Is rookie QB Justin Fields progressing? And are any changes coming? Brad Biggs’ 10 thoughts on the 38-3 beating Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put on the Chicago Bears.

TAMPA, FLA. — 10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears were trounced by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-3 on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the team’s worst loss since the 2014 season.

1. This is what happens when a team that on its best day is a one-dimensional club with a struggling offense runs into a powerhouse coming off a Super Bowl championship with a real chance to compete for another one.

Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney leaves the field after the loss to the Buccaneers on Oct. 24, 2021. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

It probably would not have been particularly close on the Bears’ best day — maybe a 10-point margin or so — and this wasn’t near their best effort. Thus, the Bears got pummeled on a day when the Buccaneers weren’t super sharp offensively but didn’t need to be, with six of their 12 possessions beginning on the Bears’ side of the field and five beginning at the 40 or closer.

When you repeatedly give Tom Brady a short field, he will give you heartache, and that’s what happened as he completed 20 of 36 passes for 211 yards with four touchdowns. Three of those TD tosses went to veteran Mike Evans, who proved to be a nightmare matchup in the red zone, including the NFL-record 600th of Brady’s storied career. The game was so lopsided so quickly, CBS had to pivot to the drama of a Buccaneers employee bargaining with a fan to return the historic football that Evans made the mistake of sending into the stands.

What’s unsettling is this game got out of hand right away. The Bears won the coin toss, and Matt Nagy went against his usual strategy and elected to take the opening kickoff. The idea, he explained, was to try to establish momentum right away with rookie quarterback Justin Fields. It didn’t work, but that makes sense to me. If the Bears were going to have any chance in this game, they needed to click on offense, so why not take a shot at it?

The offense went three-and-out, and the Bucs needed all of three plays to get in the end zone after a 43-yard punt return. It was 21-0 before the first quarter ended, marking the first time the Bears surrendered that many points in the first 15 minutes since a 54-11 loss in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 2013. Sunday’s deficit grew to 35-3 by halftime, the most points the Bears have allowed in the first half since 2014, when it happened in consecutive games — a 51-23 road loss to Brady and the New England Patriots in Week 8 and a 55-14 loss in Green Bay in Week 10 after a bye. That signaled the end of the Marc Trestman era.

It will be interesting to see how the Bears process the defeat in the coming days with another challenging opponent upcoming in the San Francisco 49ers. Can they pick up and move forward quickly, or will the realization they are miles away from the best in the league take a toll on those inside Halas Hall? Say what you want about Nagy, but one thing he has done in his 3½ seasons as head coach is keep the Bears in games. Some games have been lopsided, but the scores aren’t usually stunners. This one was.

It wasn’t quite like the back-to-back 50-burgers the Bears had hung on them the last time they had to play Aaron Rodgers and Brady in consecutive games, so perhaps that’s a positive. But the Bears are scuffling at 3-4 and thankful they got a monster defensive effort in Week 2 to defeat what’s turning out to be a pretty darn good Cincinnati Bengals team and a Week 5 victory in Las Vegas against a Raiders team that has rebounded nicely the last two weeks.

With a rookie quarterback, a struggling offensive line and skill-position players that still are trying to get into a groove, the Bears will be hard-pressed to keep pace with any elite quarterbacks, so it’s no surprise they’ve gone from 3-2 to 3-4. I don’t know how anyone could have looked at the schedule before the season and not expected some turbulence in these last two games. It’s now about where the team heads from here.

“I will say the last couple days with our team, we’ve become really close,” Nagy said. “For us to become as close as we have the last 24 to 48 hours, I just trust and believe in them. And they’ve done it before. We’re 3-4 right now. Again, we can’t have this affect us and make it be a two- or three- or four-(game slide), feel like that much of a loss.

“We lost and we’ve got to learn from it. Our guys have rebounded before in the past, and I just know from our discussion in there after the game and where we’re at right now as fighters and people and teammates, it’s not fun. This is not fun. But at the same point in time, we all go through some adversity to get us where we want to go in the end. That’s why I feel that way.”

