The NFL is a weekly proving ground.
Apparently the Bears have more to prove than any team because they were ranked last in the NFL by Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated in his power rankings and now last in a power index by ESPN.com, although not last in their overall NFL rankings.
Perhaps more alarming than these rankings is the fact they are last but are playing only three games this year against teams ranked in the top 12 on that ESPN index.
A team really needs to be bad to be last with a schedule so easy. It's the eighth-easiest schedule according to last year's winning percentages and Sharp Football Analysis calls it the fourth-easiest schedule based on over/under win expectations
Teams being the sum total of individuals, there is plenty to prove by each player on any team and especially by a handful on this team based on their individual contract and playing situations. First-year coaching regimes have the pressure removed, and placed sqarely on players because they're the ones whose jobs are now on the line. Last year it was the Bears coaching staff that had to worry about jobs.
Here are the 10 Bears with the most to prove in 2022. Not surprisingly, most of the top ones are on offense where the Bears have ranked 21st or worst both in scoring and yardage in seven of the last eight years.
10. DE Trevis Gipson
Ironically, he came into the league as a player only with experience lining up at defensive end from a down stance and the Bears converted him to standup linebacker because he could rush the passer. Now he'll have to prove he can actually be an NFL defensive end from a down stance at 6-foot-4, 263 pounds. It seems even coach Matt Eberflus wonders about this.
"He was more of an edge guy," Eberflus said. "Can he play different spots for us in terms of outside a tight end, inside a tight end, five technique, can he kick inside on pass rush downs? Really just trying to figure out where he fits holistically in our defense."
9. CB Tavon Young
Considering the lack of effective play from Bears slot cornerbacks over the last two seasons, it seems a low bar for the former Ravens defender. The task is a bit more difficult because Young not only must prove he can be a slot cornerback in a zone-dominated cover-2 system for the first time, but also simply that he can stay healthy. The Ravens defenses he played in were somewhat similar to the Vic Fangio Bears style of defense so it might actually be easier for Young because the Matt Eberflus cover-2 defense involves less disguise. But Young didn't play in 2017, 2019 and only played two games in 2020 due to injuries, an ACL being the most severe of those. Since the 2018 season he has been on the field for only 588 defensive plays, the equivalent of less than one full season for a regular slot cornerback. There will be questions about whether he can play effectively, as well. He had a respectable 85.1 passer rating-against last season but in the only other season in which he played more than two games since his rookie year of 2016, he had a 111.8 passer rating against (2018).
8. WR Byron Pringle
There isn't any better way to attract scrutiny than by getting arrested before practices start. So Pringle has already put himself under the microscope. The fact he only signed a one-year contract adds to the pressure. Working in Pringle's favor is the fact the GM knew him already and went after him initially, and also that the receiver corps is very suspect beyond Darnell Mooney.
7. WR Darnell Mooney
After 142 catches in two seasons, the most by any Bears draft pick over his first two years, you'd think Mooney has it made. Instead, he faces doubt and skepticism league wide about his abilities. They Bears have entrusted him with the actual assignment of being the No. 1 receiver. He's actually performed this duty for a full year already and had more catches over the last two years than Allen Robinson did. It's just that he's not ideal size to be a primary receiver in this offensive system and was a fifth-round draft pick. Everyone watching the NFL wondered aloud what Robinson could ever do if he had a good quarterback throwing to him. Doesn't the same apply to Mooney? After all, he made 142 catches with Mitchell Trubisky, Tyler Bray, Nick Foles, Andy Dalton and sub-par rookie Justin Fields throwing him the ball the last two seasons. Mooney also needs to prove he's a touchdown threat. A No. 1 receiver makes more than eight touchdown catches in two seasons.
6. G Sam Mustipher
He's running with the first team at right guard after they imported a center, Lucas Patrick, to take his starting spot and another center, Doug Kramer, to take the role of backup. It's either become a guard or look for work elsewhere for Mustipher, who was undrafted. Considerig they drafted two possible guards and that he has never played this position, you might say Mustipher really seems to be up against it. Mustipher won't have much time to prove himself, just training camp and preseason.
