Home Sports Chicago Bears Q&A: What changes will coaches make after the bye? Will Braxton Jones be the starting left tackle in 2023?

Chicago Bears Q&A: What changes will coaches make after the bye? Will Braxton Jones be the starting left tackle in 2023?

by staff

Welp. The Bears are coming off a bye week, so they couldn’t lose. They have that going for them.

But lots of questions linger as the team looks to salvage something good from what will be a losing season. Fans have questions for Brad Biggs’ weekly mailbag, and he has answers.

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After seeing the results of tweaks to the offense during the mini bye, what changes do you think we’ll see on offense after the full bye? Will we ever see the running backs get more involved in the passing game? — @paulsilder

That’s a good question because we saw some clear shifts and a significant jump in production after the 11-day layoff between the Week 6 loss to the Washington Commanders and the resounding Week 7 triumph at New England. The victory over the Patriots didn’t spark a winning streak, but the offense made big gains in terms of scoring, chunk plays, on third down and in the red zone.

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One thing I’m curious to see is how much offensive coordinator Luke Getsy wants to use quarterback Justin Fields as a runner. Fields went from a season-high 18 rushes in the loss in Atlanta in which he suffered a left shoulder injury to a season-low six rushes in the loss to the Green Bay Packers. Will Getsy dial back designed QB runs and will Fields be more hesitant to pull the ball down and run? It’s worth wondering if the Bears will be mindful of how much they run Fields and try to limit the situations where he’s exposed to defenders.

The Bears probably want to see more production from the passing game, too, and Fields is coming off his best game of the season as he completed 20 of 25 passes for 254 yards in the loss to the Packers. With four games remaining, there’s a chance to explore more when it comes to throwing the ball.

“We have done a lot of good things over the last several weeks to continue to improve the passing game,” coach Matt Eberflus said Monday. “The rhythm and timing of that improved last week. We want to continue that, and then really just about finishing. That’s for our whole football team.”

This week they’re preparing for a Philadelphia Eagles defense that ranks No. 1 in the league against the pass. That’s especially impressive because the Eagles are 12-1 and have won six games by 17 or more points. Opponents have been forced into clear passing situations in the second half and still haven’t piled up yardage. The Eagles are also first in opponents’ yards per attempt (5.34 yards) and second in sack percentage.

Who needs snaps the most so the Bears can evaluate them for the 2023 roster? — @gucasliogito

You’d probably like to see wide receiver Chase Claypool more involved in the passing game. His playing time has ticked up recently. He was on the field for 67% of the offensive snaps in Atlanta and 63% against the Packers. It’s more about getting him the ball at this point than getting him on the field, because he is playing.

Alex Leatherwood will be in position to compete for playing time at right tackle after getting 10 snaps against the Packers. I think if Leatherwood had been better in practice, he probably would have played more. We’ll see how the final four games shake out for him, but there’s a good chance we see more of him.

Four rookies or second-year players on offense (left tackle Braxton Jones, quarterback Justin Fields, right guard Teven Jenkins and right tackle Larry Borom) have played more than 400 snaps, and running back Khalil Herbert has 236. Five rookies or second-year players on defense (safety Jaquan Brisker, cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Jaylon Jones, defensive end Dominique Robinson and linebacker Jack Sanborn) have more than 300 snaps. As you can see, the coaching staff has not been hesitant to put young players in positions to perform and be evaluated.

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When the season ends, almost every player on the roster will have been given a fair shake, and I’d remind you of something we tend to overlook on occasion: Every player is being evaluated in practice every day. This team is 3-10, and if the coaches thought a player was showing something in practice that could help the team on game day, guess what? That guy already has gotten game action.

Any players you see as prime candidates for contract extensions? — @tn5280

General manager Ryan Poles will have a massive supply of salary-cap space moving into 2023 — more than $100 million — and the best money a team can spend in free agency is to keep its own players from hitting the open market. I wrote before the Packers game how Poles has a small group of players eligible for a contract extension. That group includes tight end Cole Kmet, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and wide receivers Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool.

How Poles and his staff evaluate those players, we don’t know. Mooney is recovering from an injury and his health obviously will be a factor. That’s a good list of players to start with. I’m not sure the team has been blown away by any newcomers who signed one-year deals. It would not surprise me if the Bears try to re-sign special teams ace DeAndre Houston-Carson. It’s possible the safety finally has earned himself a multiyear deal.

Barring any injuries in the last four games and assuming Braxton Jones maintains his current level of play, do you anticipate the Bears project him to be the starting LT in 2023? — @mmueller1070

Jones is the only player on offense to be on the field for all 809 snaps this season, so there’s a little trivia question and answer for you. He has done a nice job in that his play hasn’t generated a lot of attention. That can be a good thing for offensive linemen. Jones has a lot he can improve on, but he has gotten better as he’s gone along and it doesn’t look like the offense is scheming to help him as much, which the Bears were doing consistently at the start of the season.

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“Braxton’s been solid,” Matt Eberflus said. “He’s done a good job for a rookie to be able to play in there … his maturity and handle everything he’s been handling. I think he would say it, too, is he’s really got to firm up on the bull rushes. That’s the biggest thing he’s got to do is take a big set, be able to firm his inside leg there and stay firm in the pocket.

