4 key questions before training camp starts

Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus sent his team into the summer break with the message that players must stick to their individual strength, conditioning and nutrition plans to get their bodies ready for training camp.

After nine organized team activity drills, a team bonding event at the United Center and a three-day mandatory minicamp, the Bears have five weeks to regroup before preparations for the 2023 season kick into high gear.

As the Bears reset, the Tribune’s team of writers addressed four key topics surrounding the team.

Brad Biggs: DJ Moore.

The rookie wide receiver was impossible to miss, and with him wearing the No. 2 jersey, the Bears are banking on a series of big plays from the 1 (Justin Fields) to the 2. At times, passing elements at practice had a purpose, and that was easy to tell that the coaching staff tried to ease the relationship on the field. Moore isn’t particularly tall — he’s listed at 6-foot-1 — but he’s thick and powerful and is a capable route runner. I should note that it was impossible to miss the size and length of linebacker Tremaine Edmunds in the middle of the defense. He plays with good range, and you have to believe that defensive coordinator Alan Williams is looking forward to seeing Edmunds feature on a ton of takeaways.

Colleen Kane: DJ Moore.

This isn’t really a surprise given Moore’s production over five seasons in Carolina with multiple quarterbacks. But it is nevertheless a reason for optimism. Moore and Fields seemed to quickly develop an easy chemistry. Fields told reporters on the final day of veteran minicamp that Moore’s body language was easy to read and his communication and experience helped speed up the adjustment process. Given the struggles of the Bears passing game last season — and the lack of wide receiver depth in recent years — it was striking to see Moore play during practices as the No. 1 receiver the Bears have been waiting for.

Dan Reiner: DJ Moore.

It was a small sample size, of course. But very quickly you could see the growing chemistry between Moore and Fields and what that could mean for a Bears offense in need of a boost. Moore’s ability to use his speed, strength and smarts to create separation makes him a quarterback-friendly target on every series. Fields needs a trusted go-to guy, so the early click was impressive. Creating that synergy this spring is invaluable, especially as the Bears try to revitalize their passing attack by becoming more productive on third down, in the red zone and in clutch moments. Defensive tackle Justin Jones was among the many players and coaches who noted the Fields-to-Moore connection. “It’s going to be crazy this year,” Jones said.

Bears running back Roschon Johnson practices during organized team activities on June 7 at Halas Hall.

Biggs: Gervon Dexter.

The defensive tackle is a sight to behold at 6-6, 312 pounds. There’s really no wrong answer here because right tackle Darnell Wright and cornerback Tyrique Stevenson are intriguing. But given the team’s needs — the Bears were really undermanned on the interior of the defensive line last season — and the explosive penetration Dexter possesses, he’ll be interesting to watch. When David Turner, the defensive line coach at Florida in Dexter’s first two seasons with the Gators, drew a comparison (at least in part) to another defensive tackle he coached — Kansas City Chiefs star Chris Jones — it caught my attention.

Sleigh: Tyrique Stevenson.

Eberflus and safety Eddie Jackson had positive things to say about the mindset Stevenson, a second-round pick, brought to OTAs and minicamp. Eberflus said his competitiveness and confidence were more like a veteran, and Jackson compared him to second-year safety Jaquan Brisker in terms of his drive and passion to play. Brisker turned in a pretty good rookie season, so I’m intrigued to see how Stevenson looks in training camp. Eberflus said he wants to see Stevenson get into “elite shape” over the next six weeks, and the coach believes the Bears will see Stevenson take a step forward when they can get pads on and he can be more physical. A secondary led by Jaylon Johnson, Stevenson, Kyler Gordon, Jackson and Brisker could be fun to watch.

Again: Roschon Johnson.

