The Bears aren’t going anywhere until they find a quarterback, whether that’s Justin Fields materializing into the future of the franchise or general manager Ryan Poles using his wealth of upcoming draft capital to bring in someone new.
But while that’s the biggest piece of the puzzle amid Poles’ rebuild, it’s not the only piece.
The Bears certainly have enough in place now for Fields to show what he can do over the rest of the season, but they’re far from a completed project. They’re missing more than just a quarterback.
Poles has tremendous resources to keep putting pieces in place. He has two first-round picks next year (one from the Panthers), and both likely will be in the top 10, plus he has an extra second-round pick in 2025. OverTheCap currently projects the Bears to be in the top eight in the NFL in salary-cap space in each of those offseasons, too.
Those assets only actually matter if they translate to top talent on the field. Poles can’t keep collecting good players; he needs some great ones.
His top priority this season has been to get a clear evaluation of Fields after the various deficits around him the last two seasons clouded that assessment. But he also needs a definitive head count on who else should be part of the Bears’ future. That includes young players like left tackle Braxton Jones, and he already made his decision on wide receiver Chase Claypool by trading him last month.
Their opponent Sunday, the Lions, quickly put enough in place so an average quarterback like Jared Goff could step in and thrive. After bottoming out at 3-13-1 in 2021, they went 9-8 last season and are running away with the NFC North now at 7-2.
Historically, the Lions haven’t been a model for anything. But their recent rebuild is instructive.
They haven’t drafted a quarterback in the first round since Matt Stafford in 2009. The Bears still need to draft a quarterback high if Fields isn’t the guy, but in the last three drafts, the Lions have used their high draft picks to solidify right tackle (Penei Sewell), defensive end (Aidan Hutchinson) and a promising playmaker (rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs).
Picture a rookie quarterback walking into that situation next season compared to what No. 1 pick Bryce Young is working with on the Panthers, a team the Bears beat 16-13 last week. The Bears need to ensure that whoever is playing quarterback for them next season has the advantages of the former.
How close are they to that?
Poles estimated on the eve of the season that he had filled 75-80% of the holes on his rebuild checklist “on paper,” but said he’d have a more precise answer once the season started. That number has fluctuated, and it hinges largely on quarterback and head coach — neither of which is a certainty between Fields and coach Matt Eberflus.
The next priority after those two spots is the pass rush, and Poles made headway on that shortfall by trading a second-round pick for defensive end Montez Sweat at the deadline. Sweat, 27, signed a contract extension through 2027 at a Bears-record $24.5 million per season. Poles still needs to find him a partner, and he almost certainly will have to use a high draft pick to solve that issue.
Same goes for left tackle if Poles needs an upgrade over Jones. He went out with a neck injury early in the season and has played just four games. But that’s too important of a position for the Bears to take a wait-and-see approach beyond this season.
It’s beyond obvious why getting a stalwart left tackle and picking up another high-capacity wide receiver would help the quarterback, but virtually every move the Bears make indirectly traces back to the quarterback.
Last season, when the Bears gave up the most points in the NFL and second-most in their history, Fields was constantly forced to throw to get them back in games. One of the hardest things to do in this sport is pass when the defense knows it’s an obvious passing situation.
Poles stacked the Bears’ secondary with talent and spent big at linebacker, but the underperforming defensive line has undercut that progress. Sweat is the only player sure to be a starter on the line next season, though rookie Gervon Dexter has looked better lately.
And that secondary is tenuous. Top cornerback Jaylon Johnson is in the final year of his rookie contract, and negotiations for an extension don’t seem to be going well. Safety Eddie Jackson has one season left, though Poles might be inclined to save the salary-cap space by releasing him. That could be rationalized as a smart move financially since Jackson will count $18.1 million against the cap next season, but then who takes his place?
Questions like that don’t seem quarterback-related, but they always are.
Stafford is a perfect example of a quality quarterback who never had enough around him in Detroit. He was the No. 1 draft pick in his class and put up big numbers, but the Lions went just 74-90-1 in his starts. He made the playoffs three times in 12 seasons and never won a game. The team had a bottom-10 defense in half his seasons.
Then he got traded to the Rams, who had everything else installed, and immediately won a Super Bowl.
Even the elite quarterbacks needed significant talent around them. Tom Brady had an overwhelming defense most of his tenure with the Patriots, and Patrick Mahomes has had multiple Pro Bowl teammates throughout his run. Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson haven’t won a ring yet, but they’ve got a great chance because they play on loaded teams.
It’s hard to win without a quarterback, and the Bears should not attempt that. But it takes much more than that to be a legitimate contender. Poles must make sure he stocks the roster across the board so that if he does get it right at quarterback, the Bears won’t waste it.