LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- For the most part, there honestly isn't much to learn from OTAs. Watching guys play in shorts with no contact gives you maybe a 20 percent look at what that team will be like when the pads come on and the games matter in the fall.
But OTAs can give you a starting point, a foundation for your beliefs in what a team can be if things fall into place. Last May, the Bears opened OTAs, and the writing was immediately on the wall for what was to come in the 2022 season.
Learning his second offense in two seasons, quarterback Justin Fields struggled against a defense that had stripped away most of its key contributors. The ball landed on the turf countless times as Fields tried to build rapport with a bargain-bin receiver group outside of Darnell Mooney. The offensive line, which was about to undergo a seismic change with the insertion of rookie Braxton Jones, didn't look like a unit bound to exceed low expectations.
Even the defense that won those early practices had little hang its hat on. Rookies Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker brought excitement, while safety Eddie Jackson vowed to be reborn in the H.I.T.S principle. But other than that, the defense lacked the necessary presence of a unit capable of carrying a team in a teardown season. There were few game-changers. The drop-off after Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn, Jackson, and Jaylon Johnson was akin to falling off El Capitan. Smith and Quinn were gone by the time November hit.
The early sense of the 2022 Bears was that they would struggle mightily on both sides of the ball. That first impression proved correct.
But things felt different at Halas Hall on Tuesday when the media watched its first OTA session of the spring. The practice wasn't crisp, but that's to be expected of a voluntary workout in late May. But there was a different feel around the 2023 Bears than the one that hung over the group last May. One that signaled the arrow is pointing up even if legitimate contention might be a year away.
The reason? Two newcomers, one on each side of the ball, give the Bears something they didn't have a year ago. There's a presence that comes with elite pedigree. A feeling you get when watching players that are proven difference-makers.
During the first OTA sessions of 2023, DJ Moore and Tremaine Edmunds quickly gave the sense that things will be different in 2023. That the arrow is pointing straight up.
Watching Moore operate, even against Kindle Vildor, Jaylon Jones, and Michael Ojemudia, you get an immediate feel for his talent. The ability to create separation with quick releases and rare speed gives the Bears a go-to weapon that can change the tenor of a game. That's something they severely lacked in 2022.
Moore doesn't live in the Justin Jefferson-Davante Adams neighborhood of elite receivers, but he's in the one right next door. He has a Stefon Diggs-like ability to win in various ways (deep, quick game, intermediate, etc.) and vacuum up yards after the catch.
Even without the rehabbing Mooney on the field, the Bears' passing attack had a much different feel than it did 12 months ago. Fields connected with Moore five times, including a deep strike after Moore got open with a slick double-move on Vildor.
"It’s pretty rare when you’ve got a guy that can run the route, have the route discipline that he has and the [Football Intelligence] that he has, and then also that speed and talent that he has," head coach Matt Eberflus said. "So we’re excited about where he is right now."
"Strength, speed, body control, great hands. I think he knows how to use his body to get open," Fields echoed. "I think that’s a big part in receivers. He knows how to tip a route, so he’s rarely ever going to be running a hundred percent on all the routes. He has that second gear to go get the ball. I think that’s what makes him a great receiver, just his understanding of the coverages, seeing the defense well, and stuff like that."
While Moore gives the Bears' offense a level they didn't have last season, Edmunds does the same for a defense that was truly abhorrent in 2022.
The Bears traded Smith at the deadline last season, cutting bait with an elite off-ball linebacker in the prime of his career. The reason? Inability to find common ground in contract extension talks and a belief that Smith wasn't a good scheme fit for Eberflus' defense.
Conventional wisdom would say that Smith is the type of player you fit your scheme around, but that's not how the Eberflus-Ryan Poles regime operates.
So the Bears traded Smith and paid big money to bring in Edmunds, another elite off-ball linebacker with low ball production history, to fill his spot.
It was a curious decision, given Edmunds' lack of ball production in Buffalo. But the media's vantage point at Tuesday's OTA session gave a clear idea of why Eberflus wanted Edmunds.
The media watched 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 from behind the offense. Edmunds immediately stuck out due to his size and length in the middle of the field. While Smith is a great thumper, he lacked the length and size to occupy passing lanes in the same way that Edmunds does.
Edmunds ended the session by jumping to pick off backup quarterback P.J. Walker and ripping off a big non-contact return.
Seeing how Edmunds impacts throwing lanes and uses his length to disrupt passes and create turnovers, you get a sense that the Bears' defense should force more takeaways in 2023. At the very least, the Bears should put up much more resistance than they did in 2022. Having an elite playmaker at a critical spot in the middle of the defense significantly raises the floor for Eberflus' unit.
Will the defense be elite? No. The lack of pass rush makes that unlikely. But seeing Edmunds in person gives a sense of what the Bears want to build on defense.
"I'm excited. I'm excited," Edmunds said. "Just because I feel like I'm going to be in a position to make a lot of plays. Obviously, just because of his background on defense, he has a great understanding of it. Just putting guys in position. As a player that's all you can really ask for is to be in a position and now it's up to me to go make the play. So I'm just excited about what's to come, just by going through it every day, obviously, it's just a stepping stool. Rome wasn't built in a day."
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The Bears are still on the ground floor of an extensive rebuild. Moore and Edmunds won't take them from 3-14 to 14-3.
But the addition of legitimate top-tier talent at key positions gives the Bears a vibe they didn't have last season when they were preparing to crater.
I've covered the 49ers, Raiders, and Patriots. There's a different aura around a team with guys whose peers describe them as "dudes." Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Rob Gronkowski, Fred Warner, and, yes, Antonio Brown come to mind.
The Bears had zero of that last year. There's an argument to be made that Fields will be knocking on that door come season's end if certain checkpoints are reached.
For now, Moore and Edmunds serve as two pieces creating the changing of the tides. Gravitational forces that can bring everyone along with them and be the building blocks for what comes next.