Will Bears’ arrow point up or down after 2022? Our annual test of fans’ optimism

With the Bears in rebuild mode under new general manager Ryan Poles, it seems like they can only go up from here. But it’s the Bears — you just never know.

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Bears quarterback Justin Fields had a 73.2 passer rating in 12 games (10 starts) as a rookie in 2021.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields had a 73.2 passer rating in 12 games (10 starts) as a rookie in 2021.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Bears are getting trashed in preseason power rankings, analyses and prognostications —and all Bears fans can do is nod their collective head. After all, it’s by design.

First-year general manager Ryan Poles started a rebuild with a roster teardown. He traded pass rusher Khalil Mack. He made no attempt to keep some of the Bears’ most productive free agents — wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Akiem Hicks and guard James Daniels. His biggest free agent signings were intentionally modest — defensive tackle Justin Jones ($7 million guaranteed), center Lucas Patrick ($4 million guaranteed) and wide receiver Byron Pringle ($3.9 million guaranteed).

The purge left the Bears with a roster lacking in established NFL talent. The Bears have only four players who have been to the Pro Bowl or named to an All-Pro team — and defensive end Robert Quinn, who earned his third Pro Bowl berth last season with a team-record 18.5 sacks, could be gone before Week 1.

The Bears under new coach Matt Eberflus still harbor hope that new schemes under offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and defensive coordinator Alan Williams will make the Bears’ roster better than people think. And that might happen, with several players legitimately having room for growth — quarterback Justin Fields, wide receiver Darnell Mooney, tight end Cole Kmet, offensive tackles Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and two second-round rookies who figure to start — cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker.

But on paper in July, the Bears aren’t very impressive. And the preseason analyses predictably have been unkind:

  • The Bears are ranked in the bottom five of most power rankings (though 26th by the Sun-Times). walterfootball.com has them 32nd and last in the NFL.

  • The Bears’ offensive line is ranked 32nd and last in the NFL by former NFL offensive linemen Ross Tucker. “The Bears have the potential to not only have the worst offensive line in the NFL this year, but maybe even the worst offensive line we’ve seen in the NFL in quite some time if their young tackles don’t come through,” Tucker wrote.

  • The Bears’ wide receiver corps is ranked 32nd and last in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. “Leaning heavily on Pringle, Tajae Sharpe, Velus Jones, Jr. and Equanimeous St. Brown isn’t where you want to be as an offense,” PFF’s Ben Linsey wrote.

  • Justin Fields was tied for 24th among likely starting quarterbacks by sbnation.com — behind even Mitch Trubisky of the Steelers (22nd) —with only the Jets’ Zach Wilson, the Giants’ Daniel Jones, the Texans’ Davis Mills and the Seahawks’ Drew Lock ranked lower.

  • Smith is the only Bears’ player in the top-100 Madden23 ratings — his 89 rating is 86th.

  • The Bears are anywhere from 80-1 to 150-1 to win the Super Bowl. Their win total is 6.5.

With that in mind, here is our annual test of Bears fans optimism/pessimism for the upcoming season. Rate these categories, with 10 points for an optimistic vote, minus-10 for a pessimistic vote and zero for a neutral vote.

Scoring

90-100: Lay off the Kool-Aid.

70-80: Must be new in town.

30-60: Realist.

20 to minus-20: Seeing is believing.

Minus-50 to minus-70: Waiting for Ditka’s return.

Minus-80 to minus-100: Packers fan.

JUSTIN FIELDS

Optimist: No longer hindered by an offense that confines him, Fields blossoms in Getsy’s offense — which protects him, gets receivers open and plays to his strengths by getting him out of the pocket. The quarterback —not the head coach —finally is the star of the offense.

Pessimist: Instead of a bad scheme, Fields is hindered by a sub-par supporting cast — with a poorly constructed offensive line and a replacement-level receiving corps giving him no chance to grow. The Bears end the season looking for a franchise quarterback, when they never gave this one a chance to show what he can do.

MATT EBERFLUS

Optimist: Ryan Poles’ odd decision to hire a defensive coach with a franchise quarterback turns out to be a masterstroke. Eberflus is an expert manager who delegates responsibility and gets his players to play well and not just hard and fast. And — this is the best part —he’s as good on Sunday as he is the rest of the week.

Pessimist: Eberflus is the Brand-X coach he sounds like, whose cliche plan to have his players play fast and aggressive is undercut by an NFL reality — you need talent to win. Meanwhile, Brian Daboll — the hot quarterback guru the Bears’ passed over — turns Daniel Jones into an NFL quarterback and the Giants make the playoffs.

