostile locker room after Smith was fired, you’re off base here. They ran into trouble because Marc Trestman wasn’t the right coach for the team, not because Smith was gone. Trestman quickly lost the locker room because he didn’t control it. Had the Bears hired Bruce Arians, you wonder if things would have turned out differently. Given Arians’ track record, I don’t think he would have encountered locker-room issues. So it’s not that Smith was fired. It’s that the Bears hired the wrong replacement.

Is your desire for the Bears to draft a QB at No. 1 more to do with Justin Fields’ performance or rookie contract money or both? — @timothy11284050

I don’t desire anything. My reporting is based on 23 years of experience covering the franchise and the league and understanding how both operate. In my opinion, performance will be the overwhelming factor in a decision on the quarterback. A rookie contract for a draft pick — and the cash and salary-cap considerations that come with it — is part of the equation. But they’re smaller in the grand scope, almost tiebreakers if the team was on the fence based on how Fields had performed.

I don’t think anything, based on 35 career starts, makes this a close decision for the Bears. The passing offense continues to struggle despite a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver in DJ Moore. Statistically, the Bears are abysmal when it comes to passing in the fourth quarter, when games are on the line. Fields’ fourth-quarter statistics this season are actually worse than they were in 2022 and 2021, and he has the best receiver he has played with and the best offensive line the Bears have had in three years. Does the line still need to be upgraded? Yes. Is it good enough for the Bears to be better throwing the ball? No doubt.

We can all agree Fields was dropped into a very bad situation in 2021 when the Bears drafted him. He was almost set up to fail. He has a lot of company in other highly drafted quarterbacks who found themselves in similar predicaments. I believe Ryan Poles did what he could to assist Fields this season in adding Moore and doing some work on the offensive line. It just hasn’t clicked yet, and that’s how I’ve shaped my opinion on what the future holds. We’ll find out in a matter of months which direction the Bears head.

The coaching staff talks about finishing and execution but why don’t they ever take blame when they mess up? Like Matt Eberflus couldn’t say that he made a bad call dropping a defensive tackle on such an important drive. — @mustang6944

Eberflus was pretty clear that, in retrospect, he wishes he’d gone with a different strategy on the third-and-15 call that resulted in a 34-yard completion to Browns tight end David Njoku. A six-man rush didn’t get home against an offensive line that was down four starters, and the long pass positioned the Browns for the winning field goal.

“I’ve been calling defenses for 12 years, 13 years now, and every game you have three or four that you want back,” Eberflus said Monday. “That one there, when it doesn’t work in a critical situation, of course you’d like to see it work in that situation, but it didn’t.”

Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has shared similar sentiments after a few calls this season. I don’t know if you’ll ever find a coach who says, even after a victory, he got through a game with a perfect script. It’s just that this particular miss put the Bears in a vulnerable position when the rush didn’t force Flacco to get the ball out immediately. Maybe a better option would have been sending tackle Justin Jones, who dropped off as a robber, and keeping one of safety Jaquan Brisker, nickel cornerback Kyler Gordon or linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (all three were rushing) in man coverage on Njoku. In that scenario, the Bears still would have had a six-man pressure and hopefully the tight end would have been covered.

Running backs haven’t popped all year. You think letting David Montgomery walk was a mistake? — @topfive_sports

No. The running game hasn’t “popped” with the consistency it did a year ago and has been a little lackluster of late since D’Onta Foreman was dinged up, but the Bears rank fifth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 134.4 yards per game. The Lions, with Montgomery part of a two-headed rushing attack with rookie Jahmyr Gibbs, are No. 2 at 140.9 yards per game. That’s pretty similar, and Montgomery is on a three-year, $18 million contract with $11 million guaranteed.

Khalil Herbert looked good at the start of the season but hasn’t gotten going since returning from a high-ankle sprain. I think the Bears will get rolling this week. The Arizona Cardinals are 31st in the league, allowing 139.6 rushing yards per game. The Los Angeles Rams rolled up 228 yards on the ground against them three weeks ago. It’s hard for me to think it’s a good idea to sink big money or draft capital in a running back unless he’s a rare talent who also can be a huge asset in the passing game. As steady and solid as Montgomery is, he’s not that.

What is your opinion of the QB W-L stat as an accurate (or not) measure of an NFL QB’s worth/performance? — @hickeymj

Is that the first thing I look at with active quarterbacks? No. Is that, along with Lombardi Trophies, the ultimate measure of success when comparing the league’s greatest to play the position? It’s one of the biggest determining factors. Should it be part of the discussion when evaluating current quarterbacks? I think there’s a space for it. Is it the be-all and end-all of a discussion about Justin Fields? Of course not.

If the Bears don’t pick up Justin Fields’ fifth year and pick a QB in the draft, is it worth it to keep Fields for his fourth year to allow the new QB a cushion year? Or do the Bears need to trade Fields while his value is high? — @jjbittenbi10623

If the Bears decline the fifth-year option, the only time they could trade him would be in 2024. So it’s not like he would have any value to them after the season with the 2025 year in his contract voided. It’s hard for me to envision a scenario in which the Bears draft a quarterback in the first round and keep Fields on the roster. If Ryan Poles selects a quarterback, he’s doing so to replace Fields, not to create a two-quarterback circus.

My opinion all along has been the Bears need to be all in on Fields at the end of this season — meaning prepared to offer him a new contract — or out. Because they’re going to be at or near the top of the draft, they can’t afford to hedge and wait and see how Fields performs in a fourth season. There’s no telling where they will be picking in 2025 and what the available options will look like.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.