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Bears Problems Exist Beyond Receiver

Analysis: A 30,000-foot view of the team Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus assembled shows a real need to improve in five specific ways or positions.

Putting the Bears lineup down on paper and actually seeing the real thing on the field produces greatly different results.

When the Bears were on the practice field in minicamp and then again in rookie minicamp, it became obvious where their greatest problems lie.

The analysts disagree. The way they all climb onto one narrative is predictable because there is safety in numbers. 

They could all look wrong if they cling to this one assessment most often tossed around: The biggest Bears problem is how they failed to draft a receiver in the secod round for Justin Fields. The third-round pick on a receiver wasn't enough for them.

The Bears can have real problems accomplishing specific tasks on a football field with the bunch they now have, and it's uncertain they can sufficiently correct this by the end of training camp in order to be competitive. 

Receivers have little to do with this, but much can change quickly and has already.

Their biggest problem heading into the offseason was actually defending the pass. They were the worst team in the league at passer rating against (103.3). 

Quarterbacks were efficient and picked them apart at will last year while  cornerbacks never made plays for interceptions. They had one interception from cornerbacks each of the last two years.

So adding both Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker should remove this terrible weakness, or at least push it down the chart a bit.

Here are their worst problems now, ranked in order.

5. RECEIVER

Yes, it's on the list but well down the line compared to other problems.

They have a main weapon in Darnell Mooney,  who had more catches last year than CeeDee Lamb, Christian Kirk, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, Mike Williams, Mike Evans, Tee Higgins and D.K. Metcalf. The 81 catches he made tied for 18th in receptions among wide receivers, and the 1,055 yards were 17th best among wide receivers. These figures definitely make him a No. 1 target.

So the player the Bears need to come up with is a No. 2 receiver. They might already have a No. 2 in Pringle, who displays playmaking ability provided he's free of legal issues. Velus Jones might rate up there, as well, but a rookie can't be assumed. Then there are Equanimeous St. Brown and former Seattle receiver David Moore.

They obviously would have had this receiver issue addressed with a superstar rookie receiver in the mold of Justin Jefferson if only they had a first-round pick, but they didn't. And trading up was too much to ask after they just got rid of a GM who gave away draft picks like they were coupons. 

They could  have drafted either George Pickens or Skyy Moore to try to solve their problems, but with Pickens there could have been an off-field issue. They already have this with Pringle. 

Moore is from Western Michigan, and like with wide receiver Christian Watson what he has done in college must be judged differently due to lesser competition. Think not? Like Moore, D'Wayne Eskridge was a second-round draft pick as a receiver from Western Michigan last year. The 10 receptions Eskridge made as a rookie ranked behind 289 other NFL players.

All of this said, success by a 25-year-old receiver with no NFL experience like Velus Jones can't be assumed. 

They still need a talented player, but using a pick this year to take someone like Moore or Pickens when they had the chance for Jaquan Brisker made no sense,  Brisker was given the highest pass coverage grade among all safeties by PFF, easily putting him above all available receivers on most actual boards at pick No. 48. 

Simply put, Brisker very well could have been the best pick they made in the draft.

Any GM being true to their scouting process would have taken him there, let alone the fact the Bears had no one on their roster capable of even manning that other starting safety spot.

4. NICKEL BACK

Last year passers just looked to attack on their right or to whoever the slot cornerback was, and then burned the Bears defense at will.

The Bears gave up more yards per pass to quarterbacks at the right side of the offense/left side of the defense, both deep and short, than any team in the NFL. This was according to NFLGSIS location stats. When opposing QBs didn't attack there, they simply looked for whatever receiver they had matched up against the slot cornerback. Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford made mincemeat of Bears slot cornerbacks.

Tavon Young might be a solution. He might not. He's had many health issues in Baltimore and before last year his passer rating against was horrible. In 2020, it was 109.7 and in 2018 it was 111.8. He didn't play due to injury in 2019. Those passer ratings against were worse than the Bears had with Buster Skrine at slot cornerback and last year with Duke Shelley playing it.

This is a vital position in any defense and the Bears say they intend to play both Jaylon Johnson and Kyler Gordon outside, so they might not have a single player on the roster who can be an adequate slot cornerback.

Matt Eberflus has labeled slot cornerback one of the three most important positions in his defensive scheme, right alongside weakside linebacker and three technique. They need someone competent doing this.

3. INTERIOR LINE RUN DEFENSE

Roquan Smith should get a huge contract extension. He's going to deserve every cent they can pay him if the Bears attempt to stop the run with the group now in front of him on the defensive line.

The cover-2 scheme in back, with a single-gap, attacking, four-man front has a real knack for creating big plays against the run in backfields, if implemented effectively. 

It also can get gashed easily if the defensive linemen are out of their gaps.

With linebackers no longer waiting behind huge defensive linemen who occupy blockers, the big runs by opponents can get even bigger. Linebackers now also fit gaps to attack. If the linemen aren't doing the job, the pressure will really be on the linebackers and the results could be huge gains on the ground.

