Ranking the 10 most important Bears of 2022

The slog is starting. After rookies report to Halas Hall on Saturday and veterans on Tuesday, the Bears will begin training camp for a season that seems destined to leave them near the bottom of the standings and the top of the draft order.

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Justin Fields

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields walks off the field after his team’s 24-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers in October.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

The slog is starting.

After rookies report to Halas Hall on Saturday and veterans on Tuesday, the Bears will begin training camp for a season that seems destined to leave them near the bottom of the standings and the top of the draft order.

General manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus won’t use the word ‘‘rebuilding,’’ but that’s precisely what the Bears are doing. Poles traded Khalil Mack and didn’t re-sign veterans Allen Robinson, Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols or James Daniels during the offseason. He didn’t replace them with big-name free agents, either. By cleaning up the Bears’ finances in 2022, Poles has them positioned to lead the NFL in salary-cap space in 2023, with about $90 million. They also will have a first-round pick — probably a very high one — for only the second time in the last five years.

Picking the 10 most important Bears for this season, then, requires us to look past the next 17 games to try to figure out who will be on their next good team, whenever that might be. Because it won’t be in 2022.

1. QB Justin Fields

The Bears did the second-year quarterback no favors this offseason. They didn’t add a big-name receiver. The offensive-line overhaul the Bears so sorely needed produced free-agent center Lucas Patrick and little else.

The new regime, however, believes in Fields’ outsized talent. Allowing him to do what former coach Matt Nagy never did — to enter the season as the unquestioned starter — will give the Bears a long look at Fields. He started only 10 games last season because of injury, illness and coaching malpractice.

The Bears expect him to benefit from the coaching change. Nagy, who never figured out how to use the most talented quarterback he had been handed as a head coach, has been replaced by first-time play-caller Luke Getsy. The former Packers assistant will try to establish the run better than Nagy ever did, allowing Fields to use play-action and deep shots to show off his best traits.

If that doesn’t happen, however, the Bears will have problems. The Bears believe in Fields. But if he doesn’t show enough improvement and the Bears end up with one of the worst records in football, Poles would be in position to draft his own quarterback, should he choose to do so. The next 17 games are crucial.

2. LB Roquan Smith

Smith is the Bears’ best player. The gap between him and No. 2 — Darnell Mooney? Jaylon Johnson? — is wider than anybody on the Bears would admit publicly.

Soon — very soon — he will be paid like it.

Smith is entering the final season of his rookie deal. Before he takes on his next serious blocker — by the Sept. 11 season opener, at the very latest — he should have a new contract that pays him like one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

The road map is there: The Colts’ Darius Leonard, who starred under Eberflus, signed a five-year, $98.5 million deal a year ago. A month before that, the 49ers’ Fred Warner got $95.2 million over five years. Expect Smith, who repeatedly has said he wants to stay in Chicago, to reach a deal that looks similar.

Extending Smith would be a win for both sides. Smith will be the centerpiece of Eberflus’ 4-3 defense for years to come while playing on one of the most expensive contracts in team history. Low on star power, the Bears would ensure their latest standout linebacker stays in navy blue and orange.

3. WR Darnell Mooney

Sitting in a small conference room on the eve of the NFL Scouting Combine, Poles didn’t want to give any insight into his plans for free agency in March or the draft in April. He dodged specific questions as though they were oncoming tacklers.

Without prompting, however, he singled out one player: Mooney. He said he was ‘‘blown away’’ after talking with Mooney, whose 142 catches through two seasons are the most in Bears history.

‘‘I think we’ve all been around people that want to be the absolute best they can be,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s contagious, and it gives you energy. It gives you hope.’’

Those feelings since have deepened. Mooney has been at Fields’ side all offseason, training with him on-campus and off.

‘‘His success is my success,’’ Mooney said of Fields.

The Bears only can hope that’s the case. If Fields becomes the player they hope he can be — and that’s the most important question of the season — it will be with Mooney’s help. He’s by far the most reliable player in a receiver room that also features Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown, former first-round pick N’Keal Harry and rookie Velus Jones.

4. DE Robert Quinn

At this time last year, Quinn was coming off a two-sack season and had perhaps the worst contract in the NFL. Then he set the Bears’ single-season sacks record with 18½.

This offseason, the 32-year-old Quinn watched the Bears part with almost every veteran in his peer group. The ensuing rebuild doesn’t appeal to Quinn, who wants to win before he retires.

In April, Quinn said he didn’t want to go anywhere else. But he then proceeded to skip the Bears’ offseason activities — both voluntary and mandatory ones. No-showing at training camp, which seems unlikely, would be a full-scale escalation.

The Bears would be lucky to get a third-round pick for Quinn at this point, though trading him would open up playing time for promising defensive end Trevis Gipson. Perhaps Poles will wait until the trade deadline and hope to get a poor man’s version of what the Broncos received from the Rams for Von Miller during the middle of last season: a second- and third-round pick.

