(670 The Score) When Bears general manager Ryan Poles was hired in January, he shared his goal of building a roster to have sustained success. The first year of that plan has brought great challenges and reminders of how difficult it can be to rebuild as the team evaluates its players.
The Bears are 3-10 and have lost six straight games, but they're also currently in line to land the No. 2 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and are projected to have the most salary cap space in the NFL when the new league year arrives in March.
The best news for the Bears is that 23-year-old Justin Fields appears to be the type of quarterback whom they can build around. He has emerged in his second NFL season despite a lack of talent and continuity around him.
With four games remaining in the season, the Bears are starting many players who won’t be in the team’s plans next season, but there are also a handful who will be counted on to be key contributors moving forward. With that in mind, here are five players of consequence to watch down the stretch.
QB Justin Fields
The No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Fields is having a wonderful season and is the most instrumental building block in the Bears’ future.
Fields has showcased the dynamic playmaking the Bears need and looks like an ascending star. His passing numbers aren’t eye-popping, as he has completed 61.7% of his passes for 1,896 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but there’s hope he'll become a more prolific passer once Poles adds a better supporting cast around him.
Where Fields has really shined is with his rushing ability, as he has already set several records for quarterbacks. Fields has accumulated 905 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground in 12 games. He has made a number of highlight-reel plays with his legs this season, most recently a spectacular 55-yard touchdown run in a loss to the Packers on Sunday.
Fields suffered a separated left shoulder late in Chicago's loss at Atlanta on Nov. 20. Rather than shutting him down for an extended period of time, the Bears had him return to action when he felt much better after missing one game. That's because they value the experience and continued development he can get in the final games of the season. This bye week should allow Fields to feel even healthier for the stretch run.
CB Jaylon Johnson
Johnson certainly doesn’t lack confidence. With a few elite receivers still left on the Bears' schedule for Johnson to square off with, he’s ready to continue to prove himself.
“I don’t want to say I circle the games, but I just look forward to those matchups,” Johnson said Monday. “A.J. Brown (of the Eagles), Devonta Smith (Eagles), (Stefon) Diggs (Bills), all those guys, Gabe Davis (Bills). I mean, those premier matchup guys, like I've said from day one since I got in this building, it’s something I want. It’s really just one week at a time. I'm going to take this week. I'm going to win this week. I’m going to go prepare for the next week. I’m going to win that week. And just go from there, really.”
The upcoming matchups for the 23-year-old Johnson will give the Bears more to evaluate as they can consider a long-term contract extension for him this offseason. A second-round pick of the Bears in 2020, Johnson is currently set to enter a contract year in 2023.
If Johnson continues to assert himself as a top cornerback, he'll earn his future in Chicago. Though the Bears' defense has struggled this season, Johnson has had another strong season.
WR Chase Claypool
The Bears made a bold move when they dealt their own second-round pick to the Steelers for Claypool ahead of the Nov. 1 trade deadline. At the time, Poles didn't commit to offering Claypool a contract extension as he currently works in the third season of his four-year rookie deal. Instead, Poles indicated that he wants to see Claypool earn his place in the Bears’ future.
It has taken time for Claypool to grow comfortable with his role in the offense. He has just 12 receptions for 111 yards and no touchdowns in five games, including five catches against the Packers on Sunday.
What Claypool and Fields accomplish in the final four games can serve as a foundation for a stronger connection for next season, and they could also benefit from an offseason of working together.
TE Cole Kmet
The Bears seem to have unlocked Kmet this season, as he has 35 receptions for 408 yards and five touchdowns while emerging as a key target for Fields.
More specifically, Fields has found Kmet in mismatches as designed by offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and also on his own volition by extending plays. The 23-year-old Kmet has also proved to be a strong in-line blocking presence at tight end.
Kmet has emerged as a reliable presence in the Bears’ offense and a key part of their plans. Like Johnson, Kmet was selected in the second round in 2020 and should merit an extension remain with the Bears in the long term.
LT Braxton Jones
There aren't many teams in the NFL that would trust a rookie selected in the fifth round to step in as their starting left tackle. But the rebuilding Bears were in such a position with Jones, who has played every snap on offense this season while protecting Fields' blindside.
The 23-year-old Jones ranks 20th out of 58 eligible offensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, and Bears coach Matt Eberflus praised his continued development.
“Does he need to improve? Sure,” Eberflus said. “All the rookies need to improve. Everyone needs to get better. But he’s improving. He’s getting better. He’s showing his maturity.”
As the Bears assess how they can improve their offensive line, they need to decide whether Jones is the answer at left tackle. There are four games remaining for him to prove his place at the position – and to cap off his rookie season with conviction.
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.