Chicago Bears Q&A: Why is the team at the bottom of NFL power rankings? How will Justin Fields’ progress be measured?

As the Chicago Bears prepare to open the season Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field, readers want to know why the Bears don’t get respect in NFL circles and which rookies are poised to make immediate breakouts. Brad Biggs answers those questions and more in his weekly Bears questions weekly mailbag.

The Bears are ranked 32nd by NFL Network. Are we missing something in preseason that other people are seeing? — @bwohlgemuth

More than a couple people were caught off guard by the league’s media arm ranking the Bears last in a preseason power ranking with @jon4835 asking why the Bears “get lousy national preseason reviews?”

There are a handful of factors that contribute to the Bears being at or near the bottom in a handful of power rankings (Pro Football Talk had the Bears No. 30). The Bears cleaned house after being bad last season and the prevailing thought of many outsiders is that new general manager Ryan Poles is pretty much completely tearing down before building back up.

The highest-paid player on the roster, Khalil Mack, was traded away and the Bears didn’t make any expensive additions via free agency. They were also without a first-round pick and while Poles wound up with 11 total draft picks, eight were in Round 5 or later. There are significant questions about the offensive line and wide receivers, and while there is an abundance of optimism locally regarding Justin Fields, on the outside I think a lot of folks are saying they want to see it to believe it. The Bears have changed defensive schemes and probably don’t have all of the parts they’re exactly looking for just yet. Add it all up and that is how you end up near the bottom of a power ranking.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields passes under pressure from Chiefs safety Deon Bush in the first quarter of a preseason game on Aug. 13, 2022, at Soldier Field. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

The upside here is the Bears will be able to play the respect card all they want and accurately note that most are doubting them. Plenty of coaches love to pound home the idea that a team isn’t receiving its proper due. Power rankings shift as quickly as the wind does, and if the Bears can rip off a few early-season victories they will approach the middle of the pack, which is where the majority of teams wind up being lumped unless they’re really good or especially bad.

Local optimism has been on the rise since the preseason finale at Cleveland when the first-team offense scored three touchdowns in the first half. It was a nice showing by Fields and the offensive line did a fine job. That’s really the basis for the majority of positive vibes because the offense didn’t get a lot done in the previous two exhibitions and it was a clunky effort throughout most of training camp.

If nationals folks cobbling together power rankings overlook that Cleveland exhibition, it’s easy to understand why the Bears are in the bottom quarter of the league or worse. Ultimately, the standings are going to tell you where this team should be ranked and how it should be evaluated. There are 17 games to play.

Which of the rookies you expect to shine from day one to season end? — @just_acy

I feel like it’s a bit of a cop out to answer safety Jaquan Brisker and cornerback Kyler Gordon because they are obvious selections as the team’s top two picks, but both look poised to have an immediate impact. Brisker has a great combination of size, strength and range and could emerge as a fan favorite before midseason. Gordon has the athletic traits needed to handle the slot and has good size for the position as well.

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Brisker and Gordon are only two of 15 rookies on the 53-man roster. It would be a huge development for the organization if left tackle Braxton Jones, a fifth-round pick, shines from the start of the season to the end. I’m not sure what to expect from Jones but he’s got an incredible opportunity ahead of him. Velus Jones Jr. should make an impact on special teams, if not on offense as well, and I think linebackers Jack Sanborn and Sterling Weatherford could be pluses on special teams.

How do you think the Bears plan on using Alex Leatherwood? Is he the swing tackle as opposed to Riley Reiff? — @jgarcia3290

I think you’re a little premature with the question. I imagine it’s going to take at least a few weeks for the coaches to work with the newcomer and for Leatherwood to get comfortable with the playbook for him to be considered for the game-day roster. The Bears are going to be limited to one padded practice per week, so I think it will take a little bit of time to get the former Las Vegas Raiders first-round pick up to speed.

Leatherwood projects as a right tackle or a guard, in my opinion. Could he get you through a game at left tackle if something happened? Sure. But if the Bears have a real need at left tackle, right now I believe they would look to Reiff for help.