That’s an interesting quote from Nagy and I’m not sure what to make of it. Has there really been some kind of galvanizing moment for a team in transition on offense that can hold this thing together and spark optimism moving forward? Have the Bears rallied behind the roster moves necessitated by a wave of positive COVID-19 tests? Did the social media issues last week — Eddie Jackson going after seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs on Twitter and Jaylon Johnson venting on Instagram about a fine for being late to the facility — bring the group together?

I don’t want to come across as cynical, but I kind of doubt it. Was there something else that brought the group together? Anything is possible, but the results in the coming weeks — and the schedule isn’t forgiving with a Monday night game in Pittsburgh, a bye and then a visit from the Baltimore Ravens — will tell the truth.

2. The lopsided nature of the game forced the Bears to throw more than they have in recent weeks, and that made things difficult on Justin Fields.

He had two really nice throws to Darnell Mooney for 22 and 17 yards and a nice 22-yard shot to Cole Kmet over the middle, but this was a rough outing for Fields. He completed 22 of 32 passes for 184 yards and was picked off three times, sacked four times, fumbled three times and lost two of them. Five turnovers will get a rookie beat nearly every time, and it will get a rookie clobbered by Tom Brady.

We’re not seeing nearly enough flashes in the passing game to feel confident at this stage, and that has to be somewhat concerning for Fields’ future. By no means am I making a sweeping judgment, and everyone realizes a ton of factors are in play. The offensive line is a real issue, as it is for a lot of rookie quarterbacks. Joe Burrow played behind a terrible line in Cincinnati last season. He was sacked 22 times through his first five starts and eventually had his knee blown out behind the porous protection. Guess what? Burrow also had three 300-yard passing games in those first five starts. He looks much better in Year 2, and the Bengals are at least a little bit better at protecting him.

You watch Fields’ first five starts and you’re looking for moments that stand out where you can say, “When he can do this more consistently within the confines of the offense and with help from those around him, there will be major growth.” The problem is there aren’t a lot of those plays you can go back and circle. I asked Matt Nagy where he sees progress in the passing offense, even if it is incremental, before his review of start No. 5 for Fields.

“I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job with our play action,” he said. “I say that, and the second play of the game they got us with the free safety blitz there on the edge. That hurt to have that. Probably more so than anything is making sure that we fit our protections into the drop-back scheme and making sure progression-wise as we’re growing with Justin — hey, when we have this progression, making sure his eyes go to where our eyes go. I feel like there’s some certain plays where he’s definitely getting better there. We’re trying to make him comfortable, feel good with what we do schematically.

“We’ve got to continue to stay patient with that and understanding that there’s going to be times … where things aren’t great, things aren’t perfect. Like we talked about on the sideline, these are moments here where it’s all about how you handle it. When you use them to next time to get better, whatever that is — whether it’s the play in general, whether it’s a decision that you made or something — what Justin has proven to us over the past several weeks is that, when he has something that he can learn from, he does it. And that’s what’s exciting for us is knowing that. Every rep he gets and every defensive play he sees on the other side of the ball, he’s going to use that to make him better. When you go through times like this that are difficult as a rookie, this kid here can handle it.”

A lot of football remains to be played — 10 more games — and tracking Fields, the passing game and the offense in general is the first order of business for everyone. He needs to perform at a higher level and with more consistency.

Below is a list of every rookie quarterback’s first five starts (rookie season only, so it doesn’t include someone such as Patrick Mahomes, who started only one game his first year) since the beginning of the 2015 season. Fields is on the list along with 2021 draft classmates Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones and Davis Mills. There are a total of 30 quarterbacks, and Fields’ 64.8 passer rating in his first five starts ranks 26th. The four below him are David Blough, Wilson, Josh Allen and Deshone Kizer. Allen was a wreck early in his rookie season in Buffalo in 2018, and the Bears would be wildly fortunate if Fields could chart a similar path.

The top five in passer rating through five starts? Justin Herbert, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz and Tua Tagovailoa. What does this tell us? The first three flashed right away. Wentz played exceptionally well as a rookie, and Tagovailoa had good numbers because he didn’t have any interceptions in his first five starts. The Miami Dolphins need to replace him sooner rather than later, though, because he doesn’t look like a long-term answer.

