It doesn’t get much worse for an NFL team than the reality that more than a month of the regular season remains with no hope for a playoff berth. It’s even more disappointing when that team is without a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. It’s a sad truth the Chicago Bears are facing with five games left on their schedule, but that doesn’t mean the rest of December (and part of January) is meaningless.
The Bears, unlike most teams facing a sub-.500 finish with expected sweeping changes coming to the organization in a few weeks, actually have several intriguing on-field storylines fans should be monitoring as the 2021 season comes to a close. Here are four of them.
Protect Justin Fields
This should be the Bears’ primary focus for the rest of this season. It’s a somewhat layered goal, however, and doesn’t simply mean keeping Fields healthy—although that’s a critical part of it. Fields has been battered and bruised during his rookie season and he has busted ribs to show for it. While painful, it isn’t an injury that will disrupt his career trajectory. They’re lucky it’s only a rib injury and that Fields hasn’t suffered anything more extreme. If there’s any indication that playing him will injure him further (or subject him to an unnecessary beating), they have to sit him.
Just as important as Fields’ physical health is the confidence he develops in his game over the next five weeks, assuming he plays all of them. The Bears have to put the ball in his hands and let him see as many coverages and pass rush concepts as possible. The best chance Fields has at becoming a star in his second season is by learning some tough lessons as a rookie. He’s knee-deep in that course right now and it has to continue. The more Fields sees, and the more he overcomes while learning on the fly, the more confident he’ll be in 2022.
Let’s face it, Fields is the priority and the main reason to keep watching the Bears this year, as he should be. The only chance Chicago has at becoming a playoff team in the near future is if Fields develops, and the next five games are critical to achieving that goal.
Let the rookie tackles play
This one might seem like it runs in conflict with the ‘protect Fields’ goal, but with rookie second-round pick Teven Jenkins finally on the mend, it’s time to get him reps before his first season in the league comes to an end. It’ll be at Jason Peters’ expense, which might put Fields in harm’s way, but the Bears can’t enter the 2022 offseason without knowing what they have in Jenkins. At least, they need a sneak peek at what he can become. Maybe he won’t be ready to play against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, but getting a full month of games under his belt before the season ends would be a big win for the 2021 draft class.
The other rookie tackle, Larry Borom, has already logged 352 snaps this season and is coming off his best game of the year in Week 13’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals. He scored a near-elite 89.2 grade as a run-blocker in the game from Pro Football Focus, which is an indication of the high ceiling he has. If the Bears locked in both starting tackles from last April’s draft, it’d be a massive (no pun intended) victory that will allow them to focus resources elsewhere during the offseason. Jenkins has to play to get that ‘W.’
See what the practice squad has to offer
The Bears have a couple of young and promising players on their practice squad who warrant a look over the next few games. Wide receiver Dazz Newsome immediately jumps to mind considering he plays a position that will be a huge need for Chicago in the offseason. Newsome, who the Bears picked in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, doesn’t have any single trait in his game that stands out, but he was a productive player at North Carolina who will have a good chance at making the active roster in 2022. It’d benefit the Bears to get an early look at his potential now.
Similar to wide receiver, there’s turnover expected at cornerback this offseason, and with Thomas Graham (one of the Bears’ other sixth-round picks this year) also on the practice squad, it’s time to see if he has a chance of hanging around in 2022 by giving him some reps on Sundays. Chicago has nothing to lose—literally—by rotating Grahm with any cornerback not named Jaylon Johnson. The Bears are going to make a big investment in the secondary this winter, and even if they intend on signing a high-priced veteran or using one of their early-round picks on a corner, it’s smart team-building to first see what you already have in-house.
Give Jesper Horsted some run
Horsted was the preseason darling for the Bears’ offense and looked like the most promising pass-catching tight end on the team. It earned him a spot on Chicago’s active roster. His star has faded quickly, though, as he’s logged just four snaps—FOUR!—on the season despite Cole Kmet’s up-and-down second year in town. This isn’t to say Kmet has been bad this year; he’s been fine. But ‘fine’ isn’t good enough for what modern NFL offenses expect from the tight end position. It’s a spot that requires more playmaking ability than what Kmet’s flashed early in his career, and it may be time to find out if there’s a guy on the roster who’d be a better option on passing downs.
Enter Horsted, who has a wide receiver’s pedigree from his college days at Princeton, and seems to prove anytime he’s given a chance that he can be a legitimate pass-catcher in an NFL offense. There’s no reason why the Bears can’t view Kmet and Horsted as a quality two-headed monster at tight end and groom both of them as key factors in the offense for 2022. Horsted has to play in order to get there, though.
The next five Bears games will consist of equal parts pride and development. Chicago can’t solely have a goal of talent evaluation for 2022, but they can’t ignore it either. They don’t have a first-round pick, which makes it even more important that they understand what the young players on this team do well, but it also makes losing less rewarding (even though no NFL player or executive would ever admit that losing has a silver lining anyway).
It may feel like a no-win situation for a team that’s lost its fair share of games already, but as long as the Bears are competitive, maybe win a few games, and develop their young talent along the way, the 2021 season will actually end as a good one—especially with QB1 on the roster.