10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears reported to Halas Hall Tuesday for the start of training camp, the first under new general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus.
Can the Bears, at the end of this season, definitively say if Fields has the potential to be the long-sought answer at the most problematic position for the organization?
If the answer is yes, the Bears season, no matter the record, will be a success. If the answer is no, Poles will have a clear No. 1 priority for next offseason. If the answer is murky and if the Bears are uncertain, that is the worst-case scenario because it will leave the club in limbo, an all too familiar position when it comes to quarterbacks.
The Bears have praised Fields at every turn, and the start of training camp and arrival of preseason action (it remains to be seen how much he will play) brings the next phase as he’s introduced to offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s system. That makes the next seven weeks fascinating. Some will hang on every highlight, but it’s really more important to see if he can make steady progressions between now and the start of the regular season.
“I would say that his leadership and his grasp of the offense was outstanding,” Eberflus said Tuesday when asked what he learned about Fields from workouts. “The way he learned and the way he grew. And we talked about his footwork and his fundamentals, that’s through the roof going in a positive way too. So he’s doing a great job right now. We’re excited about having him grow every single day and he is too. He’s not where he needs to be, but this is why we have training camp. He’s just going to keep getting better and better and better all the way to the first game.”
Poles talked about the command Fields showed in the offense through the spring and the hope it will continue to grow as the coaching staff puts more on his plate.
“He’s going to have to continue to grow based on what he sees and (what) the defense throws at him,” Poles said. “And I think one of the most important pieces is that command. Continue to bring that command and that leadership, and I thought you saw that as we were finishing up the offseason as well.”
There were some bumpy days for Fields and the offense in the spring. Those should not be forgotten, but it’s about what he does now when he takes the field for the first practice Wednesday. It’s a different feeling for him entirely than a year ago at this time with a different staff and Andy Dalton in the role of QB1. The experience Fields gained as a rookie is invaluable and although he’s learning a new system, much of what he went through can be applied.
If Fields takes a huge step forward in Year 2, it can be a transcendent season for the Bears. That possibility makes this the story to track.
The GM seemed somewhat caught off guard about questions around the linebacker, who NFL Network reported Monday night may be prepared to stage a “hold in,” meaning he will be present but won’t practice.
“I’m not gonna get into that situation at this time,” Poles said.
He did say Smith and defensive end Robert Quinn, who skipped the voluntary offseason workout program and was a no-show for mandatory minicamp, had reported to training camp.
“I don’t know what (Smith’s) intentions are,” Poles said. “I know he checked in and we’re gonna take it from there and gather information and take it one step at a time. That’s all I can do.”
All contract negotiations are delicate. All have their own unique circumstances. Smith’s situation is at a different level for a couple of factors. First, he’s a former first-round draft pick who has played very well. He could be in line for an extension that puts him at or near the top of the food chain for off the ball linebackers. That figure is approaching $20 million annually. Smith is not registered with an agent, according to the NFLPA, and has not been for a long time. Sources say Smith is being advised by a family member.
Poles, when was asked if Smith is still representing himself, said “you’ll have to … yeah, I’m not gonna talk about that.”
Does a player working without representation complicate things?
“If a player didn’t have an agent, it would be a different situation than if they did,” Poles said.
Agents, per NFLPA guidelines, can collect a maximum commission of 3%. When a player is working without an agent, it can complicate negotiations. When it involves a contract that could approach $100 million over five years, for instance, it’s even more complex.
It makes basic negotiations more difficult for the club. Instead of having a conversation with an agent where both sides are posturing at different points, that can take on a very personal level. Let’s say a team sees the player in a range with a handful of others at the position but also just below another handful. Communicating that directly to the player is a different deal than communicating via an agent.
Linebacker Bobby Wagner and offensive tackle Russell Okung were criticized in the past for contracts they negotiated on their own. Of course, agents don’t want players working without representation because that means they won’t be paid, but some criticisms certainly appear valid.
Smith’s decision puts Poles in an interesting position right away in the GM’s first year. The rest of the players in the locker room will keep a close eye on things, as will the agent community. Can a rookie GM be pushed into doing a deal quickly if a player sits out practices?
“You kind of want to see how the business is done, considering that this is a new staff,” said cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who will be eligible for a new contract after the season. “I mean definitely it is a start to kind of see what the business is going to look like around here. But at the end of the day, everybody’s situation is different.
“So I mean really if I handle what I need to handle and God continues to do what he has done in my life, then I don’t have any stresses, any pressure to feel any type of way about his situation or my future situation.”
It would have been nice if the Bears had made Smith available to speak. He could have told his side of things and clearly stated his plans are and what he’s seeking. The Bears have to be careful — they can’t do a deal with Smith that could be roundly hailed as a victory for the team. That could lead to a resentful player.
