One of the great strengths Ryan Pace used to point to for his team over the final years of his time as general manager was depth.
Except for the 2020 season, he always felt the Bears displayed depth enough to fill in with quality at most spots when they lost a player over seven seasons. Whether this was true or not sometimes determined their record.
Last year they thought they had wide receiver depth but Allen Robinson and Marquise Goodwin went out at the same time and they were scraping the barrel for substitutes. In the playoffs in 2020, Darnell Mooney got injured and Anthony Miller ejected, and they were left with DeAndre Carter as a pass target. He was a return man who had only limited play reps with the offense.
With Ryan Poles taking over this season and the great attempt to rebuild a roster aimed at the future, it would seem depth became one of the key assets lost.
It's difficult enough for a team with limited cap space to find adequate talent for starting spots during a rebuild, and part of the plan or depth must include undrafted free agents as well as players who failed elsewhere.
In the future, Poles will have more drafts and salary cap space to pad the depth as well as improve quality of starters.
For this season, the lack of depth can be one of the great factors dragging down the Bears because it's rare when teams get through the long NFL schedule without being hit by injuries. It's even more unusual now during the COVID-19 era.
Mangameslost.com tracks injuries and absences in all pro team sports and lists the Seahawks, Saints, Patriots, Ravens, Colts, Giants and 49ers among the most injured teams from the last 13 seasons. They point out nine of the 11 most injured teams in this era have made appearances in the Super Bowl, with six winning it. These teams just realize the importance of real depth and have addressed it.
The Bears last year had the 12th-most games lost due to injuries with 181 but it's sometimes not the games lost that matter as much as it is who lost them. Obviously losing Khalil Mack hurt the Bears, and missing starting quarterbacks didn't help at various times. The hamstring injury and COVID-19 for Allen Robinson was a huge issue for the offense.
When it came to the approximate value of players lost with injuries, the Bears had the 10th most at 39.9 games lost. Yet Green Bay had the second most lost in terms of player value in the entire league and won the division as well as 13 games.
Depth counts and the Packers proved it.
The Bears really could find it difficult to cope this year during the rebuild with injuries, and need good health.
Here are the positions where depth remains a huge issue for Chicago after Poles' efforts.
They're lacking one legitimate starter at right guard so naturally their backup answer is suspect. There are bodies, but no experience. Currently Sam Mustipher is the starting right guard and hasn't played there in the pros or in college. Late-round rookies Zachary Thomas and Ja'Tyre Carter, and even tackle Teven Jenkins could be the answer as depth here. Dieter Eiselen? Willie Wright? Obviously they have no depth. When Dakota Dozier went down with a knee injury, they lost a chance for a second starter or a backup with experience. How are these guys standing up to an A-gap blitz?
Like at guard, the inexperience is frightening. The one positive beyond Larry Borom and his eight career starts, Teven Jenkins and his two starts and rookie Braxton Jones is that veteran swing tackle Julie'n Davenport was a starter 1 1/2 seasons with Houston and Miami, and started four games as recently as last year. He hasn't played very well when he did play, but at least he has done it before. He is sort of what Elijah Wilkinson was to last year's team. In other words, they need to hurry the development of the young tackles.
It's a three-man linebacker crew in the base, but obviously NFL teams are more often in nickel or dime coverage these days. So, only two linebackers are on the field most of the time. But the third linebacker is Matthew Adams, who was arrested on gun charges earlier in the offseason. Adams has started nine NFL games but none in the last two years. They do have experienced backup Joe Thomas, who has started 16 games and played in 89. He's 31 years old but does have experience. If his Pro Football Focus grades over the years mean anything, he has been about an average player when he is on the field with grades in the high 50s and low 60s. Beyond that, Noah Dawkins has been in for 18 career defensive plays and Caleb Johnson for five. They have undrafted rookie linebackers like Jack Sanborn, Christian Albright and C.J. Avery. Suffice to say, this isn't 2019 when they could bring in Nick Kwiatkoski or Kevin Pierre-Louis and get solid play.
No one knows if Angelo Blackson can even be a starter at nose tackle in a 4-3 defense, then the backups at tackle beyond him and starting three technique Justin Jones are Khyiris Tonga, Mario Edwards Jr. and Mike Pennel. They just signed Pennel and he wasn't even good enough to make last year's team. Tonga is like Blackson. He has shown he can make some plays but is more of a two-gap player not suited to a 4-3. At least Pennel has played elsewhere even if he didn't make the squad last year. As for Edwards, he's productive and has talent as a three technique and situational interior pass rusher but he also has been a penalty waiting to happen.
Possibly the dirty little secret about this team is the lack of help at this position. Last year David Montgomery suffered a knee injury and backup Damien Williams went out with one in the same game. They were left using rookie Khali Herbert, a sixth-round pick. Herbert did an excellent job but now he's the backup to Montgomery. If this happened again, they'd be down to rookie sixth-rounder Trestan Ebner and then Darrynton Evans, whose NFL experience consists of 39 offensive plays and 36 special teams plays. They do have Khari Blasingame but he is a fullback and not a ball carrier. He has three rushes in three seasons.
Last year they had two experienced NFL quarterbacks behind Justin Fields. You can criticize Nick Foles and Andy Dalton for anything that happened in Chicago but there is no denying both were perfectly qualified to be the backup and start games. Dalton had started 142 games, Foles 55 and had been a Super Bowl MVP. Now the backup is Trevor Siemian, who has 29 starts and 33 games, and Nathan Peterman, who was in 10 games, threw 12 interceptions and had three TD passes. Most teams are done if they get to the backup anyway, and the third-stringer is just a prayer. The Bears need Fields to be healthy.
The quality is the issue, not quantity or depth. That's why this one position everyone criticizes on their roster rates low for depth concerns. They have plenty of players who have been in and started NFL games and could be adequate backups. Caliber of starters play is an issue when Darnell Mooney is their only experienced, high-level receiver and Byron Pringle is the No. 2 after one Kansas City season when he showed he might be capable. After rookie Velus Jones at third receiver, N'Keal Harry, Tajae Sharpe, Equanimeous St. Brown, Dante Pettis and David Moore have combined for 223 games played, 34 catches and 35 TDs
BearDigest.com publisher Gene Chamberlain has covered the Bears full time for various publications, news services and websites over 30 years, including several years collaborating on weekly NFL/Bears columns with Mike Ditka and Walter Payton for the Copley Newspaper Chain.