The only thing everyone wants to know about the Chicago Bears is when the Justin Fields era will begin.
The rookie quarterback’s time figures to come this season, so however coach Matt Nagy and his staff arrange reps in training camp with veteran Andy Dalton will be under the microscope. Perhaps it will turn into a full-fledged competition for the starting job from Day 1, in which case Fields could state his case with a strong preseason. Maybe the plan is for Dalton to start initially to ensure Fields isn’t pushed into action before he’s ready.
Either way — and Nagy has been short on details to this point — there’s growing intrigue regarding how this will unfold, and the questions surrounding Fields’ development plan are endless.
Plenty of other storylines will begin to play out in the remainder of the offseason program and heading into training camp. Let’s play 20 questions — of the non-quarterback variety — divided into four categories: offense, defense, special teams and overview.
1. Can second-round pick Teven Jenkins nail down the left tackle job and excel?
Jenkins better be able to take the job and run with it because it’s unclear what the fallback plan would be after the Bears released veteran Charles Leno, designating him as a post-June 1 cut to clear $9 million in cap space.
There isn’t a player on the roster with an NFL start at left tackle, and the Bears are placing a great deal of faith in Jenkins — who primarily was a right tackle at Oklahoma State but did make seven starts at left tackle — to emerge as a frontline player as he takes over for Leno, who made 93 consecutive regular-season starts at the position.
Jenkins clearly has the size to be a physical presence, but it’s yet to be seen if he has the athleticism to fit in a scheme that wants to be wide open running RPOs and zone reads. If not, the Bears could consider Alex Bars, who otherwise could be ticketed for a super sub role, or potentially try Cody Whitehair, who has played all three interior spots but likely is earmarked for left guard right now.
This is Jenkins’ job to lose and the Bears are betting on him working out; otherwise, line coach Juan Castillo will be forced to do some juggling.
2. What will the depth chart look like at wide receiver after Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney?
A ton of playing time is up for grabs, and the Bears are expecting big things from Mooney, who set a franchise record for receptions by a rookie wide receiver with 61 in 2020. Nagy has compared him to DeSean Jackson and Tyreek Hill, and that has created expectations for a big step forward in Year 2.
There were 996 snaps that went to wide receivers other than Robinson and Mooney last season, excluding Cordarrelle Patterson, who was on the field for 201 plays but lined up in the backfield a fair amount. Nagy has tried pumping up Anthony Miller as he enters his fourth season, but it’s best to take a believe-it-when-you-see-it approach with him.
Damiere Byrd could push for time along with rookie Dazz Newsome. Riley Ridley barely could get on the field the last two years, so expecting a breakthrough might not be realistic. Personnel groupings in training camp and preseason are worth tracking.
3. Can Sam Mustipher build off the second half of last season?
The Bears stumbled into a pleasant discovery when Mustipher was forced into action at center midway through 2020, playing so well it led to a starting job the rest of the season.
Mustipher was able to get everyone on the same page. The former undrafted free agent has a great opportunity to settle into the job.
4. How will Tarik Cohen fare returning from a torn ACL?
Cohen was lost for the season in Week 3, so barring something unexpected, he should be good to go in training camp.
He was a dangerous player in 2018, when he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 10.2 yards per reception, but he couldn’t get loose the next season. It will be a challenge for Nagy to take advantage of Cohen’s open-field ability as he returns to health.
5. Will Germain Ifedi be a steady option at right tackle?
When the Bears signed Ifedi a year ago, they did so with the idea of moving him inside to right guard. They thought he would be better there than at right tackle, where he spent most of four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
After Bobby Massie went down with a knee injury and more dominoes fell on the line, Ifedi found himself back outside at right tackle, where he started the final six games. He played well enough to earn a one-year, $4.25 million contract, and with fifth-round pick Larry Borom in the mix, he will have to hold off the rookie, who could be part of the plan moving forward.
6. What is the next step for Cole Kmet?
The second-round pick showed incremental growth last season that can be tracked by his playing time, which steadily increased. Kmet has the ability to help in the running game and be an effective passing target in the middle of the field.
“We have outlined some things in our Zoom calls during the Phase 1 part of OTAs,” tight ends coach Clancy Barone said, “and going back looking at all the snaps and things he can certainly get better at, everything from technique to seeing what the defense is pre-snap and post-snap. Those are things that often times the guys get figured out during preseason and didn’t have that chance last year.”
If the Bears are to make major advances on offense, Kmet needs to be part of increased production from the position.
7. What tweaks will first-year coordinator Sean Desai make?
The Bears turned to a Vic Fangio pupil in Desai to lead the defense after a two-year run by Chuck Pagano. The hope is the move will restore some of the mojo the unit last experienced in 2018.
The Bears defense was dominant at times under Pagano but fell off during the second half of last season. Desai won’t be reinventing how the unit plays — and Mike Pettine was hired as a senior assistant to lend a hand to the first-time coordinator — but there should be some slight modifications.
8. How big of an impact will the return of Eddie Goldman make?
The Bears have said only positive things about the nose tackle, who opted out because of COVID-19 last year. He’s an elite run stuffer, and when he’s in the middle of the line the Bears are significantly better against the run. That’s key as the defense slumped to No. 15 against the run last year.
