LAKE FOREST, Ill. – For the most part, honestly, there’s not much to learn from OTAs. Watching guys play in non-contact shorts gives you maybe 20% insight into what this team will be like when the pads are on and games matter in the fall.
But OTAs can give you a starting point, a basis for your beliefs about what a team can be if things fall into place. Last May, the Bears opened OTAs, and the writing was immediately on the wall for what was to come in the 2022 season.
Learning of his second offense in two seasons, quarterback Justin Fields struggled against a defense that had stripped most of its key contributors. The ball landed on the turf countless times as Fields tried to build relationships with a group of receivers outside of Darnell Mooney. The offensive line, which was about to undergo a seismic change with the insertion of rookie Braxton Jones, did not look like a unit doomed to exceed low expectations.
Even the defense that won those first practices didn’t have much to put in their mouths. Rookies Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker brought excitement, while safety Eddie Jackson vowed to be reborn in the HITS principle. But other than that, the defense lacked the necessary presence of a unit capable of carrying a team through a dismantled season. There were few game changers. The fall after Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn, Jackson and Jaylon Johnson was akin to the fall of El Capitan. Smith and Quinn were gone by the time November rolled around.
The Bears’ first feeling of 2022 was that they would struggle mightily on both sides of the ball. This first impression turned out to be correct.
But things looked different at Halas Hall on Tuesday when the media watched its first OTA session of the spring. The workout wasn’t crisp, but that’s what you’d expect from a voluntary workout in late May. But there was a different feeling around the 2023 Bears than the one that hung over the group last May. Whoever reported the arrow is pointing up even though a legitimate claim could be a year away.
The reason? Two newcomers, one on each side of the ball, give the Bears something they didn’t have a year ago. There is a presence that comes with an elite pedigree. A feeling you get when watching players who make a difference.
During the first OTA sessions of 2023, DJ Moore and Tremaine Edmunds quickly gave the impression that things would be different in 2023. Let the arrow point up.
Watching Moore operate, even against Kindle Vildor, Jaylon Jones and Michael Ojemudia, you get an immediate idea of his talent. The ability to create separation with quick clearances and rare speed gives the Bears a go-to weapon that can change the tenor of a game. It’s something they were sorely lacking in 2022.
Moore doesn’t live in the Justin Jefferson-Davante Adams neighborhood of elite receivers, but he is in the one next door. He has a Stefon Diggs-like ability to win in different ways (deep play, fast play, middle play, etc.) and suck up yards after the catch.
Even without Mooney’s rehabilitation on the field, the Bears’ passing offense felt a lot different than it did 12 months ago. Fields hit Moore five times, including a deep strike after Moore opened up with a deft double move on Vildor.
“It’s pretty rare when you have a guy who can race the road, have the road discipline he has and the [Football Intelligence] that he has, and then also that speed and that talent that he has,” head coach Matt Eberflus said. “So we’re excited to know where he is right now.”
“Strength, speed, body control, good hands. I think he knows how to use his body to open up,” echoed Fields. “I think that’s a big part of the receivers. He knows how to rock a route, so he’s rarely going to run a hundred percent on every route. He has that second gear to get the ball. I think that’s is what makes him a great receiver, just his understanding of coverage, seeing defense well, and stuff like that.”
While Moore is giving the Bears’ offense a level they didn’t have last season, Edmunds is doing the same for a defense that was truly obnoxious in 2022.
The Bears traded Smith at the deadline last season, cutting the bait with an elite off-ball linebacker at the peak of his career. The reason? Failure to find common ground in contract extension talks and belief that Smith was not a good plan for the defense of Eberflus.
Conventional wisdom would say that Smith is the type of player you fit your plan with, but that’s not how the Eberflus-Ryan Poles scheme works.
So the Bears traded Smith and paid big money to bring in Edmunds, another elite off-ball linebacker with a poor ball production history, to fill his spot.
It was a curious move, given Edmunds’ lack of ball production at Buffalo. But the media perspective during Tuesday’s OTA session provided a clear picture of why Eberflus wanted Edmunds.
The media watched 11v11 and 7v7 behind the attack. Edmunds immediately stood out due to his height and length in midfield. While Smith is a big thumper, he lacked the length and size to fill the passing lanes the same way Edmunds did.
Edmunds finished the session by jumping to take off backup quarterback PJ Walker and pulling off a big non-contact return.
Seeing how Edmunds impacts throwing lanes and uses his length to disrupt passes and create turnovers, you feel like the Bears defense should force more takeouts in 2023. At the very least, the Bears should put up much more resistance than they did in 2022. Having an elite playmaker in a critical spot in the middle of defense raises the floor for Eberflus’ unit considerably.
Will the defense be elitist? No. The lack of pass rush makes that unlikely. But seeing Edmunds in person gives an idea of what the Bears want to build on defense.
“I’m excited. I’m excited,” Edmunds said. “Just because I feel like I’m going to be able to make a lot of plays. Obviously just because of his background in defense, he has a great understanding of it. Just put the guys in position. In as a player that’s all you can really ask for is to be in a position and now it’s my turn to go make the game. So I’m just excited about what’s to come, just walking through it every day, of course, it’s just a stepping stone. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
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The Bears are still on the ground floor of a massive rebuild. Moore and Edmunds won’t take them from 3-14 to 14-3.
But adding legit high-level talent to key positions gives the Bears a vibe they didn’t have last season as they prepared to crater.
I covered the 49ers, Raiders and Patriots. There’s a different aura around a team with guys whose peers describe them as “guys.” Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Rob Gronkowski, Fred Warner and, yes, Antonio Brown come to mind.
The Bears had none last year. There’s an argument to be made that Fields will knock on that door at the end of the season if certain checkpoints are hit.
For now, Moore and Edmunds are serving as two pieces creating the changing tides. Gravitational forces that can drag everyone down with them and be the building blocks of the sequel.
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