After starting the season with a 19-10 victory over the 49ers, who ended their season in the NFC title game, and then climbing to 2-1 with a 23-20 win over the Texans two weeks later, the Bears lost three close games to the Giants, Vikings and the Commanders before clobbering the Patriots 33-14 in New England.
They were a highly competitive 3-4 when they failed to show up against the Cowboys, but then dropped their next three by three, one and three points to the Dolphins, Lions and Falcons, respectively.
Of course, none of that makes the team’s 2022 season any more pleasant, acceptable or worth feeling good about.
It does, however, suggest that although they did have the worst record in the NFL, they may not have been the worst team or least talented. And there already was more talent in place than many of us appear to accept.
But who are those players, and what are the odds they will make a difference?
The conversation starts with Justin Fields. He already established himself as one of – if not the – best running quarterbacks in the league. Unfortunately, he also managed the league’s worst passing game but did show some of the special athletic ability throwing the ball to become a quality passer.
While the rest of his teammates need to grow physically, Fields must do so mentally.
If he can learn to read defenses and his own receivers properly, get the ball out of his hands much quicker and greatly improve his accuracy – all of which he struggled with last season – the Bears’ rebuild can be ramped up dramatically.
He has the size and arm strength to do it, but the Bears will have to consider moving on at quarterback if it doesn’t happen in 2023.
Obviously, defensive end DeMarcus Walker, linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, guard Nate Davis and running back D’Onta Foreman are all young and relatively accomplished veteran free agents. The first three were brought in to bring strength to the NFL’s worst run defense and improve the league’s worst pass rush by bringing pressure themselves from the inside and freeing up some of last year’s youngsters, who struggled while still learning on the job.
Players who could be considered last season’s hidden – or at least still undeveloped – gems include running back Khalil Herbert, tight end Cole Kmet, wide receivers Chase Claypool and Velus Jones Jr., offensive tackle Braxton Jones, guard Teven Jenkins, linebacker Jack Sanborn, safety Jaquan Brisker, cornerback Kyler Gordon and edge rusher Dominique Robinson.
Kmet and Claypool have much in common. Both played their college ball at Notre Dame, both are only 24 years old, both are former second-round draft choices, both have unique size and athletic ability for their positions, and both have shown flashes of special production but have yet to have breakout seasons. And, some would argu,e both have failed to play at this level with a quality quarterback.
With the addition of wide receiver D.J. Moore and all the improvement made on the offensive line – if they are the right guys – Fields, Kmet and Claypool could make their breakouts this season.
I’ve already said it a number of times about Herbert: He led NFL running backs last season averaging 5.7 yards per rushing attempt. That makes him a huge play waiting to happen every time he touches the ball. Although he has been a liability to date as a blocker and receiver, those two things can be taught. This is the season for him to decide if he wants it bad enough.
Braxton Jones was a fifth-round pick in 2022 who started every game at left tackle last year and was named to the NFL’s All-Rookie Team. Jenkins was a second-round draft pick in 2021, and at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, he has all the size and athletic ability you look for. Can he stay on the field consistently to fully develop?
Scouts rave about Jones’ tools to take another step this season and perhaps even become special. And this season provides make-it-or-break-it incentive for Jenkins.
Sanborn exploded out of nowhere last season as a rookie. With all the talent that’s been added around him, he could be another one prepped for a huge season.
Gordon and Brisker were the team’s first two picks in last year’s draft, both in the second round and both had multiple big moments as rookie starters.
Not all these youngsters can make it, but if most of last year’s promising youngsters can take another step, this year’s Bears could break out a lot sooner than most expect.
• Hub Arkush is the senior Bears analyst for Shaw Media and ShawLocal.com.