Goldman should be in the prime years of his career at 27, but after taking a year off, it will be interesting to see how he returns.
9. Will Robert Quinn bounce back from a disappointing season?
The Bears’ major offseason plan a year ago was to ramp up the pass rush, and the key move was swapping out former first-round pick Leonard Floyd for the free-agent addition Quinn (five-year, $70 million contract with $30 million fully guaranteed).
That never panned out as Quinn, who was joining his fourth team in as many seasons, had only two sacks while Floyd had 10½ for the Los Angeles Rams.
The 31-year-old Quinn should have some gas left in the tank, but the challenge is on Desai to bring out the best in Quinn, who had four consecutive seasons with 8½ sacks or fewer before posting 11½ with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019.
10. Will a healthy Khalil Mack be a dominant force again?
Mack showed up on the injury report last season with four different issues, and at the end of the year the team said a shoulder injury was problematic but did not require surgery.
Mack still is going to command extra attention from offenses, but as one of the highest-paid defenders in the league, he needs to be able to take over games. If not, the Bears are going to have a ton of money sunk in a very, very good player who’s being paid at an elite level.
11. Is Eddie Jackson primed for a bounce-back season?
It stands to reason that Desai, who served as the safeties coach last season, will know better than anyone how to position Jackson to best use his abilities.
Jackson emerged as a legitimate ballhawking center fielder in 2018, when he made six interceptions, but he has just two since (both in 2019) and sloppy open-field tackling plagued his 2020 season.
The Bears rewarded Jackson in January 2020 with a contract that made him the highest-paid safety in the league, so he needs to play as one of the game’s best.
12. Who will start at cornerback opposite Jaylon Johnson?
This could linger as the biggest question on defense heading into the preseason after the Bears cut Kyle Fuller in a salary-cap move, did not draft a cornerback until the sixth round (Thomas Graham Jr.) and didn’t make a splash in free agency to get a starter.
That leaves veteran Desmond Trufant, who has battled injuries the last two seasons, and Kindle Vildor, who is entering his second season, as the top options currently on the roster.
13. Who replaces Buster Skrine at the nickel position?
Piggybacking off the above question, the Bears also need to identify a slot cornerback. Duke Shelley was the first man off the bench to replace Skrine when he was sidelined by a concussion last year, and Shelley could get the first crack at the job.
Graham could figure in the mix, too, as he lined up as the nickel during rookie minicamp. Maybe DeAndre Houston-Carson merits a look as well after playing well in the dime package in 2020. This is no small decision considering how much teams lean on a third cornerback.
14. Is Danny Trevathan on his last legs?
The venerable inside linebacker got off to a slow start last season and didn’t show the sideline-to-sideline range that made him a valuable member of the defense. He got a little bit better as the season went along, but he’s near the end of a good career. When speed and short-area quickness start to go for a guy who is 31 years old, it’s difficult to recapture.
Veteran Christian Jones was brought back in free agency, but there isn’t a clear transition plan in place.
15. Can Roquan Smith build off a breakthrough 2020 season?
The Bears picked up the fifth-year option in Smith’s contract, a no-brainer because he’s far and away the best first-round pick Ryan Pace has made.
Smith is coming off a season in which he played extremely well with 139 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions, six QB hits, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
The key is for Smith to remain at a dominant level — something the Bears are banking on as they likely consider a long-term extension.
16. Can the kickoff return game remain strong after the loss of Cordarrelle Patterson?
Coming off consecutive seasons with the best kickoff returner in the league, the Bears will be challenged to provide quality field position for the offense.
Patterson was a threat to score every time he caught the ball — even deep in the end zone — and there isn’t a clear replacement on the roster. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor will have to sort through a variety of options, and ball security will be his first concern.
It’s worth mentioning Patterson was an elite gunner on the punt coverage team, another hole created by his departure.
17. Can Cairo Santos keep his hot streak going?
Santos finished last season connecting on 27 consecutive field-goal attempts, which set him up for a payday before free agency.
Re-signing Santos ended the merry-go-round the team has had annually at the position. Now he has to continue to perform so the Bears can stop hearing about what would have been had Robbie Gould remained in place.
18. Is there any cap flexibility for another addition?
The Bears are pressed up against the salary cap, and that will make roster maneuvers challenging. Of course, space can be created if it’s really needed.
Would Pace consider making a play for the right backstop at left tackle or cornerback? It’s worth pondering.
19. Matt Nagy has made it clear he’s calling plays again. What will that mean for the offense?
The answer probably hinges more on how Fields performs than anything else.
But Fields has a diverse skill set and the ability to do damage with his legs and gives Nagy a QB he has handpicked.
It’s up to Nagy to maximize things for an offense that has had a tough time reaching the end zone.
20. How close to normal will training camp be this summer?
Hopefully very close to normal.
The Bears moved their summer operation back to Halas Hall to take advantage of their facilities, and if COVID-19 restrictions are not burdensome, it should be a benefit — but not as great as actually having a preseason to put young players such as Fields to the test.