I don’t think this is a situation where there is a clear side that’s in the right. From Smith’s standpoint, he’s played at a high level for four seasons and is deserving of the security that comes with a second contract. His four-year rookie deal paid him just less than $18.5 million and the fifth-year option he’s under will pay him $9.735 million.
I can totally understand if Poles and the front office wishes to see Smith perform in the new coaching staff’s system before taking the kind of leap this contract would represent. When Smith gets a new deal, and you have to imagine it will happen eventually, it will likely be the second-largest in franchise history behind only Khalil Mack. Keep in mind, the Bears will have the franchise tag at their disposal for Smith after this season.
It’s a heck of a beginning to camp for Poles and Smith, and hopefully one that leads to a positive outcome for all parties. It’s blurry right now because Poles didn’t shed any light on the situation and Smith wasn’t available.
That was six years ago and involved a deal on a much smaller scale. Young received a $13.55 million, two-year extension that included $11.05 million in new money, $9 million of which was guaranteed.
Much of the groundwork for the deal was done by Joel Segal, a veteran agent who represented Young before the player severed ties. In the end, Young completed the deal with then-GM Ryan Pace.
“Based on this point in my career right now, there has been a lot of work that has been put in since Day 1 by me,” Young told me at the time. “And I just wanted to be honest to myself. I wanted to make sure that my message and my points were getting across the way I wanted them to.
“Me and my (former) agent (Segal), we’re fine. We didn’t end on bad terms. I just felt that for the sake of Willie Young and my family, I wanted to make sure about that because this could potentially be my last deal. I wanted to make sure that it was done in a way that I had no doubts about.”
Young represented himself shortly after Okung, without an agent, did a $53 million, five-year deal with the Denver Broncos. That contract had no guaranteed money and Denver moved on from the offensive tackle after one season and $8 million. Young’s story didn’t have a bad ending as he wound up being rewarded properly for playing well for the Bears.
“I’m not encouraging guys to go and try to represent themselves,” Young said. “It doesn’t always work out the way that it did for me. First, you have to start by going out and making plays. If you’re not making plays, you might want to reconsider your options before you start thinking about representing yourself. If you’re making your plays, then life is a lot easier. You just need to know your situation. You have to have an understanding of your value and you have to have some big (guts) too. We’re not talking about a $100 deal here. There is a lot that comes into play. I did a lot of research.”
Young also wasn’t talking about a $100 million deal — and Smith might be, which is another reason why this story will be interesting to track.
The lineup Wednesday could look significantly different after the team signed Riley Reiff to a one-year contract, a day after veteran Michael Schofield signed a one-year deal. Reiff and Schofield both figure to be in the mix for a starting role, especially Reiff, who is “likely” to earn $10 million according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Reiff, 33, joins his third NFC North club after spending five seasons with the Detroit Lions and three with the Minnesota Vikings before playing last year for the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.
“They need a guy like Reiff,” one personnel director said via text message. “He’s a hard ass and will be good in the locker room.”
That personnel director said word on the street was as many as three teams were pursuing Reiff, and now the Bears have a player that can potentially slide in at left tackle. Schofield has played primarily right tackle and right guard in his career, so where the Bears start him at and how that impacts the other position — or positions — will be interesting.
In a perfect world, the Bears would have some youngsters — Jones, Borom, Mustipher, Teven Jenkins — emerge as an option. Reality is if Reiff and/or Schofield start, they’re bridge players, and the team will need to search for replacements when free agency rolls around in March. The Bears used four late-round picks on offensive linemen, so the arrival of a pair of veterans potentially provides the rookies with time to learn while on the sideline.
Poles and Matt Eberflus have talked at length about creating competition, and now they have two veterans with tons of starting experience for line coach Chris Morgan. The first practice in full pads won’t be until Monday because of league rules. How quickly things come together remains to be seen for a group that would appear to have only two starters entrenched — left guard Cody Whitehair and center Lucas Patrick.
“That’s like a hot topic with the O-line,” Patrick said. “You put enough work in in meetings and practice that you could say there’s never enough time or there’s always too much time. So that’s not really much of an answer, but I know the two guys we just signed are veterans. It’s always good to have guys like that. The other veterans we have in the room with Cody and Sam — he’s played a lot of ball — we’ve kinda leaned on those guys for the young guys to figure things out and talk to each other that way.”
Poles said he has not had a conversation with the veteran pass rusher about a trade. Quinn has not been in the building since showing up to receive the veteran Piccolo Award in April.
“I would hope that he wants to be here, so nothing’s changed on that front,” Poles said.
