To the surprise of almost no one, the Bears parted ways with general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy after a 6–11 season that provided very little optimism. The McCaskey family turned to a new Ryan and a new Matt to reverse a trend that has seen the franchise suffer through a 10-year drought that includes just two playoff appearances and no playoff wins. In Pace's seven seasons, the Bears finished above .500 just once, and last season was their fourth with double-digit losses.
Chicago plucked new GM Ryan Poles from the Chiefs' personnel department, and he hired Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus as his head coach. Poles' rebuilding plan has tacked heavily toward one-year, prove-it deals for veteran free agents. Only a handful of newcomers received two-year deals, and none were more lengthy than that. While the Bears have some promising young talent to build around, they will not complete the rehab in one season. Patience is the watchword. Quarterback Justin Fields, the 11th overall draft pick in 2021, is the offensive centerpiece. But until the O-line is significantly improved and more weapons are provided, an accurate appraisal of his abilities is difficult.
Luke Getsy will be coordinating an NFL offense for the first time, so it's difficult to predict any tendencies, but his scheme will feature a combination of outside zone runs and vertical passing. What is certain is that the scheme will be tailored to Fields' strengths. He begins the season as the undisputed starter, but that's a dubious distinction until the talent in front of him is upgraded. The Bears allowed NFL-worst totals of 58 sacks and 428 sack yards last season, and Fields bore the brunt of that punishment (36 sacks), as he wound up starting 10 games out of necessity after Andy Dalton was injured. Fields went 2-8 as a starter and would have played even more if not for his own injuries. He flashed exceptional accuracy on deep balls, intriguing athleticism and admirable toughness, but he was picked off 10 times while throwing just seven TD passes. The difference this year is that Fields begins the season as the starter in what play-caller Getsy says will be a "quarterback-driven offense." Journeyman free agent and former Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian was brought in to replace Dalton and help mentor Fields.
Darnell Mooney, a fifth-round pick in 2020 with sneaky deep speed, emerged as Fields' go-to guy, catching 81 passes for 1,055 yards, four touchdowns and a 13.0 yards per reception average. With former WR1 Allen Robinson II gone, free-agent addition Byron Pringle will need to build off his career year in 2021 with the Chiefs (42 catches, 568 yards, 13.5-yard average and five TDs), and Fields will still need more weapons. Mooney and Pringle are the only wideouts on the roster who caught more than 10 passes last season. The team also is hoping that a change of scenery will help former first-round pick N'Keal Harry turn things around. He was acquired from New England in early July for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2024.
Cole Kmet is the undisputed future at tight end, on the basis of a 60-catch, 612-yard 2021 season, and the offseason brought some much-needed depth in veteran journeymen James O'Shaughnessy and Ryan Griffin, along with explosive draft pick Velus Jones Jr.
David Montgomery and more-than-capable backup Khalil Herbert make running back the strongest offensive unit. Montgomery's stats seem mundane but are much more impressive considering the subpar offensive lines he's operated behind. That lack of support up front has forced the shifty yet powerful Montgomery to display his elite tackle-breaking ability, and he's a solid pass-catcher as well. Herbert filled in last season when Montgomery was injured (Weeks 5-8) with no discernible drop-off in production.
Providing better protection for Fields is essential this year, and it will take major improvement across the board from a unit in flux. Chicago addressed the line last year in the draft with second-round pick Teven Jenkins and fifth-rounder Larry Borom. Jenkins was expected to step in at left tackle, but he missed most of the season with a back injury, although he made two inauspicious late-season starts. Borom started eight times on a depleted and mostly ineffective unit. Rookie Braxton Jones, a fifth-round pick from Southern Utah, has opened some eyes early, but Poles signed several veterans before the start of training camp to add to the competition, including Riley Reiff. A full-time starter each of the past nine seasons, including last year for the Cincinnati Bengals, Reiff's one-year deal could be worth up to $12.5 million, which means he will likely line up as Fields' blindside protector in Week 1. This also will take pressure off of the younger guys and give them more time to develop.
Former Packer Lucas Patrick, a tenacious, feisty leader, was brought in to helm the line as the center. Cody Whitehair provides stability at left guard. A battle was expected at right guard between Sam Mustipher, who started at center in 2021, and Dakota Dozier, who spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad. But Dozier tore his ACL during minicamp and is lost for the season. Michael Schofield was another late add and he'll likely get the nod at right guard.
Eberflus' Indianapolis defenses finished in the top 10 in forcing turnovers in each of his four seasons as coordinator, and he has emphasized the importance of turnovers from Day 1. But he and defensive coordinator Alan Williams will be working with a watered-down version of the group that was a Bears strength in recent years. They will also be converting to a 4-3 scheme, which the Bears haven't used as their base since 2014.
Even without Khalil Mack, the Bears should be able to generate pass-rush pressure off the edge. Most of that should come from Robert Quinn, who set the team record last season with 18.5 sacks, and Trevis Gipson, who had a breakout 2021 with seven sacks and five forced fumbles. Those two will get most of the snaps in nickel, which Eberflus expects to play about 85 percent of the time. Eberflus likes to play his defensive ends in a rotation, hoping to attack the opposing quarterback with fresh waves of pressure. The interior line was wiped out by the departures of Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols and Eddie Goldman, with only Justin Jones added to compensate. But the cupboard wasn't left totally bare. Role-playing holdover Mario Edwards Jr. provides some pass rush, and run-stuffers Angelo Blackson and Khyiris Tonga also return.
Tackling machine Roquan Smith is the heart of the defense. He has the athleticism to play coverage and the instincts and toughness to shut down the run. He'll likely spend most of his time in the middle, flanked by free-agent newcomers Matt Adams on the weak side and Nicholas Morrow on the strong side. But Smith's supporting cast is far from settled. Morrow's strength is his versatility, but he missed all of 2021 with an ankle injury. If he is 100 percent, Morrow and Smith could flip-flop positions in certain situations.
Jaylon Johnson is on the verge of becoming a lockdown corner, if he isn't already, but a complement is needed, which is why Kyler Gordon was the team's top draft pick. Kindle Vildor and newcomer Tavon Young are expected to provide depth, and they could compete for the nickel spot. Eddie Jackson, a premier ball athlete in his first two seasons (Pro Bowler in 2018 and '19), has regressed the past two seasons and is looking for a bounce-back season. He hopes Eberflus' simpler scheme, in which he's required to process less information, will play in his favor. The hope is that second-rounder Jaquan Brisker starts alongside Jackson.
Cairo Santos has put together the best back-to-back kicking seasons in team history, hitting 56-of-62 field-goal attempts (90.3 percent) and 63-of-65 extra points. Long snapper Patrick Scales was one of the very few free agents whom the Bears re-signed. Trenton Gill was drafted in the seventh round and will take over the punting duties after the Bears declined to bring back Pat O'Donnell for a ninth season.
Even a fleeting glance between the lines reveals that Poles doesn't see this rebuilding process as a quick one, so it would be wishful thinking to expect the Bears to contend in 2022. This team may even struggle to match last year's 6–11 mark, but major improvement is expected in 2023, when Poles should have in excess of $120 million in cap room.