Stevenson is a close second for me given his size, confidence and competitiveness. He has already made a rapid rise and projects to be a Week 1 starter if he stays on this trajectory. Johnson, on the other hand, is part of a crowded running backs group that also includes Khalil Herbert, D’Onta Foreman, Trestan Ebner and Travis Homer. It’s not out of the question that Johnson will need time to emerge as a regular contributor and could use his rookie season to make his biggest impact on special teams. But with the way the Bears have talked about his skills, leadership and work habits, it’s also easy to envision him playing a significant role in the backfield fairly quickly. Spring drills only offer running back evaluation. So when the pads hit training camp and the Bears get into preseason action in August, it will be fun to get a true status report on Johnson.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields practices during organized team activities June 7 at Halas Hall.

Biggs: That he has improved since the start of the offseason.

The Bears want the timing and rhythm of the passing game to improve. It starts with Fields’ footwork and continues his progressions and decisions. The Bears will likely be a run-based offense again. It makes sense. They can be so much more dynamic with some improvements in the passing game. That’s really the focus of the entire season after the moves GM Ryan Poles made to surround Fields with better talent.

Sleigh: Continued and constant growth.

There is no doubt that the 2023 season will be a big one for Fields. The Bears put their faith in him instead of using the No. 1 pick to draft a quarterback, believing he would make the necessary strides in his second season under coordinator Luke Getsy to elevate the passing offense. And the Bears can pick up Fields’ fifth-year option for 2025 next spring if he makes that progress. Knowledge of these efforts will likely enhance the outside evaluation of his ups and downs in training camp. But Fields just needs to keep building — on the chemistry he’s developed with Moore, on the confidence in his leadership that has caught the attention of teammates, and on the points Eberflus laid out for him: “increasing the footwork, his the platform, the timing, his release, the readings.”

Again: Comfort leading to confidence leading to command.

It’s well established that Fields will need to check a long list of boxes in 2023 to establish himself as the QB1 the Bears want to invest in well beyond his rookie deal. They’re asking Fields to show better pocket presence in his third season, to process what he sees from defenses more quickly and use his breathtaking gifts as a run more selectively. Eberflus listed five areas of focus for Fields to continue working on throughout the summer: footwork, timing, platform, release and reading. Those are things Fields will be judged on throughout training camp as he tries to make a significant leap.

Bears defensive end DeMarcus Walker practices during organized team activities May 23 at Halas Hall.

Biggs: Justin Fields.

I thought about saying the passport rush, but there’s not much mystery there. The Bears hope some younger players break through and provide more consistent pressure this season. You have to remember what Polak said in the spring when he acknowledged one way or another that the team would have some roster spots that left something to be desired. It’s probably best not to mention the offensive line or wide receiver here. So Fields is the biggest question because the Bears don’t quite know what his career trajectory will look like. The 2023 season will show us where things are headed for the franchise in a year – when the hope is that a methodical rebuilding phase has the team ready to seriously compete.

Sleigh: Will the Bears add more edge rushing talent?

This has been a question for months after the most important offseason arrival to the defensive ends group was DeMarcus Walker. The veteran is a solid addition and seems determined to take on a leadership role. But given the thin returning group — and the lack of investment at the position through the draft — it’s natural to expect another signing. That’s not the only question I have. I also want to know if Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool will be healthy for training camp. Eberflus said he expects Mooney to return from his rehab from an ankle injury in time for camp, and he characterized Claypool’s issues that kept him out of minicamp as minor. Their returns will be key. Even with Moore at the top, the receiving corps looks very different without the two.

Again: Whether they will add a known pass rusher before September.

Polakker and Eberflus have indicated they are pushing to check that box before training camp. But there has been little clarity about who they had to turn to and when a possible union might come. However, don’t be surprised if the Poles add a veteran pass rusher to their roster by next month’s reporting date. The current group — Walker, Trevis Gipson, Dominique Robinson and Terrell Lewis — feels like it could use a boost. And Poles are as aware of this as anyone else. The Bears finished last in the NFL with 20 sacks last season, and if their defense is going to be impressive again, it must start up front with the ability to put heat on quarterbacks.

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