Guard Ja’Tyre Carter and linebacker Sterling Weatherford are the only two players from the Chicago Bears’ Week 1 roster not to play a snap on offense or defense all season.
Coach Matt Eberflus indicated Wednesday that the team wants to look at more players in the final two games: Sunday at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions and Jan. 8 at home against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Bears have left few stones unturned in the first season for general manager Ryan Poles and Eberflus, and unless they make a slew of practice-squad elevations, there simply aren’t many new faces to get on film before an offseason packed with roster decisions.
“We want to finish these two games off strong,” Eberflus said. “We’ve got a lot of development to do. Lot of things we want to look at offensively and defensively and special teams and a lot of players too. We want to be able to evaluate those guys as well.”
As bold as that plan sounds on the surface, the Bears already have given considerable playing time to rookies and young players. That’s one reason they’re in the current predicament with a 3-12 record, an eight-game losing streak and a fourth-place finish in the NFC North. The youth movement began before the season started.
Eighteen rookies have played, some only on special teams. On defense, 29.5% of the snaps have been taken by rookies. There’s a high concentration of youth in the secondary with safety Jaquan Brisker and cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Jaylon Jones having played throughout their rookie seasons. More recently, cornerback Josh Blackwell and safety Elijah Hicks have gotten turns.
“In the draft process, the question always came up: ‘How do you learn best?’ ” said Blackwell, who got his first action on defense in Week 13 against the Green Bay Packers. “For me, it’s actually doing it — experiencing a live rep. That’s how I learn best. It’s been really helpful for me to really grasp the scheme instead of knowing it on a dry-erase board or film.”
Blackwell said seeing things in a game — landmarks, route depth, breaking points of releases — has taken his knowledge to a higher level in just a few weeks.
There aren’t as many first-year players on offense; left tackle Braxton Jones and wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. are the only rookies with more than 100 snaps. Braxton Jones is the only player on either side of the ball to log 100% of the snaps. What’s striking when you look at the playing-time distribution on offense is 41.5% of the snaps have been taken by players coming out of contract after this season.
How can the Bears achieve a goal of seeing more players against the Lions and Vikings when almost everyone already has gotten action?
“When you’re at where our roster is at right now at the end of the year, we’ve got a lot of guys on IR, so the combinations, (there) really aren’t that many you can do,” Eberflus said. “But certainly we’re going to move guys around a little bit, potentially offensive line, defensive line. It’s not any big shift.”
Looking at more players doesn’t mean sitting quarterback Justin Fields, who said his foot is fine after it got stepped on late in Saturday’s loss to the Buffalo Bills. Nathan Peterman’s moment has not arrived.
It’s also unlikely a core starter would be benched to give a rookie some run. For instance, the Bears won’t put tight end Cole Kmet on the sideline to play Chase Allen or Jake Tonges.
Eberflus did say the Bears could shift defensive tackle Justin Jones to end to get a look at him in a different position. Jones is one of the few veteran free-agent additions this year who could factor into the 2023 plans on what has to be a revamped defensive front.
Moving Jones to end would allow the Bears to see if he can play a variety of positions next year and would create more time for Andrew Brown, who was signed off the Arizona Cardinals practice squad on Nov. 30. Brown, a three-technique, played 60 snaps over the last three games.
“It’s kind of like camp all over again,” Brown said. “It’s a blessing to be brought out of a practice-squad situation. You’re there so long and it’s like, ‘Man, when is my time going to come?’”
Two more games would give Brown a chance to show he can be a depth consideration for 2023.
A week after the Bears didn’t consider Alex Leatherwood an option at guard, maybe he figures into the mix on the interior offensive line. Left guard Cody Whitehair (knee) was limited in practice Wednesday, and right guard Teven Jenkins (neck) was a full participant.
Leatherwood had a rough ride at right tackle in the Dec. 18 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Bears ditched the plan to rotate him with Riley Reiff. Leatherwood started 13 games at guard for the Las Vegas Raiders last season.
If Whitehair and Jenkins are able to go, the Bears likely want to protect Fields as best they can, meaning Carter’s time probably isn’t now and Leatherwood’s chances, if any, could be limited.
Velus Jones, who had a 44-yard reception against the Bills, could get more action on offense. Sixty-nine of his 144 offensive plays this season have come in the last two weeks. So he’s seeing more time with injuries affecting that position.
No one would accuse the Bears of shying away from using young players. Eberflus hinted at a wrinkle or two for the final two games, but more than anything it’s a chance to evaluate the many younger players already getting time.