Fields has to be better in the pocket. He has to see the field develop quicker and he has to be more decisive. He needs help from those around him, and I’ve acknowledged the offensive line is an issue. Herbert had a suspect line with the Los Angeles Chargers last season. That’s why they spent a first-round draft pick on Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater. Bad offensive lines almost come with the territory for quarterbacks drafted in the first round. At least it seems that way.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws during warmups before the Week 7 game against the Buccaneers on Oct. 24, 2021.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws during warmups before the Week 7 game against the Buccaneers on Oct. 24, 2021. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Anyway, here’s the list.

First 5 starts for rookie QBs since 2015, ranked in order of passer rating

Year, Quarterback, Record, Comp./Att., Pct., Yards, TD-INT, Rating, Sacks

  1. 2020, Justin Herbert, 1-4, 124/184, 67.4%, 1,542, 12-3, 108.1, 10
  2. 2017, Deshaun Watson, 3-2, 95/151, 62.9%, 1,195, 14-4, 107.4, 10
  3. 2016, Dak Prescott, 4-1, 107/155, 69.0%, 1,239, 4-0, 101.5, 7
  4. 2016, Carson Wentz, 3-2, 102/157, 65.0%, 1,186, 7-1, 99.9, 12
  5. 2020, Tua Tagovailoa, 4-1, 84/134, 62.7%, 889, 7-0, 99.4, 10
  6. 2016, Cody Kessler, 0-5, 89/133, 66.9%, 947, 4-1, 94.4, 10
  7. 2015, Marcus Mariota, 1-4, 103/161, 64.0%, 1,239, 9-5, 93.2, 19
  8. 2019, Gardner Minshew, 2-3, 102/169, 60.4%, 1,167, 7-1, 92.5, 13
  9. 2019, Drew Lock, 4-1, 100/156, 64.1%, 1,020, 7-3, 89.7, 5
  10. 2021, Mac Jones, 2-3, 135/190, 71.1%, 1,243, 5-5, 86.4, 11
  11. 2020, Joe Burrow, 1-3-1, 135/207, 65.2%, 1,304, 6-3, 86.3, 22
  12. 2019, Kyler Murray, 1-3-1, 126/201, 62.7%, 1,324, 4-4, 80.1, 21
  13. 2018, Lamar Jackson, 4-1, 66-112, 58.9%, 731, 4-3, 79.1, 10
  14. 2015, Jameis Winston, 2-3, 86/152, 56.6%, 1,174, 7-7, 77.6, 11
  15. 2018, Sam Darnold, 2-3, 83/149, 55.7%, 1,066, 7-6, 77.2, 11
  16. 2018, Baker Mayfield, 1-4, 113/200, 56.5%, 1,270, 8-6, 76.5, 19
  17. 2021, Davis Mills, 0-5, 103/153, 67.3%, 945, 4-6, 76.3, 14
  18. 2017, Mitch Trubisky, 2-3, 59/115, 51.3%, 809, 3-2, 75.6, 16
  19. 2019, Daniel Jones, 2-3, 104/171, 60.8%, 1,127, 6-7, 74.9, 18
  20. 2018, Josh Rosen, 2-3, 90/162, 55.6, 1,036, 5-5, 72.5, 15
  21. 2019, Dwayne Haskins, 2-3, 76/138, 55.1%, 831, 3-3, 71.3, 22
  22. 2021, Trevor Lawrence, 0-5, 104/175, 59.4%, 1,146, 6-8, 71.3, 8
  23. 2019, Devlin Hodges, 3-2, 79/115, 68.7%, 782, 4-8, 70.3, 11
  24. 2017, C.J. Beathard, 1-4, 104/188, 55.3%, 1,185, 3-5, 68.7, 17
  25. 2016, Jared Goff, 0-5, 88/161, 54.7%, 879, 4-5, 65.7, 15
  26. 2021, Justin Fields, 2-3, 67/116, 57.8%, 746, 2-5, 64.8, 20
  27. 2019, David Blough, 0-5, 94/174, 54.0%, 984, 4-6, 64.0, 14
  28. 2021, Zach Wilson, 1-4, 98/171, 57.3%, 1,117, 4-9, 62.9, 18
  29. 2018, Josh Allen, 2-3, 69/124, 55.7%, 758, 2-5, 62.5, 18
  30. 2017, Deshone Kizer, 0-5, 81/159, 50.9%, 851, 3-9, 49.5, 12

