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Secondary Rebuilt, Weapons Lacking: Assessing the 2022 NFL Draft in the Context of 2023

| May 1st, 2022

The texts buzzed my nightstand unprompted, piercing through the endless, awkward chuckling of Robert Mays and Nate Tice, as I tried to force myself to sleep on Friday evening. (I decided to take a brief, week-long booze sabbatical and it makes slumber a tricky enterprise.) The scout who I have relied upon this week to fill me in on all things draft was giving his assessment of Ryan Poles’ work over rounds two and three.



This is not someone who has any reason to inflate the work of the GM of the Chicago Bears. He has zero stake in the game. This was a professional talent evaluator evaluating the talent selected; examining the players acquired in a draft he has routinely described to me as “the weakest in the last 15 years.”

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The Complaints.

Listen, the complaints are understandable. A logical case could have been made for the Bears to spend every single pick Friday night on the offensive side of the ball. One could argue that taking shots on the potential of George Pickens or Alec Pierce or Skyy Moore is more exciting (undoubtedly) and more in-tune with the modern game. But if that’s the case, why were the Baltimore Ravens universally celebrated for their work in the first round, securing a box safety and center while trading away their best outside receiver?

Pickens will be asked to do very little in Pittsburgh (and will do little with those quarterbacks). Pierce and Moore will be no more than third options on their rosters in Indianapolis and Kansas City. The Bears would have been asking all three to start on day one and seriously contribute as rookies. Does anyone actually believe these three players are capable of that? If they were, would several receiver-needy clubs have gleefully passed on them at the backend of the first round?

But most complaints coming from fans are actually based on a fallacy. Bears fans seem to believe the organization needs to pile talent around Justin Fields to accurately assess his ability as a quarterback and make determinations on his future. That is definitively not the case. Ryan Poles and Justin Fields have been side-by-side through this process, even to the point of watching tape together on receiver prospects in the draft.



The team will not hold Fields accountable for the lack of playmaking ability around him. Poles got this job because he looked George McCaskey in the eyes and told him the roster was dreck. No one has a more sober view of the depth chart and the communication between the new leadership and the young quarterback has been impeccable.

Also, this belief that a quarterback requires a stacked roster around him in year two to improve is utter nonsense. Josh Allen’s second-year receivers were John Brown and Cole Beasley. Deshaun Watson’s second receiver in his second year totaled 32 catches. Russell Wilson’s top pass catcher in his sophomore season had 64 catches. Fields is going into this season with a new coaching staff building an offense specifically for him, a talented run game and a 1,000-yard receiver he loves. If he can’t improve in that context, fair questions should be asked.

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The Approach.

If Poles’ board had potential starters at wideout and along the offensive line at the top of the second round, those would have been his selections. But it didn’t. And with secondary being the second-worst position group on the roster, why wouldn’t he hesitate to fortify that unit? As Poles himself stated, “There were two good starting-level defensive players, and I would have made a huge mistake for this organization to say, ‘Let’s leave them there’.”

The Bears believe the best way to “develop” Fields is to take pressure off of him, not artificially inflate the wide receiver room with day two maybes. Selecting Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker (the latter described to me by the aforementioned scout as a “top 35 talent” in this draft) is about establishing a structure for the difficult season to come. The Bears want to run the ball effectively and play solid defense. If they do those two things, they will not have to ask their quarterback – now in his third offensive system in three years – to drop back and fling it 40 times a week.

If the Bears didn’t address their secondary, especially after trading Khalil Mack, the team was looking at fielding an unprofessional group at the backend of their defense. If they did that, they would be chasing every game. Is there a worse possible scenario for a young QB?

The selection of Velus Jones Jr. in the third round also plays to this approach. “Deebo light” might seem like a grandiose designation, with Samuel coming off a brilliant 2021 campaign, but it’s easy to forget that the Niners receiver was more of a prolific gadget player in his first two seasons. Jones’ speed will give the Bears a dynamic they have sorely lacked in the Pace years, a player capable of taking a quick slant or bubble screen to the house at any moment. And it’s also difficult understand how Bears fans – OF ALL FANS – don’t understand the potential viability of drafting college football’s most electric return man.