I asked Poles how Quinn fits into a roster that has had massive turnover with a lot of veterans, especially higher paid ones, moved out in the beginning stages of a transformation for the organization.
“I think it’s important to have guys who are experienced, that have had success in the league and know how to play and practice,” Poles said. “For me, that’s what he brings.”
There’s no arguing that. But Quinn could potentially bring a mid-round 2023 draft pick in return if the Bears are able to trade him — and that would be valuable for a GM who scrambled to trade for late-round picks in April. It’s possible there isn’t a big market for Quinn right now, but pass rushers will always be in need. If Quinn can be productive as he was last season when he set a franchise record with 18 ½ sacks, Poles might choose a different direction.
That will give a big contingent of players, many of them newcomers, opportunities. The Bears traded a 2024 seventh-round pick to the New England Patriots for former first-round pick N’Keal Harry, whose career has been mostly stalled.
“I think he has a really good skill set, great physical traits and I think he has something to prove, for sure,” Poles said. “I think he has the chance to improve this football team.”
The Bears are focused on how Harry can fit for them and where he can help — not on everything that didn’t happen for the Patriots.
“There’s a lot of factors,” Poles said. “I just know what he’s capable of. And I want to give him the opportunity to come here and show that he can do that and get things on the right path.”
Harry joins Byron Pringle, third-round pick Velus Jones, Equanimeous St. Brown and a host of others battling for not just roster spots but playing time and targets. Poles likes the ides that the Bears have a bunch of wide receivers with chips on their shoulders. That remains to be seen. Darnell Mooney is the only player virtually assured a spot and a large percentage of throws from Fields. Poles no doubt views Pringle as a player ready for a larger role after signing him in free agency following their time together in Kansas City. The Bears have raved about Jones, as well as St. Brown because of his physical attributes and connection to Getsy.
I don’t know if the Bears will feel great about any players from this group in 2023. Jones could grow into a role for sure, and the rest have plenty to prove. At least the Bears have bet on the upside of some receivers instead of going with retreads from other clubs with established ceilings.
Muhammad is one of the few players with experience in Eberflus’ system, but what is believed to be an unknown injury sidelined the defensive end throughout the spring.
Eberflus expressed excitement in getting Muhammad on the field. Not only does Muhammad know the ins and outs of the defensive scheme, he understands the tempo that staff expects players to work at during practice.
“That’s why we brought him in,” Eberflus said. “On the onset, the thinking was he holds the standard, he is the guy that’s going to show the players how to play in terms of the effort, in terms of intensity, in terms of execution. So, he’s just a try-hard guy that’s really optimized what he has. He had a really good summer and we’re really excited about where he is.”
Getting Muhammad on the field is significant just like it is to have Quinn in the building and ready to go.
While players were introduced to how much the new coach wants them to run during the offseason program, it could reach a new level once training camp begins. Hopefully, the vast majority of the roster is prepared for the grind.
Former coach Lovie Smith had a similar approach when he started in 2004. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher went down with a hamstring injury in the first hour of the first practice in Bourbonnais — the first of 13 players that suffered a hamstring injury in practice or preseason. It was a lot for a young team to overcome but it set the tone for the expectation of performance on the field.
Keep an eye on how this team holds up.
That is something that could create added roster flexibility when it’s time to make decisions on cuts to form an initial 53-man roster.
“We have a lot of spots on the roster that are in flux right now and we’re just trying to find the best combination of players,” he said. “Offensive line moving guys from outside to inside, and if it’s defensive line, moving a guy around for pass rush purposes, inside or outside. We’re going to do that all across the roster. Moving a corner from outside to inside, moving a receiver from outside to inside, we’re going to do all those different things to find out the best combination.”
Eberflus has used the saying that he wants a pair and a spare for every position, and leaned on that when asked what he will do if Smith doesn’t practice.
“To me, I look at opportunity,” Eberflus said. “So whenever I’ve had this in the past, where it’s somebody is either not in or soft tissue injury or whatever that might be, what we have to do as coaches is look at opportunity. What we should do is develop our depth. You will see that and it’s going to be opportunities for those guys to grow with new experience.”
Adams was charged with illegal firearms possession and Moore was charged with possession of a controlled substance and unlawful carrying of weapons. That’s not the kind of offseason news the team wanted to generate after Pringle was cited for reckless driving in the spring.
“As a manager, it bothered me a lot,” Poles said. “Anytime your phone goes off and there’s an issue, you’ve got to take responsibility. It’s on my watch.
“I had conversations with everyone. I had conversations about how I felt about it. There were mistakes made, for sure. There’s a process when that happens through the league, through our team security, all that stuff. But as a leader of an organization, when the phone goes off and there’s an incident and we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do and we know what the standards are of being a Chicago Bear, absolutely it bothers me.”