5. T Teven Jenkins
Jenkins is essentially getting his rookie year all over again. He did get on the field for 161 snaps over six games last year at left tackle but only after he missed all of training camp and the first 12 weeks of the year because he had to have back surgery. He entered a game against Green Bay cold, no full-contact preparation for his entire NFL career. Now they've moved his position without having a real basis to see what he could do at left tackle. Given an actual offseason, training camp and preseason, and actual practices with contact, it's possible he could be a surprise. Apparently it will need to be at right tackle now, but whatever happens he's going to need to prove he can do it because without all of the offseason and preseason work last year he was a lousy left tackle in the eyes of Pro Football Focus, with a 47.5 grade.
4. TE Cole Kmet
It's true Kmet upped his targets from 46 to 89 and receptions from 28 to 60, both big positive leaps forward. It's not enough. A tight end is supposed to be a real threat in the red zone. In his second year, Kmet did not catch a single touchdown pass. In fact, three tight ends no longer with the team caught more TD passes than Kmet: Jimmy Graham 3, Jesper Horsted 2 and Jesse James 1. PFF just labeled Kmet one of the NFC's potential third-year breakout players for 2022. It should be a major compliment and vote of confidence, but Kmet doesn't even get much of a break here as PFF says he'll get more opportunities to prove himself than many other players because the Bears offense is void of other weapons beyond Mooney.
3. RB David Montgomery
It's very possible Montgomery might be proving his abilities to a new coach and GM this year just to get a contract extension. There have been no indications of a pending extension or talks. Adding to his pressure is the switch to a wide zone blocking scheme, which may not be ideal for his style of running. Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace brought him to Chicago in need of a back who could run inside zone out of RPO plays because he had both the ability to make a tackler miss at the line of scrimmage and run through tackles. The ability to run off one cut after making a quick decision on a developing hole in the wide zone blocking scheme is an all-together different skill set. Montgomery will need to show he has it. Compounding the situation for him is backup Khalil Herbert looks ideal for that sort of play, and the team added two other running backs with more speed in Trestan Ebner and Darrynton Evans. Considering all of that, maybe a new contract is the least of his worries.
2. S Eddie Jackson
Jackson not only has failed to play up to a $58.4 million deal and has no interceptions since signing it, but he's moving to a new defensive scheme and the Bears just drafted two safeties in Jaquan Brisker and Elijah Hicks. Every bit of confidence is being expressed in Jackson by the coaching staff. They need to have this because the level of play in the deep secondary without a proven starting veteran like Jackson would be dangerously low. But if Brisker delivers like most draft analysts expect, and the Bears come up with another viable safety, Jackson going elsewhere in 2023 would not be out of the question. They need to see something more from him this year than the eight touchdown passes allowed and passer ratings against of 110.1 and 143.6 he's credited with by Sportrader over the last two years.
1. QB Justin Fields
Essentially Fields proved nothing as a rookie except he can run, has an accurate arm for deep passes, can make occasional big plays and has potential. They could have expected that much coming out of Ohio State. It's on Fields to prove. Poles has a draft pick in Round 1 next year for the first time and he's going to need to see a real leap in consistency to convince him there is no need to use it on a quarterback. Fields must show ...
- He can get the ball out faster than last year.
- That he can read defenses.
- He can protect the football better after fumbling 12 times, fourth most in the NFL.
- He can stay healthy after missing games with ribs and ankle injuries and also COVID-19. Remember, Fields' toughness was touted as a big selling point by the former coaching staff but he was able to start only 10 out of 15 games once he began starting games.
- He can be consistently efficient with his passing. A passer efficiency rating of 73.2 wasn't even up to Trubisky's rookie level.
- He can be a winner in the NFL. Even bad backup quarterbacks can win two out of 10 starts in the NFL.