The Bears were lousy stopping the run last year. They ranked 23rd and everyone knew how poor they were at it so those teams tried running on them. They faced the fewest pass attempts in the league last year even though they had the most inefficient pass coverage. Opponents ran at them to set up good down-and-distance situations.

Why risk a Robert Quinn sack on first down or second down to derail a series when you can run and push the ball up 8 or 9 yards and set up an easy third-down conversion?

Now they have defensive linemen less qualified to run this 4-3 defennse than the players on last year's defensive front in a different scheme. 

Angelo Blackson has never played in a 4-3 attacking front. He has always been a two-gapper. Khyiris Tonga is built like a classic two-gapper and not an attacker. Justin Jones is the only proven all-purpose three technique they have, and the only thing he has proven is he is entirely average with 4 1/2 career sacks in four seasons. And the other three tech is Mario Edwards Jr., who can rush the passer from this position but is too undersized to be a force against the run. He also has a real knack for drawing penalties.

Add one other problem caused by the conversion: Their linebackers are mostly tiny guys now, except Smith. They went for the speed guys to use in the cover-2 and teams with big lines and big backs are going to come out trying to mash their smaller defensive front.

Free agent Larry Ogunjobi was their one big chance to remove pressure on their front, and getting him now seems extremely unlikely.

2. TACKLES PASS BLOCKING

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Everyone wet their pants over the lack of a wide receiver for the Bears on Day 2 of the draft.  

"No one in the front office is helping Fields," the whiners said, 

Right complaint, wrong position. 

Until Round 5, there was no help for Fields in the most critical area but receivers had nothing to do with this situation. The real problem with helping Fields remained their offensive line and specifically tackle. 

They have plenty of people who can actually catch a pass or run a route. They might not be the people fantasy football nerds recognize but they'll be available to provide sufficient production until the team has cap space next year and a first-round pick to really address that issue. 

Remember this: The Bears have their top three receivers from last year coming back—Mooney, David Montgomery and Cole Kmet. And they added more help in Pringle and Velus Jones.

What they don't have is someone who has proven they can keep edge rushers off of Fields.

Teven Jenkins has two NFL starts. Larry Borom is being put out to left tackle, when he was actually a right tackle coming into the NFL and almost all of his first season.

The Bears really lack a starting quality right guard starter at the moment, but between all of the young candidates available and veteran Dakota Dozier they might be able to scrounge one up who can get this job done to an acceptable level. 

Guards have natural help blocking on the inside from the center or even a back. The pass rusher has to run through them because there is nowhere else to go. So they know where the challenge is coming from, unless there is a stunt involved in the rush. It's far more difficult on the edge when the rusher can go around the end or inside or simpy use a bull rush.

Pro Football Focus has released its top 35 tackles for 2022. Of course the Bears have no one on the list. They could list the next 35 and the Bears might not have anyone on there, either.

Blind side and the other side are where the real dangers are. Fields will need to have his head on a swivel and his scrambling ability honed to a sharp point to survive this NFL season while these two inexperienced tackles or possibly even fifth-round rookie Braxton Jones, adapt to different positions in a better league against elite edge rushers.

Fields' biggest strength is downfield accuracy. Without pass blocking on the edge, he's not going to get to throw those downfield passes and the offense will be forced to rely on slants, wide receiver screens and maybe even hitches to move the ball. 

In short, it will look like last year's offense and Fields' all-important yards per attempt will be miniscule until they can get the edges blocked.

Last week PFF classified Seahawks free agent tackle Duane Brown signing with the Bears as one of 10 post-draft free agent signings that make the most sense. It's hard to argue against this, unless you want to throw free agent Eric Fisher in there instead.

1. JUSTIN FIELDS

The biggest problem the Bears have on the field is their quarterback. 

It's not that Justin Fields lacks talent. We all saw the flashes last year.

Fields lacks experience because he started 10 games and was treated like a backup until a few games after he began starting. Fields lacks exposure to a viable offense because Matt Nagy's attack didn't fool anyone after their 2018 rout of Tampa Bay. In fact, it might take this coaching staff extra time to undo what was done wrong by the last coaching staff to Fields.

These issues led to inconsistency. The consistency he needs won't happen until he settles in as a veteran to a comfort zone of accomplishment—winning two out of 10 starts definitely wasn't an accomplishment.

Fields essentially had a wasted rookie year, just like Mitchell Trubisky. Now he'll need to do things he should have been doing all along.

He's going to need the ball to come out of his hand faster. He's going to need to throw more accurately over the middle in tighter windows.

His passes are going to need to have better touch on them, and from Mooney's minicamp accounts this has been happening.

It all needs to continue. 

Fields is playing the most important position on the team. So, until he possesses consistency derived from successful experience in a legitimate offense, his play ranks as their biggest problem.

Unlike with many of these other problems, Fields himself also can be the answer to the problem. 

First, he needs to become that answer.

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