Where do you think Lucas Patrick will start at? — @william20852834

Patrick returned to practice Monday for the first time since suffering a broken right thumb on July 28. He’s operating with a small cast and given the time he missed and how the line has operated recently, I don’t think he’s plugged into the starting lineup against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1. It’s going to be difficult if not impossible for him to snap the ball as long as he is wearing a cast. I think the answer to your question will be determined after we see how the line performs in the first few games of the season. If a player is clearly struggling on the interior, Patrick probably slides into the lineup quickly.

The Bears second leading receiver at the end of the year will be _____? — @rradulski

That is a good question. Darnell Mooney is the odds-on favorite to lead the team in receptions and receiving yards, and wide receiver Byron Pringle and tight end Cole Kmet should be productive in the passing offense. If Pringle is healthy, he ought to be able to catch 50 or more passes and I think Kmet should have some growth off last season when he caught 60 passes for 612 yards. Provided he’s healthy, there is no reason he shouldn’t approach 80 receptions and probably be around 900 yards with more red zone production, where he was largely ignored in 2021.

Virginia McCaskey, the daughter of George Halas, took over as majority owner of the Chicago Bears in 1983. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

The growth of Justin Fields is the top priority this season, but how should we measure that growth? Is it going to be just the eye test to see if he’s processing things and making better decisions? — @dawestley

That’s a great question and one I have been wondering myself. It’s probably going to be as much of an eye test thing as it’s going to be related to numbers and statistics. Does he show command of the offense? Is he progressing as a pocket passer? Is he keeping turnovers, especially ones that are the result of poor decisions, to a minimum?

I posed almost the same question to former Bears quarterback Jim Miller and NFL analyst Ross Tucker at the start of training camp, using their responses in the 10 thoughts column coming out of the preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Circling back, here is what they said:

“I don’t want to get into cliches about incremental improvement but I like how they are using him,” Miller said. “I think they are going to take advantage of his skill sets. They will have the RPO angle of the offense. They’re going to do a boatload of chili roll stuff — play-action half roll. They’re going to do a lot of bootlegs. They will do some quarterback draws, RPO influence, and they need to run the ball well.

“I think everybody understands all of the stuff that Bill Lazor got to later in the season last year and I think they’re going to expand on that. I think if you see that incremental improvement. I see the improvement he’s already made. His footwork? He’s really worked hard at that and he’s watched a lot of tape of other guys. Probably (Luke) Getsy gave him a lot of Green Bay stuff that he’s watched. His footwork is a lot better, even how he positions his feet. He’s more in balance to throw the ball. But the talent just oozes out of him. He’s so special. But they have to cater it to him. If you’re seeing incremental improvement every week where the turnovers are cut down, if you see him improve in situational play where he’s making his adjustments and getting better every single week, there is a lot to be excited about.”

Tucker said it would be “any type of improvement.”

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“Any clear improvement would be a success in my mind, especially with how limited they are around him,” Tucker said. “I’m not going to put numbers on it, but it’s almost like the famous (Supreme Court) saying: ‘I don’t know how to define pornography but I know what it is when I see it.’ I feel like we’ll be able to see his command of the offense. How often is he running for his life versus how often is he getting rid of the ball quickly? That’s a big, big thing — how fast is the ball getting out of his hand and the turnovers.

“If he doesn’t have a lot of turnovers and he is getting the ball out quick, that will be considered a success no matter what the team’s record is or the stats because they’re just not very good around him. You can make a strong argument that they have the worst receiving corps and the worst offensive line in the NFL. It’s almost hard to believe and unconscionable that a first-round quarterback would be going into his second year and you could say that is what he is being surrounded by.”

How is the field looking for Sunday’s game? — @skeet_sparkles

Efforts to lay down a completely new playing surface at Soldier Field is well underway. I would expect the field to look pretty good Sunday.

Is Velus Jones ready for Week 1? — @cmgolfs17

The rookie speedster from Tennessee missed considerable time over the last three weeks with an undisclosed injury but was on the field Monday, and that bodes well for his availability on Sunday. Given the amount of time Jones has missed, his role in the offense could be somewhat reduced, but I don’t see any reason why he would not be an option in the return game for special teams coordinator Richard Hightower.

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