“He’s got to really do a good job these next four weeks, and this is a big challenge this week. (The Eagles) have got a couple waves of defensive line(men) — probably the deepest defensive line in the whole league. It’s going to be a big challenge for our offensive line for sure.”

I think Jones has played well enough to be considered as a starter for next season. The question is will a premier left tackle be available in free agency who is young enough to be a pillar for seasons to come. If so, that might be something Ryan Poles wants to consider. If not, I think the Bears will have confidence Jones can grow, get a little stronger and be a better player in his second season.

Equanimeous St. Brown, Byron Pringle, Dante Pettis and N’Keal Harry all are on expiring contracts. What is more likely, 0 out of 4 coming back next year or two or more of them coming back? Seems like St. Brown coming back is the most likely. — @bigbusinessbird

If I had to pick zero or two, I would lean toward zero. We’re talking about a group of players who should not slot higher than third on the depth chart, and really, in a high-caliber passing offense they would be fourth or fifth options. The bigger question is will the Bears be able to pursue a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. They don’t have one and haven’t for a long time. The Bears have been guilty of overslotting wide receivers — pushing No. 3 receivers into a No. 2 or even a No. 1 role.

The list of potential free-agent wide receivers is pretty underwhelming. Jakobi Meyers of the Patriots might be the best available option. He’s not a No. 1 receiver. I think the lack of available talent at the position come March influenced Ryan Poles’ decision to trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers for Chase Claypool. Can the Bears add a high-caliber wide receiver in the draft? That’s possible. It’s on the list of needs, and that’s far worthier of attention than moves at the back end of the depth chart.

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Has the NFLPA ever introduced to the owners about pushing Thursday night games (after Week 1, of course) to have teams play on a Thursday night only after coming off of their bye? Do you know if this is an actual option? It is a good alternative, especially if the owners and the NFLPA are honest about the players’ health. — Steve K., Indiana

That would be impossible with the current setup because it would require teams to have a bye as early as Week 2. The league — and the teams and players — don’t want to have byes that early. The league also doesn’t schedule byes during Thanksgiving week to keep a full inventory of games for television. Of course, they don’t want byes after Week 14 — the latest the NFL has off weeks.

Thursday night games are about one thing and that is the massive amount of money owners rake in for the television rights to those games. That money makes its way into the salary cap and the players reap the benefits. Maybe there will be some slight tweaks to the schedule in years to come, but there really isn’t a practical way to avoid having teams play on a short week.

Will Velus Jones be incorporated more into the offense? — @the_reid

Jones’ playing time has been pretty consistent. He has been on the field for eight to 15 snaps in the last six games he played, averaging 11.7. We might see that number tick up a little bit in the final four games, but the package of plays for him is pretty limited. The Bears have a couple of routes he runs and they use him on jet action pre-snap.

I think we have to accept the fact the third-round pick is a gadget player on offense as a rookie. That doesn’t mean he will be pigeonholed in that role next season and in years to come, but it’s certainly possible. One risk in drafting a player who spent six seasons playing college football is he wasn’t good enough to be drafted after Years 3, 4 or 5, so it’s possible he’s not a late bloomer but more of a fringe NFL wide receiver. That being said, Jones has explosive ability as a kickoff returner and I wouldn’t write him off as a potential punt returner.

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Bears wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (12) is tackled by a pack of Packers during the fourth quarter Dec. 4, 2022, at Soldier Field.

It seems other teams invest draft picks in QBs in later rounds. The 49ers are reaping fruit from drafting Brock Purdy (with the final pick of the 2022 draft). Kirk Cousins was a later draft pick. The Bears have not drafted a QB after the first round since 2014 — David Fales. Will the Bears try to patch the backup position via free agency? — @omarramoslive

Purdy has been terrific in his first two outings, the first in relief of Jimmy Garoppolo when the veteran was injured and again Sunday in a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cousins was a fourth-round pick by Washington in 2012, the same draft that team took Robert Griffin III at No. 2.

I like how you’re thinking here, but I have two points. First, the right quarterback has to be there on Day 3 to be worth a flier. You can’t invent a guy who isn’t on the board. Second, the Bears have a ton of needs on both sides of the ball, and a developmental quarterback could be a bit of a luxury pick at this point.

The flip side to that argument is the Bears have bungled the position for decades, and one common theme has been failing to invest enough draft picks in quarterbacks.

Depending what happens in the draft and free agency, any chance Cody Whitehair could be moved back to center next year to get the best five on the field? — @tomomalley23

Never say never — and it’s possible the Bears leave the door open to this — but I think we’ve learned over the years that Whitehair is best at guard. If that’s his best position, is it really a good idea to move him to center? I won’t discount the possibility, but I would be a little surprised if the Bears want to move Whitehair. Why not leave him at left guard where he’s most comfortable and has been at his best?

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Do you think Teven Jenkins will play right tackle next year? — Eric H., Houston

Jenkins has developed nicely at right guard, and that looks like his future. The Bears didn’t seem keen on using him at right tackle during the summer, but he really has flourished on the inside. My bet is the starting right tackle for 2023 is not currently on the roster. I’d give that a slight edge over Alex Leatherwood or Larry Borom at this point.

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