Jones is a chess piece for an organization whose offensive game strategy hasn’t ascended beyond Connect Four in the modern era.


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Can Cole Kmet Be More Than a “Useful” Player?

| April 22nd, 2022

Chicago Bears TE Cole Kmet saw his production jump across the board in his 2021 sophomore campaign, as his targets, receptions, and receiving yards all more than doubled from his rookie year. This left him ranking among the top 20 NFL TEs in the main three receiving categories, as you can see in the table below.

Of course, those are all volume stats, and high volume does not necessarily mean that you are a top player. Chicago’s receiving options were extremely limited in 2021, and the former coaching staff had a vested interest in getting Kmet the ball to justify their second-round investment in him, so of course he saw a lot of balls thrown his way. But how effective was he with those targets?

In order to dig into that question, I’m going to take a closer look at Kmet’s underlying metrics to see how well he performed. This will be very similar to what I recently did with Darnell Mooney, the only other returning pass catcher on the Bears.


Man vs. Zone

Let’s start by looking at how Kmet did against man and zone coverages compared to his peers. I split the overall TE group based on how many targets players earned, and the sample broke down like this:

  • 50+ targets: 25 TEs fell in this group. With 32 NFL teams, this is more or less the starting TEs.
  • 20-49 targets: 33 TEs fell in this range, meaning these are generally the second TEs on a team.
  • Less than 20 targets: 64 players fit in here, so these are the depth TE on a team.

The table below shows how TEs in those groupings performed in a variety of metrics against both man (orange) and zone (blue) coverage. All stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF).

A few thoughts:

  • Like we did with Darnell Mooney, it’s important to take the offense into consideration when evaluating Kmet’s stats against his peers. The Bears as a team ranked in the bottom five in the majority of passing categories, so it’s not really a surprise to see some of his efficiency stats looking low. For example, the Bears were about 4% lower than the NFL average in completion % (catch % here) and 0.4 yards below the NFL average in yards/attempt (yards/target here).
  • Given that context, Kmet served as a capable weapon against zone coverage. His catch percentage and yards/target mark are fairly solid, if unspectacular, though it’s worth noting his poor YAC (yards after catch) performance. Time will tell if that’s a scheme issue from last year (Andy Dalton and Justin Fields ranked 21st and 31st, respectively, in YAC/completion of the 33 QBs with 200+ passing attempts in 2021) or a Kmet issue, but it’s worth noting Mooney did not have the same YAC issues. Kmet’s average catch against zone is also a bit shorter down the field than most starting TEs, which is notable considering how Justin Fields had one of the deepest average passes in the NFL last year.
  • Kmet’s man metrics, on the other hand, are unquestionably poor. His catch rate was just fine, but his average catch against man was very short, indicating he was only able to produce against man coverage on dump-offs underneath. This is in line with the TE2 and depth TE group, not the starters. Kmet’s YAC here was also laughably bad, indicating he was unable to consistently break tackles and turn those dump-offs into more meaningful gains.

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With Floor Established, Where is the Ceiling: A Closer Look at Darnell Mooney

| April 21st, 2022

After a promising rookie campaign, Chicago Bears WR Darnell Mooney had a breakthrough sophomore season in 2021. He posted the first 1000-yard season of his career and, as you can see in the table below, was among the top 20 WRs in the NFL in the three main receiving categories.

Of course, these are all volume stats, and high volume does not necessarily mean you are a top player. Mooney was the only not-terrible WR in Chicago last year, so he naturally saw a lot of balls thrown his way. As the only returning WR in 2022, I think it’s worth digging a bit into the advanced statistics to see how well Mooney did with those passes.


Man vs. Zone

Let’s start by looking at how Mooney did against man and zone coverages compared to his peers. I split the overall WR group based on how many targets players earned, and the samples broke down like this:

  • 100+ targets: 33 WRs fell in this group, and with 32 NFL teams, this was basically the WR1s.
  • 50-99 targets: 56 WRs are in this group, making it the WR 2 + 3 for each team. These are generally starters, but not the top targets.
  • 30-49 targets: 28 WRs are in this group, making it roughly a teams’ WR4. These are the top backups.
  • Less than 30 targets: 117 WRs (about 3.6/team) fell in this group, and these can be viewed as depth pieces.

