The Chicago Bears had a busy offseason as they revamped an offense that desperately needed explosiveness and more talent. Armed with an array of draft picks and dollars to spend in free agency, Bears general manager Ryan Poles didn’t disappoint fans who wanted to see the roster improve for 2023. We can realistically expect a jump in performance on both sides of the ball.
With quarterback Justin Fields headlining an offense set to be more balanced in 2023 and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds now leading an athletic defense, role players are in a better position to break out this year. We dive into the three Bears breakout candidates this season beyond players who have established themselves as foundational pieces.
Chicago Bears Breakout Candidates in 2023
RB Khalil Herbert
The Bears allowed veteran David Montgomery to depart to Detroit, then replaced him with former Carolina Panthers back D’Onta Foreman and fourth-round rookie Roschon Johnson. Foreman has already been clear he has no intention of being a “back seat” option to Herbert, but he won’t have much of a say once the team hits the field. Foreman was good in 2022 when he broke out with 914 yards, but Herbert was dominant in his 129 rush attempts.
The biggest problem Herbert had last year was the Bears’ reluctance to give him more snaps when Montgomery was healthy. Though Herbert hasn’t produced as a pass catcher yet, Foreman’s addition shows the team may not value that aspect as much as they may have previously. Foreman has only 23 catches in five seasons, Herbert had 23 in two seasons, and Johnson had 32 over his final three seasons at Texas.
With the receiving corps getting a big boost by the addition of DJ Moore, a healthy Darnell Mooney, and sliding Chase Claypool into a more-fitting third-target role, the receiving aspect from the running back position may not be as important.
Herbert’s ground production justifies giving him a larger role and relegating Foreman into more of a “lightning” to Herbert’s “thunder.”
Herbert’s efficiency in 2022 was startling, but a real breakout can come with more touches. He led all running backs with 5.7 yards per carry, ranked seventh in juke rate, and overcame the 21st-ranked run-blocking unit. The biggest flaw on his résumé was he wasn’t given a role when Montgomery was available.
Poles said the plan is to not rely on one back and to instead maximize the rotation they’ve built at the position. However, as the season progresses, expect Herbert’s talent to continue to endear him to the staff because he’s simply the best rusher on the team.
LT Braxton Jones
Poles’ first draft class with the Bears was largely inconsequential in their rookie season, but he did appear to find a stud in left tackle Braxton Jones. The former fifth-round pick ranked eighth in pass-block win rate amongst all tackles and was the only Bear to play every snap last year. He was PFF’s 12th-highest-graded rookie in the entire NFL.
Despite his obvious success, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell said Jones “kept his head above water” as a rookie. While Jones’ rookie year didn’t guarantee he’s the next All-Pro at his position, an improved season from the Bears will put Jones further into the spotlight, and his profile will rise.
Jones noted he’s working to improve his ability to handle bull rushes entering his second year, and Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan said Jones is “really strong right now.” With the Bears set to face elite pass rushers in Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett, and Maxx Crosby in 2023, expect Jones to be in the spotlight as more people tune into Bears games.
CB Jaylon Johnson
The Bears’ cornerback room was a near disaster in 2022. Second-round rookie Kyler Gordon was awful as he adjusted to the NFL, allowing 76.8% of targets to be completed for the third-most yards in the NFL with 764. Jaylon Jones and Kindle Vildor weren’t as bad but were clearly below average as well.
The two bright spots within the unit were cornerback Jaylon Johnson and rookie safety Jaquan Brisker. Johnson is less known despite entering his fourth season. He led the team by allowing only 58.8% of targets to be completed in 11 games played.
Only 24 years old, Johnson came into his own at the right time. The Bears sound like they agree, with Poles expressing that the team wants to extend Johnson before the 2023 season starts so they can lock in their CB1 long-term. Johnson said he wants to improve his interception total, which sits at one through 39 career games played, but he’s happy with how sound he is in coverage.
Johnson’s film doesn’t disagree. The six-foot cornerback fits Matt Eberflus’ zone-based defense well, and he can deter targets by crowding passing lanes with his length and closing ability. He has to churn out more ball production to take his game to the next level, but becoming a consistently good player in coverage is a big step in that development.