5. OT Teven Jenkins

Former GM Ryan Pace thought Jenkins was a surefire starter, and he paid for it when he traded a second-rounder, a third-rounder and more to move up and pick the Oklahoma State tackle in the second round of the 2021 draft.

Now it’s fair to wonder whether Jenkins will be an NFL starter. After a back injury kept him out for most of last season, the Bears’ new regime decided to put him at right tackle, where most of the league thought he belonged during the draft. At the end of mandatory minicamp, however, he wasn’t playing with the starters.

It’s hard to know exactly what the Bears have in Jenkins. Of the 27 offensive linemen drafted in the first four rounds in 2021, only one appeared in fewer games than Jenkins’ six. He played only 161 snaps after returning from back surgery; fellow rookie tackle Larry Borom, by comparison, played about four times as many last season.

During the offseason, Borom and rookie Braxton Jones, both fifth-rounders, impressed their bosses at the tackle spots. With the Bears’ line in flux — Dakota Dozier is out for the season — they could entertain moving any of the three to right guard during camp.

6. CB Jaylon Johnson

In 10 NFL seasons, former Bears safety Tashaun Gipson had seen enough good and bad to be impervious to hyperbole. But 11 months ago, he made a prediction about Johnson as he was entering his second season.

‘‘I believe in the next year or two he’ll be looked at as a top-five cornerback,’’ Gipson said.

Eberflus might put Johnson over the top. His defenses ranked among the top 10 in takeaways in each of his four seasons with the Colts. That’s all that’s missing from Johnson’s game: He has one career interception.

The Bears hope Johnson and rookie Kyler Gordon, a second-round pick from Washington, form a dangerous tandem for years to come. This might be the season when Johnson establishes himself as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks.

7. TE Cole Kmet

Bears fans don’t love Kmet because he’s from the Chicago area; they love him because THEY’RE from the Chicago area. There’s no question the St. Viator and Notre Dame alum is popular with hometown fans. The better question is, can he be a No. 1 tight end on a good team?

The Bears hoped last season would provide a definitive answer, but they saw mixed results.

Kmet didn’t catch a touchdown pass and finished with 6.6 receiving yards per target, which ranked 65th among tight ends. His 612 receiving yards ranked 12th, however, and his 93 targets put him ninth.

When the Bears studied the growth of second-year quarterbacks, they found the best ones had reliable safety valves. On a team with so few offensive weapons, the Bears need Kmet to be exactly that.

If he can be, the Bears will have one fewer problem to fix. Born only five days after Fields, the 23-year-old Kmet could grow alongside his quarterback for years to come.

8. S Eddie Jackson

Jackson called 2021 ‘‘probably one of my worst seasons.’’ That’s being charitable. Quarterbacks threw for a 143.6 passer rating when targeting him last season, the worst mark among regular defenders in the NFL. Only eight players allowed more touchdowns than his six, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Pro Football Focus ranked Jackson as the 65th-best safety in the NFL last season. There are only 64 starting safeties.

Jackson’s 2020 wasn’t much better. Since making back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2018 and 2019, he has intercepted zero passes. The Bears desperately need Jackson, whom they once projected to be a star, to regain some of his value. The team can cut him with $9.57 million in dead-cap charges next year. Had they done so this year, it would have cost them almost $15 million more.

Jackson will benefit from playing with third-round pick Jaquan Brisker this year. It will be the first time since Jackson’s rookie season in 2017 that the strong safety next to him won’t be in the final year of his contract.

9. RB David Montgomery

Eberflus likes the way Montgomery runs. The slogan-happy coach considers him an ‘‘M&M’’ guy, which means he has a motor and he’s mean. Chairman George McCaskey singled out Montgomery and Smith for giving ‘‘everything they had’’ during an ugly 2021. Running backs coach David Walker likes what he sees, too. He compared Montgomery to reigning NFL rushing champion Jonathan Taylor with a slower 40-yard dash time — quite the ridiculous caveat.

For all the lip service given to Montgomery, however, the question remains: Do the Bears want to pay him?

Montgomery’s rookie deal is up at the end of the season. Spotrac.com projects his next deal at almost $13 million per year over four seasons. Paying running backs to play for a bad team is like hiring a maitre d’ at McDonald’s — an unnecessary luxury — particularly if second-year man Khalil Herbert gives the Bears similar production.

10. C Lucas Patrick

When Poles evaluated the Bears’ 2021 performance, one thing jumped off the screen: The offensive line wasn’t nearly nasty enough.

Enter Patrick, who took a two-year, $8 million contract in March to exchange Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for Fields. The Bears hope Patrick rubs off on their offensive line, which on paper stacks up as one of the worst in the league.

‘‘He’s [an expletive] and he knows it, and that’s how he survives,’’ Poles said in March. ‘‘And that’s what we need up front.’’

The Bears will need more than that. Patrick was the only lineman of consequence the Bears added after a season in which Fields was sacked on 11.8% of his dropbacks, the most in the NFL.

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