The rivalry between the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears should be fascinating in 2022, as the two teams have multiple parallels. Not only are both attempting to “competitively rebuild” behind their new front offices and head coaches, the ties go even deeper.
The Bears signed Ryan Poles after he was a top candidate for the Vikings GM position. Both teams also brought in new head coaches, and there was even speculation that Chicago and Minnesota were interested in Justin Fields last April. This Bears team feels like a “What If” scenario for Vikings fans to watch play out. A Ryan Poles-led front office with Matt Eberflus as its head coach and Fields as their quarterback could have easily existed in Minnesota if a few zigs had zagged instead.
But Minnesota has a lot to feel confident about on the field in 2022.
Last week I wrote a piece profiling the Detroit Lions and the challenge they may pose in 2022. This week we shift the focus to another division rival.
Like Detroit, Minnesota gets to face the Bears early in the season (Week 5) and late (Week 18). That means Kevin O’Connell and Co. will get a good look at what this new Bears team looks like as they attempt to put the pieces together early and avoid crumbling down the stretch.
How much can Chicago hope to improve From Last Year?
I can’t remember the last franchise with a young, exciting prospect at quarterback, a new head coach, and a new general manager that feels as derelict of hope as the Chicago Bears.
Perhaps that is hyperbole coming from a rival fanbase, but it seems as though many in the national media and even Chicago feel the same way. That feeling of being stuck in place defined Chicago in 2021 and ultimately led them to make the changes they did.
The Bears’ offense felt like it was stuck in quicksand, and fans in Chicago watched as Fields developed bad habits. After struggling to stay upright behind a shaky offensive line, he started to see ghosts and began running into sack after sack. Fields led the league in sack rate by a significant margin at the end of the season. The lackluster offensive skill talent was also unable to make up for Matt Nagy’s unimaginative play calling, leaving Chicago fans to watch Fields struggle to keep his head above water for most of the year.
The defense also struggled. By November, the Bears placed superstar edge Khalil Mack on IR, and the unit struggled mightily without him. The secondary was also a mess outside of promising young cornerback Jaylon Johnson, and PFF ranked them in the bottom half of the league.
The Bears also didn’t have any bright spots in 2021. While most of their wide receiver group was pretty uninspiring, Darnell Mooney showed flashes of potential to develop into an intriguing weapon in the future. Jaylon Johnson struggled at times but showed potential as a future CB1. And Bears fans are hoping that second-year offensive lineman Teven Jenkins can get healthy and show the ferocity that made him so intriguing coming out of college.
Poles primed the organization for their rebuild this offseason by letting veteran players like Allen Robinson and Akiem Hicks walk in free agency and trading Mack. They prioritized clearing their cap of big-money contracts and aging veterans.
In the draft, Poles attempted to solve Chicago’s roster issues despite not having a first-round pick due to the Fields trade. They seemed to pick quality players, but their priorities left many analysts scratching their heads.
They selected Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon and Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker with two picks near the top of the second round. Gordon and Brisker were universally considered solid players and good values at picks No. 39 and 48. While they were quality picks in a vacuum, they didn’t address their gaping needs on the offense until pick No. 71.
Velus Jones Jr. out of Tennessee was the first offensive player they picked. Volus is a 25-year-old receiver with limited college production who was primarily touted as a kick returner. Most analytics departments don’t exactly project him to be a home run.
Then they attacked their offensive line issue with quantity over quality, selecting four offensive linemen on Day 3 of the draft. But none of these players are expected to start right now. And that’s saying something because old friend(?) Dakota Dozier is right now. Any Vikings fan will tell you that that is not ideal.
Since the draft concluded, they’ve also continued to sign just about every wide receiver with a pulse. There are a whopping 12 receivers on the Bears’ roster entering training camp, and Poles is hoping one of these lottery tickets could cash out. Some players like Dante Pettis or Equanimeous St. Brown have shown flashes in the past, but they lack the consistency that Fields so desperately needs. You also have to question how much chemistry they can build while cycling through that many bodies this offseason.
How different could this team look from Week 5 to Week 18?
The Bears have many moving parts and young players on their roster. A new offensive and defensive scheme and a slew of new players should make them an easy target for the Vikings in Week 5.
Minnesota will have just finished a bit of an early-season gauntlet and a trip to London, but a home contest against a Bears team trying to piece it together could be exactly what the Vikings need. A division matchup is never a cakewalk, but there’s reason to think the Vikings’ offense could have success against this young defense. The Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith tandem should be salivating at the idea of going up against Chicago’s offensive line.
However, the season finale at Soldier Field could be a totally different ball game — in multiple ways.
Young teams are often better by the end of the season. While this applies to the Vikings to an extent, it certainly applies to the Bears. By this point, Fields may have found chemistry with his new receivers, and Eberflus may have found a way to piece together a quality defense by the season finale. The game at Soldier Field is often tough and sloppy, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Chicago could be a threat in a defensive struggle.
It could also be a pretty easy game for Minnesota. Fields could be a dead man walking by that point of the year. He could be beaten up or seeing so many ghosts in the pocket that he’s moonlighting as a medium. The Bears are clearly putting all their focus on their defense. There’s also a possibility that Fields overcomes these deficiencies. Still, it wouldn’t shock anyone if this is a losing gambit for Chicago.
The Bears are a fascinating case study for Minnesota in what could have been, but it’s a team struggling to find reasons for optimism. Eberflus has an uphill climb ahead of him, and we’ll see if Bears ownership will give Poles enough time for his patience to pay off.
Will Justin Fields ultimately be the victim of this rebuild? Will we reach the end of Year 2 on that coveted rookie contract, unsure if he’s a player who Chicago can still build around?
Minnesota has a real chance to capitalize on their rival’s uncertainty, but they’ll need to clean up their own issues first. Still, with competent coaching, there’s no reason not to expect a possible sweep in 2022. Minnesota has a chance to make a statement that it will come out on top in the game of dueling rebuilds.