Upgrades that could spur a Bears revival in 2023

After a 3-14 season, the Bears have big holes to fill throughout their roster. From quarterback Justin Fields and wide receiver DJ Moore, here are 10 positions with the most potential to give them upgrades they sorely need.

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Justin Fields (1) led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards last season (1,143) but was last among starters in passing yards (2,242 — 149.5 per game).

Justin Fields (1) led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards last season (1,143) but was last among starters in passing yards (2,242 — 149.5 per game).

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From the start of the Bears’ 2022 rebuilding season to the dreadful 3-14 finish, offensive tackle Braxton Jones was a sign of long-term hope.

A fifth-round draft pick from Southern Utah, Jones was immediate evidence that first-year general manager Ryan Poles and his scouting staff could find a starting-quality player at a critical position in the middle rounds of the draft.

The Bears promoted Jones to the first-team offense at left tackle during the third week of OTA practices — a sign that Matt Eberflus’ coaching staff identified Jones’ preparedness early and wouldn’t hesitate to give a rookie a chance, rather than making him beat out a veteran.

And Jones not only kept the job, but generally held up well — he was named to all-rookie teams by the Pro Football Writers of America and Pro Football Focus. And Jones not only started all 17 games, but played all 1,034 offensive snaps — an impressive accomplishment on an offensive line that had just two players (Jones and center Sam Mustipher) play more than 64% of the offensive snaps last season because of injuries and substitutions.

Overall, Jones’ rookie season was a significant win for Poles, Eberflus, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and offensive line coach Chris Morgan. But in the big picture of where the Bears hope to go, it was just a start. The Bears need Jones to be more than just good for a fifth-round draft pick or good for a rookie. They need him to be good, period. And that means a big step forward is in order for 2023.

The Bears have had mid- to late-round overachieving linemen before in recent years — Charles Leno (seventh round in 2014), Jordan Mills (fifth round in 2013), J’Marcus Webb (seventh round in 2010) and Lance Louis (seventh round in 2009) all became starters. But only Leno had staying power. And although Leno made the Pro Bowl in 2018, the Bears still needed better.

The Bears are in the same situation this year — needing to improve at left tackle — but it’s Jones 2.0 who will have to provide the upgrade and take another significant step toward being a mainstay at what is still considered the most important position on the offensive line.

From the beginning of last season, Jones knew he had to increase his core strength to counter problematic bull rushes, and that is just one facet to his game that needs to be better in 2023.

“He had a very detailed plan when he left [after last season],” Morgan said. “Braxton is a mature kid — I call him a kid [but] he’s not a kid anymore. His maturity really showed. What he said he was going to do, he did. Over the [offseason] break, he worked hard. We all saw the difference when he came back into the building, whether it was strength or bend.”

Jones at left tackle is one of several positions that will have to produce upgrades for the Bears to take a significant step in their rebuild under Poles and Eberflus. Some are newcomers — wide receiver DJ Moore, right tackle Darnell Wright, defensive end DeMarcus Walker among them. But self-upgrades from returning players are just as big — from Justin Fields to Jones to Chase Claypool to Kyler Gordon.

Here’s a look at 10 positions that very likely will have to be measurable upgrades for the Bears’ rebuild to hit another gear in 2023:

1. Justin Fields, quarterback

The Bears have upgraded his support with Moore, Wright, guard Nate Davis and tight end Robert Tonyan. But Fields himself will have to take a big step in being an NFL quarterback — going through his progressions, getting rid of the ball quicker, accuracy and making correct split-second run/pass decisions among them.

2. DJ Moore, wide receiver

The three-time 1,000-yard receiver technically replaces Mooney as the Bears’ No. 1 receiver, but with Mooney and Claypool also getting plenty of offensive snaps, the addition of Moore essentially replaces Equanimeous St. Brown, Dante Pettis and Byron Pringle in the wide receiver rotation. The difference already has been felt.

3. Gervon Dexter/Zacch Pickens/Andrew Billings, defensive tackles

Billings, a starter with the Raiders last season, looks like a better run-stopper than the Bears had last year with Justin Jones, Armon Watts and Angelo Blackson inside. But it’s the development of rookies Dexter and Pickens that likely will tell the upgrade tale in 2023.

4. Darnell Wright, right tackle

The rookie from Tennessee figures to have some growing pains. But as the No. 10 overall pick in the draft — by a personnel staff headed by former offensive linemen in Poles and assistant general manager Ian Cunningham — Wright could not only be an upgrade over Riley Reiff/Larry Borom, but play at a high level in his first season.

5. Braxton Jones, left tackle

The Bears had an option of bringing in a left tackle, but after drafting Wright they made a point of keeping Jones on the left side for continuity — a notable vote of confidence in the 24-year-old second-year player.

6. Kyler Gordon, cornerback

The narratives sound promising for Gordon to make a big improvement: He’s more comfortable in his second season; As a second-round pick (No. 39 overall), he’s got the talent to build on rookie-year experiences; he’ll have a better pass rush to work with; and he’s more of a dedicated slot corner after playing inside and outside last season.

7. Chase Claypool, wide receiver

The Bears paid a high price (a second-round pick that ended up being No. 32 overall) to acquire Claypool from the Steelers in the middle of last season in part so he could hit the ground running in 2023. He just needs to be a better version of himself after an uninspiring seven-game introduction in 2022.

8. DeMarcus Walker, defensive end

The bar is extremely low after Al-Quadin Muhammad had one sack in 16 games last season, but as the Bears’ top pass-rushing acquisition in the offseason so far (a three-year, $21 million contract), Walker — or an edge rusher to be named later — has to do more than just clear that bar.

9. Tyrique Stevenson, cornerback

As the Bears did with Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker last season, the Bears all but gave Stevenson a starting job that is his to lose — leap-frogging veteran Kindle Vildor. Like Gordon and Brisker, Stevenson’s upside as a second-round draft pick should make it worth the inevitable rookie trials.

10. Nate Davis, right guard

A four-year starter with the Titans, Davis wasn’t a blockbuster signing (three years, $30 million), but he could provide multiple upgrades that help take the line to a new level: Davis over Teven Jenkins at right guard; Jenkins over Cody Whitehair at left guard; and Whitehair over Mustipher at center.

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