Chicago Bears Q&A: Are the coaches eyeing the future with Justin Fields’ usage? How does the Chase Claypool trade look after 3 weeks?

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			Chicago Bears Q&A: Are the coaches eyeing the future with Justin Fields’ usage? How does the Chase Claypool trade look after 3 weeks?
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Coming off a fourth straight defeat and a left shoulder injury to quarterback Justin Fields, the Chicago Bears are facing several questions. Brad Biggs is facing questions too, albeit from readers who want to know if Fields is being used the best way and if the Chase Claypool deal will come back to haunt the team.

Like a lot of people, I’m a little baffled by the handling of Justin Fields on Sunday and, honestly, for the whole season. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems as if the narrative has been this: Despite having an incredibly gifted and athletic quarterback and an offseason to prepare for that, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and coach Matt Eberflus came into the season basically treating Fields more like a traditional quarterback, and the offense for the first several weeks was awful. I know there were other reasons for that too (bad O-line, iffy receivers), but you weren’t seeing these designed QB runs or seemingly anything creative that fit Fields’ skill set. They finally started doing that and the offense took off, but it seems like they’ve now swung too far in the other direction and it culminated with that final drive play calling with an obviously beaten up Fields being asked to run even more. Am I way off the mark here? — Andy B., Chicago

The Bears started adding more designed QB runs to the offense in Week 7 at New England but it’s not as if these were not in the playbook. Fields had 14 carries against the Patriots after running 12 times the week before in a miserable loss to the Washington Commanders. The difference was more of the rushes were designed against New England versus scrambles against Washington. He had eight carries at Dallas, 15 against Miami, 13 against Detroit and then a season-high 18 in the loss at Atlanta. Many of the designed runs have taken Fields out of harm’s way and he has taken fewer big hits on those. The Falcons did a nice job of playing the zone read and the hits added up Sunday.

I dispute the idea Getsy wasn’t creative with Fields early in the season. We saw moving pockets, sprint outs, bootlegs, play action, all of that stuff was being called. The Bears were not executing it as well. There has been a slight uptick in play action since the New England game, but there isn’t a big variation.

I think we’ve searched for some magic explanation for why an offense that wasn’t doing much right suddenly started scoring, averaging 29.6 points over the last five games. It’s a boring answer, but I think they got a little bit better at doing the little things right collectively and certainly Fields’ ability as a runner was highlighted in an exciting and productive way. The biggest thing that jumps out is an offense that was brutal on third down through the first six games — 35.6% — has been on fire the last five games, converting at a 55.2% clip. That has kept the offense on the field and produced more scoring drives.

A lot of people have been up in arms with Getsy’s call of a quarterback sweep on the first down play from the Falcons’ 25-yard line with 1 minute, 47 seconds remaining. The Bears were trailing by three and had all three timeouts. The play didn’t work — Fields gained only 1 yard — and he injured his left shoulder when he landed on it after being tripped. I’d be surprised if Getsy doesn’t wish he had the call back. It didn’t work.

But we have to ask ourselves why the coordinator called a designed run in that situation. My hunch is he was hopeful Fields would get the edge and be able to pick up a first down — or close to it — and get out of bounds to stop the clock. The most consistent way the Bears have gotten explosive plays this season is with Fields pulling the ball down and running. Maybe Getsy wanted to introduce the threat at the start of the drive to remind Atlanta, “Hey, we can run the ball with our quarterback in this situation,” with the hope that would open up something in the passing game. In recent situations in which the Bears were forced into clear dropback passing situations, it hasn’t worked well. They haven’t even moved the ball and, of course, Fields missed David Montgomery high with a pass two plays later resulting in a game-ending interception.

I am sure Getsy is going to be mindful of trying to keep Fields healthy when the quarterback is back in action — and we don’t know the extent of the injury at this point. But Getsy is calling games with the idea of putting the team in the best position to win and I don’t think anyone can make a credible argument against that. Had Fields turned the corner on the run, picked up 6 yards and scooted out of bounds, who knows where the drive would have gone. I don’t think we’d be having this conversation though.

Let’s say the Bears get the No. 3 pick, as they’re on target to do. Would they be better drafting a single top-flight player like Will Anderson or Jalen Carter or trading down and getting multiple guys but ones that are less likely to be blue chippers? — @mosconml

That’s a good question and is as difficult to answer now as it will be in February. First, let’s take a look at the projected draft order. Yes, the Bears are currently in position to select third in 2023. But they are also likely to lose many tiebreakers in the draft process based on their strength of schedule. Right now, the Bears and Carolina Panthers are both 3-8, trailing only the Houston Texans (1-8-1), who are the runaway favorite to hold the No. 1 pick. There is a cluster of six teams with a 3-7 record and once the Bears hit their bye in Week 14 (after playing the New York Jets this Sunday and the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 4), we’ll get a better picture. That is a long way of saying the Bears probably cannot win too many more games and remain in the top three.