The table below shows how WRs in those groupings performed in a variety of metrics against both man (orange) and zone (blue) coverage. All stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF).

A few thoughts:

  • It’s important to take the offense into consideration when evaluating Mooney’s stats against his peers. The Bears as a team ranked in the bottom 5 in the majority of passing categories, so it’s not really a surprise to see some of his efficiency stats looking low. For example, the Bears were about 4% lower than the NFL average in completion % (catch % here) and 0.4 yards below the NFL average in yards/attempt (yards/target here).
  • Even given that context, Mooney’s catch percentage is still quite low against both man and zone coverage. In man, this can be explained by his deeper targets (higher air yards/target), but that’s not true in zone. Mooney’s drop rate was not an issue (4.7%, 12th best of 33 WRs with 100+ targets), so I’m inclined to chalk this up to a high rate of uncatchable passes (Justin Fields was one of the least accurate passers in the NFL last year).

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Friday Lynx Package: Jahns Leads the Way, Poles Preaching Patience, Arlington Heights in the Distance.

| April 8th, 2022


Let’s take a look around the internet and see what’s interesting.

  • The legend that is Adam Jahns has perhaps the best piece of the off-season – a breakdown of Chicago’s plan to develop Justin Fields. While fans are obsessing over the pieces around the player, the Bears are focused on the player. And that’s the correct approach.
  • Bears Care Gala tickets are now on sale and if you have the means, it’s an amazing event. (It’s not cheap.) For a grand you can be seated with a Bears legend AND a current Bears player/coach at the dinner, while also receiving an invitation to the VIP cocktail reception afterwards. It also supports the great work this organization does in the community, mostly under the radar.
  • Brad Biggs does a mock draft, including the two second-round selections for the Bears. And apparently, if you follow the twitter mentions, it’s an outlier of mock drafts. (Again, I have no idea when it comes to this stuff. I’ll start my draft research in about three weeks. And that will be plenty. But Biggs gets sauteed for selecting someone called Jobe in the second round.)
    • One thing: I do not believe Poles is targeting any particular positions with these picks. He’ll have a board and he’ll stick with it. He won’t reach at WR or OT because the closet is empty at those two spots. Poles is preaching patience, and his behavior has reflected that.
  • Totally missed this excellent Kevin Fishbain piece on the origins of Matt Eberflus in Toledo.
  • ACTUAL BEAR NEWS: Bears are starting to wake up from their hibernation and instructions on how to deal with that are circulating from New York to Michigan. I’m amazed by these people who live in places where bears are just hanging outside the local tavern at night. Just seems like a recipe for drunk guys losing bear fights.
  • Good piece at WCG, as Jacob Infante breaks down which wide receivers in this draft class fit Luke Getsy’s scheme. If I’m Poles, I’m looking at one thing: speed, speed, speed.
  • Missed this whole kerfuffle between Fields and some jackass at Barstool, a company I’ve hesitated to criticize because I really appreciated the work their top guy did to support struggling bars and restaurants during Covid. I get the appeal of Barstool. They speak directly to the kind of sports fan I avoid at bars, and there are A LOT of those guys.
  • Speaking of barstools, this is a terrific read in Baltimore Magazine, arguing why sitting at the bar is often the best place to experience a restaurant. “When we go out, we like to sit at the bar,” Cooper, 79, says. “It’s fun to be close to each other. I think bartenders are sort of fun. They give you quite a bit of attention. It’s cozy.”

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Dannehy: Bears CAN Be Competitive in 2022

| April 6th, 2022


If the Chicago Bears are going to be competitive in 2022, they have some work to do. But it is doable.

There’s little argument that, on paper, the roster is worse right now than it was at the start of the 2021 season, but that doesn’t account for the expected leaps young players can make. The last two draft classes have produced some promising players; the most important of which is quarterback Justin Fields.

