Bears

Hub Arkush: 5 Bears who could surprise in 2022

Chicago Bears linebacker Caleb Johnson gets loose before his game against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Sep. 19, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Believe it or not, Bears fans, there is now less than two weeks remaining in this “offseason.”

The third and final week of organized team activities will take place Monday through Wednesday, and the only mandatory veteran and rookie minicamp runs Tuesday through Thursday of next week. After that, on June 16, the final day of minicamp, players and coaches alike will scatter far and wide for their summer vacations, not to be seen or heard from again at any team activities until they report to training camp the last week in July.

As of now, the Bears are set to return only 30 of the 53 to 60 players who saw meaningful action last season, along with only nine of their 22 Week 1 starters from last season and 12 of the 22 starters on the final day of the 2021 season.

This year’s 90-man training camp roster will feature 17 veteran free agents, 11 rookie draft choices and 16 undrafted rookie free agents. The remaining 16 players were either Bears or other clubs’ practice squad members last year.

Among the 17 veteran free agents, only two – center Lucas Patrick and defensive lineman Al-Quadin Muhammad – were full-time starters last season with their former teams.

The most promising thing about the team right now is other than justifiable excitement around a handful of young vets and prospects, of course starting with Justin Fields, is only two clubs – the Browns and Panthers – have significantly more cap space than the Bears, who are about tied with the Raiders and Cowboys in the ballpark of $22.2 million.

What’s left at the end of the year can be rolled over into next season when they are projected to have the most cap space in the league, possibly more than $100 million.

Viewed through that lens, it is clear why the overwhelming majority of analysts and media have the Bears ranked somewhere between 28 and 32 in their preseason power rankings.

But that all will become just meaningless chatter once that first day of training camp arrives, and what will become critically important is who among this new group can claim those dozen or so vacant starting spots, and is there anyone we’re not focused on right now who could emerge as a significant contributor?

We know all eyes will be on Fields, but where else might this team grow and improve from within? Are there any guys who might surprise us?

Here are my top five candidates:

RB Khalil Herbert: Almost everyone likes this kid, but nobody expects him to take touches away from David Montgomery, including me. But look at how new Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has watched his Packers use Jamal Williams and A.J. Dillon in recent seasons, and you realize there will be plenty of chances for both. Herbert has flashed just enough to suggest it could be hard to keep the ball out of his hands.

DL Mario Edwards, Jr.: Edwards was a second-round pick in 2015, and his career path to date reminds me a lot of Akiem Hicks’ early years. He often has been a man without a true position, but given a chance to compete with Justin Jones at the three-technique, he has the tools to be truly disruptive.

CB Thomas Graham Jr.: Remember, last year he was coming off an opt-out final year in college. Something about this kid screams playmaker. Don’t be shocked if he latches on to the nickel spot and refuses to let go.

LB Caleb Johnson: He surprised last year just making the team as a undrafted rookie free agent out of Houston Baptist and playing in 14 games.

He looks the part, has a great work ethic, and in a battle with journeyman vets Matt Adams and Joe Thomas, the starting SAM linebacker spot is there for the taking.

OL Sam Mustipher: Larry Borom is the best right guard prospect on the team, but as long as there’s a chance he can flourish at left tackle, that’s where he’ll stay.

I never thought Mustipher could play guard, but he’s taking reps with the No. 1s, looks comfortable doing it, and nobody thought he could make the team as an undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame, yet he ended up the starting center.

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is the Senior Bears Analyst for Shaw Local News Network and ShawLocal.com.