Bears fans have been watching them sputter all season, yelling rhetorically, “What’s wrong with them?” at their TVs. Not that they need an answer, but it’s a long list.
A shorter, more important list starts with this question: What’s right with them?
With this season on the verge of swirling down the drain, the most important decision for the Bears is where they go from here. While the former question focuses on the present, the latter is about the future. And that’s all that matters at this point.
Once the Bears decide on the jobs of general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy, they need to make a clear-eyed judgment on how long it’s going to take them to rebuild and which players they should rely on during that undertaking.
At the moment, there aren’t many sure things on the roster. Some of the young players have shown promise and poise, but they’re unproven. They know what they’re getting now from some of the older players, but there’s no guarantee they’ll still be this good going forward.
Right tackle Larry Borom is an example on one side of that equation. The Bears seem ready to declare him a pillar of their future, but he has played four games. On the other side, outside linebacker Robert Quinn is having an incredible season with 11 sacks, but he’ll be 32 next season.
If the Bears rebuild, 2023 is the soonest they could realistically hope to see the fruits of that work. That process is slowed by the fact that they have just two picks in the first four rounds of the draft next year. That timeline could prompt them to move on from productive veterans like Quinn, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and wide receiver Allen Robinson.
Offensively, the entire blueprint will be drawn around quarterback Justin Fields. It has been a choppy first season, but that’s in large part due to messes that are beyond Fields’ control — as if being a rookie at that position isn’t hard enough on its own.
Nagy seems far from an ideal match for him. The offensive line is a work in progress. The skill players have been up and down.
As they look to set Fields up for Year 2, the Bears would be wise to find a way to keep Robinson. It’s easy to forget that he’s only 28, and while this season has been frustrating, the entirety of his résumé outweighs one bad year in which he has battled injuries and struggled to navigate all the dysfunction around him.
Robinson has had 1,000-yard seasons with Blake Bortles, Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles at quarterback. He’ll be an asset to Fields. Rather than use the franchise tag on Robinson again, it’s time for the Bears to secure him on a multiyear extension.
Alongside Robinson, the Bears have definitive proof that Darnell Mooney is an excellent No. 2 receiver. In a down season for Robinson, Mooney leads the team with 46 receptions, 694 yards and three touchdown catches. From the day he arrived at Halas Hall as a fifth-round pick out of Tulane, his stock has only climbed.
“You can see somebody that continues to challenge himself throughout each week,” Nagy said. “His [desire] to be great is really, really high. He’s always staying after practice, he’s getting extra work in, and that pays off. We knew that when we drafted him that he had that in him. We weren’t sure physically was he going to be able to hold up, and he’s been phenomenal with that and it’s just a credit to him.”
Other than those three, left guard Cody Whitehair is the only certainty. He’s hardly young at 29 and is wrapping up his sixth season, but there’s good reason to expect he’ll still be good for a few more years.
There are other promising players like tight end Cole Kmet and running back David Montgomery, but they still need to put forth more evidence.
The Bears need Kmet to be a significant threat in the passing attack, and he has had two or fewer catches in 16 of his 27 career games. Montgomery was very good last season, but at a position that most teams view as interchangeable, he has to be elite to warrant a big contract extension this offseason.
Reconstructing the Bears’ defense might be an even bigger job. Khalil Mack should be able to extend his prime if he fully recovers from offseason foot surgery, and the Bears have major money tied up in him the next three seasons. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be worth it.
Linebacker Roquan Smith might be their most important player on that side of the ball, and it seems obvious the Bears will strike a long-term extension with him before the start of next season. And 2020 second-rounder Jaylon Johnson is their only reliable cornerback.
Everyone else is a question mark in some way.
The Bears thought they had a sure thing in safety Eddie Jackson when they signed him to a four-year, $58.4 million deal in 2020, but he has been inconsistent the last two seasons.
The defensive line, which has been essential to the Bears’ stopping the run the last several seasons, is rife with uncertainty.
Hicks is in the last year of his contract at 32, and there hasn’t been a whiff of an extension. Eddie Goldman was once thought of as a fixture, but he has been a mystery this season. Bilal Nichols is good, but he’s about to hit free agency and there’s no way he’s giving a discount after outperforming his rookie contract.
As the Bears survey their roster for a foundation for the future, there are few rock-solid pieces. That’s not surprising given that this group went 8-8 last season and is floundering this season. And they entered the season with the oldest roster in the league. No matter whom the Bears choose to run their rebuild, it’s going to be a major project.