Four under-the-radar Bears who could help team exceed expectations originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Matt Eberflus and Ryan Poles are starting from the ground up. The Bears' 2022 roster reflects as much.
The Bears are young and lacking depth and almost every position. They have question marks on both lines and at wide receiver. While Poles and Eberflus were able to reshape the secondary thanks to second-round draft picks Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker, that unit, while much-improved, still is young and volatile.
To exceed low expectations this fall, the Bears need Justin Fields to take a leap. They'll need Darnell Mooney to arrive as a true No. 1 receiver, Justin Jones to dominate as the three-technique, Roquan Smith to play at an All-Pro level, and Jaylon Johnson to fully blossom as a star corner in the NFL.
However, there are a few players sneaking under the radar who will be critical to any Bears' success this fall.
Mario Edwards Jr.
Justin Jones gets all the attention on the interior of the defensive line, and rightfully so. After the Larry Ogunjobi signing failed, the Bears pivoted to Jones and tabbed him as the starting three-technique in Eberflus' defense.
While the Bears need a lot from Jones this fall, Edwards, who will be Jones' backup, could also play a pivotal role.
Edwards has the versatility to play both inside and out. However, the Bears plan to move him inside and use his quickness to affect the quarterback up the middle.
"So, he is a player who has good flexibility where he does have to the athleticism to do both and in our system, like we talked earlier, we want to keep it as simple as possible for guys to play as fast as possible," Bears defensive line coach Travis Smith said of Edwards during OTAs. "So right now, he's playing inside for us and we'll see how that develops and how he fits in the system and where his success is."
Edwards must keep the flags to a minimum. That is key. But if he does that, the 28-year-old has the burst and tenacity to be a useful interior pass-rusher. If he can give the Bears 20 good snaps a game, the defensive line could be better than expected.
Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy's scheme will call for a heavy dose of wide-zone runs and lean on the running game to take the pressure off Fields. A lot of that will fall on David Montgomery, but the Bears plan to use more of a running back by committee approach this fall.
Given what we saw from Herbert last season, the 24-year-old could be a vital factor in both the running and passing game this fall.
Last season, Herbert forced 18 missed tackles and logged 291 yards after contact on 103 attempts per ProFootballFocus. Eighty-six of Hebert's 103 rushes were on zone runs, showing the shifty back should have success in Getsy's branch of the Shanahan scheme.
If Herbert can build off a strong rookie season, the Bears could have a powerful two-headed monster at running back that will make life much easier on Fields.
Thomas Graham Jr.
The slot corner position is the lone spot in the Bears' secondary that is up for grabs. The Bears brought in Tavon Young this offseason on a one-year deal, but Graham has made it a competition and logged a majority of the first-team reps during mandatory minicamp.
Graham was solid in limited opportunities during his rookie season. Per PFF, he surrendered five catches (10 targets) for 52 yards and one touchdown while recording four pass breakups in 59 coverage snaps.
The Oregon product's best chance to stick at the NFL level is at the nickel, and he's doing everything he can to earn that starting spot this offseason.
Graham winning the spot and proving to be the Bears' long-term option at slot corner is the best outcome for the future of the secondary.
Equanimeous St. Brown
We've talked about the lack of wide receiver depth ad nauseam this offseason.
Mooney will be the Bears' top option, and a lot will be expected of tight end Cole Kmet. But the Bears need at least one of their other wide receivers to pop for the offense to be effective.
The Bears hope to get some good contributions from rookie Velus Jones Jr. and believe more opportunities could mean big things for Byron Pringle.
But St. Brown is familiar with Getsy, and his big body (6-foot-5, 214 pounds) can give the Bears a receiver who can make contested catches over the middle and move the chains on third down.
The Bears need a receiver not named Mooney to be a reliable option for Fields, and St. Brown could be the most likely member of an unheralded crew to elevate his game to the next level.