LUKE GETSY’S OFFENSE

Optimist: Aaron Rodgers taught him well. Getsy gives the Bears’ offense what it’s been lacking — a design that creates conflict of assignment, keeps the defense guessing and gets receivers open. With the wind at his back, Getsy’s offense turns Justin Fields into a dual-threat star on the cusp of the elite tier of NFL quarterbacks.

Pessimist: As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to coordinate a passing game when you have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time running it. With sub-par talent, Getsy struggles as so many other Bears coordinators have before him. And Fields’ stagnation leaves the Bears in a quarterback quandary heading into 2023. Ugh.

ALAN WILLIAMS’ DEFENSE

Optimist: With a keen, almost uncanny, ability to put the right players in a position to succeed — and a monster year from Roquan Smith —Williams’ repeats the success Eberflus had in his first year with the Colts (from 30th to 10th in scoring), giving the Bears’ defense a takeaway bite it hasn’t had since 2018.

Pessimist: With too many new faces and not enough playmakers, the Bears continue their defensive slide since the 2018 season. Without support of a strong front-seven, rookies Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker have a tough introduction to the NFL, despite showing flashes of playmaking ability.

THE OFFENSIVE LINE

Optimist: With Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom making big second-year leaps, the Bears have a workable unit where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Four Ryan Pace holdovers contribute, but the key is Lucas Patrick, who emerges as a unifying leader and Pro Bowl caliber player.

Pessimist: What did they expect? Teven Jenkins can’t stay healthy. Larry Borom stagnates. Braxton Jones plays like a fifth-round rookie. With mostly unproven talent and injury issues, the Bears never find the right combination and the offensive line is a “work in progress” the entire season.

THE ROOKIES

Optimist: Playing in a defense that doesn’t complicate matters, cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker are takeaway playmakers from the start. Wide receiver Velus Jones plays more like a 25-year-old than a rookie. And defensive end Dominique Robinson develops into a fifth-round find. An undrafted player emerges.

Pessimist: Surrounded by players also learning a new defense, Gordon and Brisker get exposed as rookies —making more mistakes than big plays. The raw Jones doesn’t dispel the notion he was over-drafted. And reality sets in — eight of the 11 drafted players were taken in the fifth round or later.

ROQUAN SMITH

Optimist: The Bears quickly sign their best player to the long-term contract he deserves after a brief holdout —and Smith responds by playing the Darius Leonard role in Eberflus’ defense even better than Darius Leonard. Roquan blossoms into an elite-level star, as the Eberflus/Williams defense unleashes him as a blitzing, sideline-to-sideline Urlacher-level playmaker.

Pessimist: Smith holds out of training camp in a contract dispute that alters the feel-good vibe of the new regime, lasts much longer than it should have and creates unnecessary acrimony. Smith still plays at a high level despite the late start, but without the supporting cast of playmakers he’s had with the Bears, he has to do too much and doesn’t play to the level of the new deal.

COLE KMET

Optimist: The third-year tight end becomes the second-biggest beneficiary of the Getsy offense (after Fields) and finds it much easier to catch the ball when he’s wide open. He excels as a blocking/receiving weapon and produces close to peak Kyle Rudolph numbers, with 60+ receptions for 700+ yards and seven touchdowns.

Pessimist: After so much anticipation, the reality sets in that Kmet’s ceiling is lower than initial expectations. His production isn’t much better in Getsy’s offense than Nagy’s. He’s good, but he just can’t get open at will like Travis Kelce and the NFL’s elite tight ends.

DARNELL MOONEY

Optimist: As expected, the biggest star of the Nagy offense takes a giant leap in a better one — 90+ receptions for 1,400+ yards and 10 touchdowns. He turns short passes into big plays and becomes the guy who’s wide open downfield late in the play when Fields breaks containment.

Pessimist: The Bears’ only real wide-out threat, Mooney is well-defended as the player defenses know they have to stop. With his understanding of the nuances of the position he’s still productive — but he’s Darnell Mooney, not Davante Adams, and doesn’t make the anticipated giant leap under Getsy.

THE SEASON

Optimist: Never underestimate the mediocrity of the NFL. The Bears play six games against teams in the bottom five of most preseason power rankings and with Eberflus’ solid, steady, no-frills approach, stay within striking distance of .500 and surprisingly challenge for a playoff berth — developing Fields and set up for a big improvement in 2023, with massive cap space and better draft capital.

Pessimist: The Bears end up in no-man’s land — winning too many games for a top-five draft pick, but not enough to contend for the playoffs. Fields struggles in Getsy’s offense, and the Bears are again looking for a franchise quarterback in 2023.

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