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Bears' Offseason Moves Provide Chance to Go From Worst to First

I had a close-up view of one of the greatest worst-to-first teams in NFL history when the 1999 “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams rebounded from an NFC-worst 4-12 to an NFC-best 13-3 on their way to a Super Bowl victory against my Tennessee Titans.

Last season’s worst team was the Chicago Bears, who finished 3-14 with 10 straight losses to end the season. It remains to be seen how much the Bears improve in 2023, but they’re off to a roaring start with impact signings in free agency and with the draft capital assembled from trading away defensive stars last season and the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to the Carolina Panthers.

The Bears are unlikely to pull off a ’99 Rams feat. It's unlikely, but it’s possible the Bears step up and win the NFC North where the defending champion Minnesota Vikings and the surging Detroit Lions are expected to lead the way. The Bears also would have to jump the Green Bay Packers in Year 1 of the Jordan Love era.

How Bears Have Improved

Chicago Bears linebacker Tremaine Edmunds

Active in Free Agency

Chicago entered free agency as the league leader in salary cap room with more than $100 million. General manager Ryan Poles quickly went to work signing players, but he made sure to negotiate many reasonable or bargain deals.

Poles made a concerted effort to address the defense that ranked No. 29 overall and No. 31 against the run after he had jettisoned key players during the season. The team traded its best defensive player, linebacker Roquan Smith (to the Baltimore Ravens for second- and fifth-round picks this year), and fading defensive end Robert Quinn (to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fourth-rounder this year).

Khalil Mack, another productive defensive player, was traded last year to the Los Angeles Chargers for a 2022 second-rounder and a 2023 sixth-rounder. The second-rounder wound up being starting safety Jaquan Brisker, who had 104 tackles and four sacks. A stout but aging defensive lineman in Akiem Hicks also left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season.

With these moves, Poles cleared a lot of cap room (Mack alone freed up $28.5 million this year). The Bears then reinvested some of that money back into the defense.

Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds (from Buffalo: four years, $72 million) and T.J. Edwards (from Philadelphia: three years, $19.5 million) were signed to be playmakers for coach Matt Eberflus’ defense. Edmunds had 102 tackles last season despite missing four games, and Edwards is a bargain signing for a player who led the NFC champs with 159 tackles.

DeMarcus Walker had seven sacks last season for the Titans, and he was signed to a three-year, $21 million deal to help a Chicago pass rush that produced a league-low 20 sacks last season.

Making Offensive Changes

On offense, the Bears are sticking with the talented Justin Fields at quarterback and are trying to significantly improve his supporting cast. Fields was sacked a league-high 55 times and was often running to escape pressure (on his way to 1,143 rushing yards and eight TDs). Chicago signed one of the top guards available in Nate Davis (three years, $30 million), who was a four-year starter in Tennessee and an excellent run blocker for Derrick Henry while improving as a pass protector.

The Bears also hit free agency to help their NFL-worst passing attack (only 130 yards per game in 2022) with the addition of ex-Packers tight end Robert Tonyan. He caught 52 passes for 586 yards and 11 TDs in 2020 before an ACL injury derailed him the following season. Tonyan rebounded with 52 catches for 470 yards and two TDs last season, and he should team up with Cole Kmet (50 catches, 544 yards, 7 TDs in 2022) to make a fine pair of tight ends. Tonyan’s one-year, $2.65 million contract looks like a steal if he can stay healthy.

Acquiring former first-round wide receiver DJ Moore from the trade of the No. 1 overall pick is a key addition. Despite playing with shaky Panthers' QBs, Moore was a 1,000-yard plus receiver three straight years from 2019-2021 before catching 63 passes for 888 yards and seven TDs last season. He will start with the underrated Darnell Mooney, who had 81 receptions, 1,055 yards, and four TDs in 2021 before an ankle injury limited him to 12 starts and 40 catches last season.

The third wide receiver spot is likely up for grabs between a newcomer from the upcoming draft, a returning Equanimeous St. Brown and Chase Claypool. Claypool was a major disappointment last season with only 14 catches in seven games after his mid-season acquisition from Pittsburgh for a high second-round pick (No. 32 overall). Poles probably would like to have that one back.

Chicago is replacing top running back David Montgomery (signed with Detroit) with a less expensive power back in D’Onta Foreman on another bargain deal (one year, $3 million). Foreman is coming off a career year in Carolina where he rushed for 914 yards (with a 4.5-yard average). He will share running back duties with Khalil Herbert. Poles also re-signed one of the league’s top fullbacks in Khari Blasingame, who contributed to the NFL’s top rushing attack last season and is solid in pass protection.

