Bears' Roquan Smith, Justin Fields Among Key Pieces to Build Around

Hoge: Breaking down Bears’ key pieces to build around originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

As speculation about the Bears’ future direction continues to grow, it’s important to take a deep look inside the roster to figure out what’s already there.

That means examining the young players worthy of building around.

Similar to most NFL grading systems, my grading scale places players into tiers: blue chip players, longterm starters, starters, fringe starters, reserve/special teamers, and below replacement level players.

When the 2021 season concludes, I’ll release my final grades for the season again, but with six games to go, there’s still time to evaluate key pieces that can fit into the longterm future.

Below is a list of players still on their rookie contracts to consider:

Longterm pieces

LB Roquan Smith, 24

Smith is playing at an All-Pro level this year and the Bears already guaranteed him a fifth-year extension that is set to pay him a little over $9.7 million in 2022. A long-term extension beyond that is only a matter of when, not if.

RB David Montgomery, 24 years old

Even though a sprained knee caused Montgomery to miss four games and slowed down his hot start to the season, the third-year running back has had a really nice season. Of course, his position complicates the situation because it’s usually not a good idea to give running backs large contracts.

Montgomery showed up to training camp this year with an extra burst and while that burst probably took a hit after the knee injury, the 24-year-old’s work ethic and ascending skill is something the Bears should value.

The Bears once gave Matt Forte a four-year, $30.4 million contract and didn’t regret it. Montgomery still has a year left on his rookie deal, but his value to the Bears is similar to Forte’s.

QB Justin Fields, 22

Maybe it’s surprising to see Fields on this list already, but he has graded out much better than his numbers would indicate. He’s still a rookie, so there’s no need to talk about his contract, but the Bears should feel good that their first-round pick is already playing at a level that suggests he’s a longterm starter.

WR Darnell Mooney, 24

The second-year receiver out of Tulane has built on his promising rookie season and is an unquestioned starting-caliber wideout in the NFL. Will he ever be a clear-cut No. 1 receiver? The jury is still out on that, but he’s been the Bears’ best pass-catching option this season and looks like a longterm piece.

CB Jaylon Johnson, 22

Only in his second season out of Utah, Johnson has already been an upgrade over Kyle Fuller, the former No. 1 corner. Unlike Fuller, Johnson can shadow opposing No. 1 wide receivers when needed, allowing defensive coordinator Sean Desai more flexibility with his defense on a week-to-week basis.

Johnson will need to rack up more interceptions (he only has one career INT at this point) if he wants to get paid big in a few years, but with the Bears’ other cornerback issues right now, he’s not getting targeted much.

Tougher decisions

RG James Daniels, 24

Drafted young, Daniels is still only 24, but his contract is up in March. He brings the offense valuable versatility, having already played both guard spots and center at the NFL level. Daniels showed signs of becoming a dominant guard early in 2020 before tearing a pectoral muscle, but he’s still been a very solid player this year.

Can you upgrade at the position? Sure. But Daniels is still a starting-caliber NFL guard.

C Sam Mustipher, 25

Mustipher is a player to watch closely in the final six games of the season. He’s technically playing at a starting caliber level in my grading system, but he’s also right on that edge of being a fringe starter. A restricted free agent in the offseason, the Bears value Mustipher for his football IQ at the center position and he’s still young enough to get a lot better.

DT Bilal Nichols, 25

It’s been somewhat of a quiet season for Nichols after a breakout year in 2020. No one would have been surprised if the Bears had extended Nichols before the season began, but now you have to wonder if his value has dipped.

Keep an eye on

TE Cole Kmet, 22

As a whole, Kmet has played at a fringe-starter level this season, but in the last three games, he has come on strong and graded out as a longterm starter. I still have very high expectations for Kmet, who I’ve always compared to Kyle Rudolph — a former decade-long starter for the Minnesota Vikings.

OLB Trevis Gipson, 24

Somewhat quietly, the Bears’ 2020 fifth-round pick has had a very encouraging season. His rookie year was basically a red-shirt year as he went from a five-technique at Tulsa to an edge rusher in the NFL, but there are definitely signs that he is developing.

RB Khalil Herbert, 23

The sixth-round rookie out of Virginia Tech is proving to be a valuable piece as a backup running back and a returner. He did very well filling in for Montgomery and it’s not out of the question that Herbert can develop into a longterm starting running back. That said, it would be very unfair to Montgomery to say the two running backs are on the same level already.

Too soon

OT Larry Borom Jr., 22, and OT Teven Jenkins, 23

The Bears’ two rookie tackles have barely played, with Borom getting the last four starts on the right side and Jenkins still rehabbing from August back surgery.

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