According to tankathon.com, the Bears’ current strength of schedule is .572 — substantially higher than any team slated to have a top-10 pick. With seven weeks (and six games for the Bears) remaining a lot can change, but right now it looks as if the Bears could lose a lot of ties in the draft order process. Of course, if the Bears, who have lost seven of their last eight, continue stacking losses, they could certainly wind up with a top-three selection.

So, what do they do if they land in the top three? General manager Ryan Poles could potentially have his selection of the first non-quarterback to come off the board. That could be an impact defensive player like Anderson, the edge rusher from Alabama, and Carter, the defensive lineman from Georgia. Either one would be a terrific addition to a front seven desperately in need of difference makers.

The possibility of trading down and adding draft capital is intriguing because the Bears have so many needs they can’t acquire too many quality picks (think top 100 or so). They could also use future picks in 2024. It’s a lot easier to kick around this idea than it is to really dial in on it without knowing what kind of package Poles could consider. Trading down is never a good idea if you don’t get the value you desire or more.

It’s a little early to say how the 2023 quarterback class will be rated. I tend to think it’s a little overblown right now, but that’s just my opinion. I don’t know if there is a slam-dunk choice between Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Will Levis. The more hoopla there is surrounding these guys, the more valuable a pick in the top three will be. I realize this isn’t a great answer to your question but I can’t say, “Sure, it’s a no-brainer to trade down” without knowing what Poles would be receiving in return.

I can make a case special teams has lost four games for the Bears: muffed punt vs. Washington, blocked punt for a touchdown vs. Miami, missed extra point vs. Detroit, and kickoff return touchdown vs. Atlanta. Why do you think special teams have been so bad and why isn’t this talked about more? — @disneyman21

Special teams have become a consistent liability. Atlanta neutralized Velus Jones Jr. after his first return while the Bears kicked returnable balls until they got burned badly. Was this a coaching decision or Cairo Santos’ inability to kick deep? — Scott S.

The Bears have hit a rough patch on special teams since the beginning of the season. They were ranked very highly by Football Outsiders just a month ago — third in the NFL even after the struggles Jones had with muffed punts. They since have plummeted in the rankings and are 20th. It has been an issue across the board. It’s not one recurring theme, it’s several things that have popped up and created obstacles for a team that has such a small margin for error.

To address the first question, we need to consider the roster as a whole. The Bears are bad defensively right now and have guys that on a better roster would be reserves. If you look at it that way, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower is being asked to use guys that would be third-string or practice squad players on other rosters.

By my count, the Bears have used a total of 15 rookies on special teams with linebacker Sterling Weatherford at the top with 176 snaps (third-most on the roster) and tight end Jake Tonges and guard Ja’Tyre Carter at the bottom with four snaps each. Seven of the top 11 players in terms of playing time on special teams are rookies:

3. LB Weatherford, 176 snaps

4. CB Josh Blackwell, 165

5. LB Jack Sanborn, 142

7. CB Jaylon Jones, 134

8. S Elijah Hicks, 125

10. RB Trestan Ebner, 110

11. P Trenton Gill, 91

Add it all up and the Bears have used rookies on 38.7% of special teams snaps. Is that an excuse for critical breakdowns? No, but I’m trying to give you a clear idea of what Hightower is working with when injuries are factored in and he gets an inventory of players he will have for each game.

As far as the Atlanta game goes and kicking to Cordarrelle Patterson, I think that was a strategic decision. If the Bears wanted to bang the kickoff out of the back of the end zone, they probably would have gone that route from the start. The week before, the Carolina Panthers kicked to Patterson and covered him.

The Bears got a touchback on the opening kickoff when Santos kicked the ball to his right and Patterson chose to let the ball fall in the end zone. They did a nice job of covering Patterson and then got hit with a backbreaking play. The Bears could have asked Santos to drive the ball through the end zone or turned to Gill and asked him not to leave it in play for Patterson. This looked like a coaching decision to me.

Should the Bears consider resting Justin Fields the rest of the season? — @chicagonic

There were a couple of similar questions in the mailbag this week and it’s the worst idea I can imagine. If Fields is hurt to the point that he cannot play again this season, yes, he needs to be placed on injured reserve. That would be the worst possible development for the Bears. Sitting on the sideline for the remainder of the season isn’t going to help Fields improve.

Look at the growth he has made running and passing since the Week 6 game against Washington. In the first six games, Fields completed 54.8% of his passes with four touchdowns and five interceptions. In the last five games, his completion percentage has soared to 64.6% with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. The focus has been on his record-setting running but he has been more accurate, a little more decisive and better throwing the ball too. That’s in a short five-game stretch.

I can’t even wrap my mind around the idea of it being a good thing to shut Fields down unless he would risk more severe injury to his left shoulder. He needs more experience. More snaps. More opportunities to develop real, in-game chemistry with his teammates. More chances to read coverage. More of everything. None of that will be possible during a long offseason when you would be wondering about missed opportunities at the end of the 2022 season.