If Fields isn’t good, the Bears don’t have a chance at being competitive in 2022. Other young players like Darnell Mooney, Cole Kmet, Jaylon Johnson and Trevis Gipson could take big steps. The 2021 draft class oozes with potential (even beyond Fields) as nobody would be shocked if Teven Jenkins, Larry Borom, Khalil Herbert, Thomas Graham and Khyris Tonga were all plus players in 2022.

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Dannehy: Poles and Flus Believe in Fields, But They’re Not Risking Their Careers on an Uncertainty

| March 31st, 2022


Being that they worked together in Kansas City before coming to the Chicago Bears, it was natural to ask if Ryan Poles had contact with Matt Nagy. The answer was a simple yes and the reason was “to find out where he may have messed up.”

For Nagy, and Ryan Pace, the answer very likely comes in 2018, when the team went all in on a second-year quarterback who didn’t have a particularly impressive rookie season. While Nagy didn’t draft Mitch Trubisky, it’s fair to say he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t believe in the young quarterback. It’s also fair to say that Nagy signed off on the moves that followed his hiring that offseason, including trading significant draft capital for Khalil Mack.

While the strategy of investing in and building around young quarterbacks is popular around the league, the Bears are clearly bucking the trend this off-season. The previous regime gave near top of the market deals to Allen Robinson and Trey Burton, while also making Taylor Gabriel wealthy. They spent two top-51 picks on offensive players. The team was set to win, and it did, at first. They went 12-4 and were a missed field goal away from advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

Now we know it was doomed from the start.

Trubisky had his fair share of struggles during his second season, though he was good enough win games. The team had a top ten offense early in the season, but struggled down the stretch, failing to score more than 24 points in the final five games.

The Bears knew the defense would drop off, but they hoped the offense would be better. When Gabriel and Burton were hurt in Nagy’s second year it became clear that Trubisky could not lift the team. He wasn’t a franchise quarterback, but they had already invested too much in him and his supporting cast. He was their best option.

After the 12-win campaign, the team struggled with mediocrity, largely because of what was happening at the quarterback position. It wasn’t until frustration had already built up and fans were at the Halas Hall gates with torches and pitchforks that they moved on from Trubisky.

The plan was sound, the quarterback just never became what they were convinced he would. They gambled on Trubisky. They lost.

Poles isn’t gambling on Justin Fields.

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Justin Fields’ 2022 Season Won’t End the Twitter Debates, and the Bears Won’t Care

| March 30th, 2022


Justin Fields’ potential future in Chicago is not going to be decided by Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus in 2022. That evaluation has already concluded and he’s their guy moving forward, certainly through 2023. The next “evaluation” of the quarterback will take place at the backend of that ’23 campaign, when the professional sample size is adequate, and the organization must consider their long-term financial commitments to him.

Why? Why is there not more pressure on this coming season?

First, because the Bears are not going to be good this year. That’s just a premise with which more fans need to be comfortable.

Second, because Poles and Flus know it will not be easy to install a new offense for Fields – his third in three years – and have the kid flourish. They’ll want to see him take significant steps from year one to year two, of course, but they’ll by no means expect a finished product. There will not be many finished products when it comes to the 2022 Chicago Bears.

But most of all, expectations for Fields will be managed because the leadership knows of 2022’s roster limitations. This is a scrap metal season, an attempt by Poles to sell the beater left in his driveway by Ryan Pace for parts. That notion has guided his approach in these first weeks of free agency. Other than attempting to sign the best three-tech on the market to significant money, the Bears have focused on a series of mid-tier (or lower) guys on upside, short-term deals. Their failed attempt to get Ryan Bates from Buffalo was the best example of this. Bates is not a great guard. He’s a good, solid, YOUNG player. The rest of their signings tell the same story:

  • Justin Jones, Al-Quadin Muhammad and Nicholas Morrow give the Bears bodies on defense but don’t figure to have long-term value in the organization unless they perform to a seriously high level.
  • Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown come to the Bears with personal connections – the former to the GM and the latter to OC Luke Getsy. If either player develops a serious rapport with Fields, the signing will be a home run. (My prediction is Pringle sticks around in Chicago for several seasons.)
  • Khari Blasingame returns the fullback position to Chicago and signals a serious transition to the Shanahan style.
  • Dakota Dozier is a depth piece with starting experience.