It's clear the Bears have made significant strides in improving their talent base with these recent signings. They still have a reported $38 million in cap room, so they can hit phase two of free agency for several more astute signings. Then, it’s draft time, and Chicago is sitting pretty with 10 picks, including four in the first three rounds.

Draft Possibilities

The expectation is the Bears will target pass rushers and offensive linemen with those picks to shore up two of the team’s weaker areas. It won’t be the top-rated pass rusher Will Anderson (scouting report) unless Poles moves up several spots, but the Bears still should be able to draft a blue-chip defensive lineman or edge rusher at No. 9.

That could include Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson (scouting report), Georgia's Nolan Smith (scouting report) or Jalen Carter (scouting report) if he slips due to character concerns. They could pursue a top offensive lineman like Ohio State's Paris Johnson (scouting report), Northwestern's Peter Skoronski (scouting report) or Georgia's Broderick Jones (scouting report).

Chicago should add to its wide receiver corps with one of its two second-round picks. Also, the first-round pick in 2024 from the Panthers could wind up being a top-10 pick if Carolina doesn’t improve. Chicago is getting a second-round pick in 2025 from that deal, too.

The future is bright in Chicago as long as the players Poles drafts work out, and Fields becomes more productive as a passer — to go with his great running ability — with improved talent around him.

Other Teams To Consider

Denver Broncos

Let's start with the Denver Broncos, as they come off a disastrous 5-12 season (last in the AFC West) in which their trade for Russell Wilson did not pan out in Year 1. Bringing aboard Sean Payton, an established, successful head coach, was a great first step to right the ship and get Wilson back on track.

Wilson was sacked a league-high 55 times. The Broncos added quality pass protectors for him in ex-49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey and former Ravens guard Ben Powers. Denver also has a former first-round left tackle Garett Bolles returning from a broken leg that cost him the last 12 games of the season.

They signed a good running back in Samaje Perine from Cincinnati to share the load with top back Javonte Williams, who will be returning from knee surgery that cost him 13 games in 2022. Perine is an excellent third-down back (38 catches last year, and he should be a fine pass protector for Wilson).

Along with Williams' return helping the run game, Denver and Wilson also will be aided in the passing game by the return of third receiver Tim Patrick, who missed last season with an ACL tear after catching 11 TD passes the prior two seasons.

The Broncos helped an already top-10 defense by signing an effective defensive lineman in Zach Allen (5.5 sacks and 20 QB hits last season for the Arizona Cardinals) after losing Dre’Mont Jones to the Seattle Seahawks.

The Broncos have no draft picks in the first two rounds due to the Payton and Wilson acquisitions. Another big problem is they are in the tough AFC West with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, led by the best player in the league in Patrick Mahomes and a Los Angeles Chargers team, led by their star QB Justin Herbert, coming off a playoff season.

Deshaun Watson Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns

Perhaps we should throw the Cleveland Browns in the mix after their last-place finish in the AFC North. They will have embattled QB Deshaun Watson available all season, and it'll be his second year in coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense. The Browns re-signed a top-10 center in Ethan Pocic and added Watson’s former teammate Jordan Akins from Houston to be the second tight end to David Njoku. Akins had 37 catches for 495 yards and five TDs last season.

The Browns also traded for wide receiver Elijah Moore, a former second-round pick of the Jets who had a good rookie season (43 catches, 538 yards, five TDs) before his targets dropped last season. He had just 37 catches for 446 yards and one TD in 2022.

In free agency, the Browns signed Dalvin Tomlinson from the Vikings. He’s a fine defensive tackle against the run and pass and is needed to improve the NFL’s No. 25 run defense. They added a pass rusher in Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (from Houston, five sacks in 2022) to replace the unproductive Jadeveon Clowney, and re-signed a key linebacker in Anthony Walker, who had 113 tackles in 2021, but then missed 14 games last season with a torn quad. They also signed Juan Thornhill from the Chiefs to start at safety. He had 71 tackles and three interceptions last season.

Like Denver, Cleveland has no draft picks in the first two rounds but has eight picks over the remaining rounds to add depth.

Cleveland faces a problem similar to Denver with the high-quality teams in its division led by Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Robert Saleh celebrate

New York Jets

Then there are the Jets, who are another candidate to move from last place (at 7-10 in the AFC East) to first place once they get the trade completed for that mercurial quarterback from Green Bay.

If Aaron Rodgers can rebound from a sub-par, banged-up season and lead the New York Jets offense to the heights of their top-five defense, the Jets could go from worst to first. However, another bunch of tough divisional foes in the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots will have something to say about that.

Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.

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