I’m not yet convinced Justin Fields is the answer. Celebrating his running skills sidesteps grasping that his primary role is as a passer. I fully understand that the porous Bears offensive line virtually invites defenders through to harass the quarterback. Only one receiver MIGHT be a starter on another team. Yet the history of the NFL is that a running QB who produces roughly 150 passing yards per game (123 vs. Miami, 167 vs. Detroit) is not a formula for consistent success. Only when the O-line and the receiver rooms can be upgraded with high-quality players will we learn if Fields is the real deal. For the present, every rushing yard he gains leads me to wish that it had been a passing yard. — Pat R., Chicago

What we’ve learned is if Fields can make advancements as a passer, the Bears are going to have an extremely dangerous quarterback. What the Bears are doing right now isn’t sustainable because you simply cannot win regularly in the NFL with such a poorly-ranked passing game. Even if the Bears had a much better defense, I don’t think the current formula is one that would make you feel great about the team’s chances in the postseason, especially if the Falcons introduced a potential blueprint to somewhat limit Fields’ ability to shred defenses with zone reads.

When the Bears get better on the offensive line and have a better group of skill position players around the quarterback, it’s going to be fascinating to see what shape the passing game takes. That’s going to be the real test and while it is frustrating to some the Bears don’t have a clear answer in this regard right now, I don’t know how realistic it was to imagine there would be clarity this quickly with a new coaching staff and playbook.

This has to play out to see what Fields can do over the remainder of the season and then next season. There will be a TON of speculation about how he’s growing and developing in the offseason ahead but the test will come next September. That’s when there needs to be clear answers for a quarterback in his third NFL season. That is the point at which Mitch Trubisky stumbled in 2019. The Bears have a much more dangerous quarterback now in Fields but he has to take some big steps forward in the passing game to become the guy everyone envisions.

Is Chase Claypool going to get more involved in the offense soon? — @chitownsports

My first response to the Chase Claypool trade was that I’d want that high second rounder back. What are your reactions to the trade? What are the benefits we might not see in the box score? — @gucasliogito

Until the passing volume rises significantly, we can have this conversation about any target. When will Darnell Mooney get more chances in the passing game? When are the Bears going to throw the ball more to Cole Kmet? It’s a question you can ask about any skill position player when the offense is averaging a league-low 20.8 pass attempts per game — a full two attempts below the 31st-ranked Falcons. Four teams are averaging 40 or more passes per game and 13 (nearly half the league) are at 35 or more.

To answer the first question, Claypool isn’t going to get more involved in the passing game until the Bears start slinging it more. Claypool has been targeted 11 times in three games with five receptions for 32 yards but I can make a case — maybe a strong one — that the Bears need to get the ball to Mooney and Kmet more before they throw it to Claypool.

As far as the trade, the Bears gave up a lot to acquire Claypool. Those championing the idea the team currently sits No. 3 in the draft order for 2023 need to realize that means the Pittsburgh Steelers will own the 34th overall pick in exchange for Claypool. The third pick in Round 2 will be the 34th player to come off the board (not 35th) because the Dolphins were stripped of their first-round pick in 2023, meaning the round will have only 31 selections. That is a high price to pay for Claypool but the Bears had to realize they were giving up a premium selection to acquire Claypool and the Steelers wisely chose that offer over a similar one from the Green Bay Packers. Claypool needs to develop into a main cog in the passing game early next season for the Bears to get a quality return on the deal.

Keep in mind Claypool is learning a new offense that is complex and has a lot of fine details that need to be mastered. That is a process that is going to carry into the offseason. I realize everyone wants to see an immediate impact but it is very premature to make judgments on whether or not this was a win or loss.

What’s the bigger draft need that the Bears should address with their first pick? OL or DL? — @kct2020

Depending on where the team selects, the Bears could have their choice of the first or second non-quarterback to come off the board. That would put GM Ryan Poles in a position where, if he didn’t trade down, he needs to hit a home run. In that instance, you’ve got to trust your draft board and go with the highest-graded guy. Whether that is an offensive lineman, defensive lineman, edge rusher, wide receiver, cornerback, it doesn’t matter. That has to be what scouts call a “blue,” a player that would be a clear starter on any NFL roster and an elite performer. If the grades are similar, I would lean toward a front seven player on defense. The Bears are wholly lacking on defense and need players that can tilt the field.

If the Bears lose assistant general manager Ian Cunningham to another team in the offseason, do the they receive a pick? — @canuckboy670am

No, the Bears would not receive draft pick compensation if Cunningham gets hired as the primary football executive by another team this offseason. When the league expanded the Rooney Rule to include front office personnel in 2021, it stipulated that the minority candidate hired as a head coach or primary football executive must have been employed by his former team for a minimum of two full seasons.

For the Bears to receive compensation for losing Cunningham to a GM position (where he is the primary football executive), he cannot leave until the 2024 offseason at the soonest. If that were to happen in 2024, the Bears would be in line to receive compensatory third-round selections in 2024 and 2025. Cunningham is highly regarded and could be on the fast track to a bigger job in the future.

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