Twitter is a vomitorium where Justin Fields is always trending. When you click his name, which I try not to do and consistently fail, you find an endless series of Bears fans arguing with every other anonymous fan base about him. No one is right. No one is wrong. Everyone is angry. These tend to be the fans DESPERATE for the Bears to overspend on offensive linemen and wide receivers not worth the money. They want their opinion proved correct. They want Fields to be great right now.

But sadly, the Bears are at a weird organizational crossroads. They drafted their quarterback of the future and then fired the whole of their football operations the following season. Poles must act like Fields’ rookie season never happened; operate like Fields will be the team’s first round pick this season. And then he must build the roster accordingly moving forward. Poles and Flus start with a clean slate in Chicago. Fields should too.

Fields might become a great player. He also might not. For now, the Bears will be patient. They’ll keep the future in focus, at the expense of 2022. Can fans of the franchise do the same?

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Dannehy: Bears Can’t Ignore Defense as They Build Around Fields

| March 16th, 2022


The signing of Larry Ogunjobi was telling in that it shows the new Chicago Bears regime knows it has to maintain a solid defense for the development of Justin Fields, or whoever the long-term quarterback may be. Ogunjobi will fill a critical position in the Matt Eberflus defense, profiling as the prototypical three-technique, responsible for pressure up the middle. The contract, reported to be three years and $40.5 million, caused some uproar. Why? Because 2022 should rightfully be all about quarterback and it’s hard to argue a defensive tackle helps a quarterback. But this addition will help take pressure off of Justin Fields.

And the new defensive tackle is a very good player. He has had ten or more tackles for a loss, five sacks and at least 13 quarterback hits in three of the last four seasons. He essentially replaces Akiem Hicks, who hasn’t had ten tackles for loss or five sacks since 2018.

Trading Khalil Mack certainly sent mixed signals.

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For Poles and Coach Flus, the 2022 Off-Season is About Justin Fields

| March 4th, 2022


Winning is important. Winning breeds more winning, creates a positive environment, and is the only way to establish the type of culture that produces sustained success. Joe Judge, in some bizarre, late-season pressers, tried to sell the cultural shift he authored in New Jersey to Giants ownership. They canned him. Why? He didn’t win enough. All reports from inside the building were positive. All results from on the field were not. The latter is all that matters, ultimately.

Football is a sport and sports are about winning and losing. That’s why they spend all that money on those fancy scoreboards. But for the new Bears leadership, 2022 should be about one thing and one thing only: finding out if Justin Fields is “the guy”. Finding that out while winning is, of course, the ideal scenario, and if he is “the guy” they will win. But the decisions made in the coming months should be geared towards the former, not the latter.

The Bears should spend money. But they should spend money on young offensive linemen and outside weapons that can grow and develop with Fields in the years to come. This isn’t the time for a 34-year-old guard or a veteran wideout on a one-year deal. The Bears are not championship contenders next season, despite what the Bengals achieved this past one. The money spent in 2022 needs to be relevant in 2023, 2024 and maybe even beyond.

And they shouldn’t spend a nickel on defense. (Hyperbole, yes, but you get the point.) The players they have rostered on defense for 2022 are plenty good enough to field a unit with a middle-of-the-pack floor, especially if Coach E is worth his salt at the top of the pyramid. Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Roquan Smith, Jaylon Johnson and Eddie Jackson (in this defense) are a terrific defensive core. Play Thomas Graham. Draft a corner. Find a good off-ball LB in the middle rounds. This unit is going to require significant overhaul upfront in the coming years. Adding a high-priced talent now doesn’t make any sense.

Folks like to throw around the word “rebuild” in the NFL but rebuilds don’t really exist. A team’s championship clock starts the second they decide who the quarterback of their future will be. The Bears should have made that determine the second they drafted Fields, putting the likes of Mack and Allen Robinson on the trading block moments later. They didn’t.  They self-inflated the value of their roster. They thought they could contend in 2021 with Andy Dalton. (I can’t believe that sentence is even possible to type.) And they wasted a year.

They don’t need to waste another second. Make ’22 about 1. If that project is successful, the years that follow will be too.

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