3. Justin Fields sounds like he’s trying to find himself while experiencing on-field struggles he never dealt with in college or high school.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields fumbles a ball after being blindsided by Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul in the 2nd quarter at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields fumbles a ball after being blindsided by Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul in the 2nd quarter at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

He didn’t come across as downcast talking about the loss afterward, but the CBS cameras certainly captured him on the sideline in a dour mood. That’s to be expected when the game is trending in the wrong direction and the offense is struggling to sustain drives, converting only 2 of 11 third downs.

“It’s not just one thing. It’s a bunch of things,” Fields said. “I’m just going to leave it at that. We’ve got to continue to work. I mean, times like this, times when you get blown out, you’ve got two choices — you can either say, ‘F it, I’m going to stop. I’m going to stop working. I’m going to stop playing.’ Or you can go the other route and say, ‘I’m going to keep working.’ And I know me, myself, no matter how many picks I throw, no matter how many L’s we take, I’m going to keep going. That’s just the fact and that’s just who I am. Never going to stop and I’m always going to keep going.

“It’s not really anger. It’s just like … I’ve never been in this position where I’m losing, so I don’t know how to feel. My only reaction to this is just to keep working. I’m not angry at all. At the end of the day, it happened. We have bad days. Y’all have bad days. And y’all can either get depressed or y’all can get up the next day and go to work. And I think that’s what our team is going to do and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not angry at all. Just (bad stuff) happens.”

Fields is of the mindset he can learn from every play, and that’s the primary reason Matt Nagy didn’t consider pulling the rookie and inserting veteran Andy Dalton in the second half. He wanted to have Fields work through some of the things that didn’t go well in the first half.

Really good defenses will give the Bears issues, and the 49ers will come in Sunday with the kind of defensive line that can get after Fields. The Bears have to find ways to overcome. They need a sharp game plan and to execute at a much higher level.

“It was awesome and I think (defensive coordinator) Todd (Bowles) loves seeing rookie quarterbacks,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “That was a situation where they had a great plan to get after him and really disguise coverages and utilize a bunch of different pressures. It was outstanding defense.”

It’s all part of the maturation process and challenges ahead for Fields.

4. If one thing went well for the Bears, it was another really solid effort from rookie running back Khalil Herbert.

Bears running back Khalil Herbert fends off Buccaneers linebacker Grant Stuard (48) and outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (9) in the 4th quarter during a game at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021.

Bears running back Khalil Herbert fends off Buccaneers linebacker Grant Stuard (48) and outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (9) in the 4th quarter during a game at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

He carried 18 times for 100 yards and became just the third back since the start of the 2019 season to reach triple digits against the Bucs defense, which has been No. 1 in the league in yards per game and yards per carry in that span. The Bears started out finding a lot of success behind left tackle Jason Peters and they stuck with it, and that’s notable as the Bucs entered this game No. 1 in the league in rushing defense.

Granted, a 143-yard team rushing effort in a game decided by five touchdowns doesn’t mean a whole lot, but let’s not overlook what the Bears have discovered in Herbert while subbing for David Montgomery, who probably has a couple more weeks on injured reserve with a knee injury. Herbert is a more decisive runner than Montgomery. He gets the ball and goes. It’s downhill right away and he’s compact with a low center of gravity and excellent contact balance. He can gain yards after first contact like Montgomery.

The Bears still are scratching the surface with Herbert, but he more than has earned playing time for the remainder of the season. This sets up the Bears nicely for a succession plan at the position with Montgomery signed for only one more year through 2022. I’m not saying to promote Herbert over Montgomery and maybe Montgomery winds up re-signing with the Bears, but he’s not dynamic in the passing game and that probably will limit the market for him.

I’ve always maintained it’s dangerous and often foolish to sink major resources into the position. Herbert started for only one season in college, last year at Virginia Tech, so the Bears have a back with low mileage who looks to have a bright future for an offense that needs breakthroughs.

5. Justin Fields saw Elijah Wilkinson studying film in the team hotel midmorning Sunday, and 45 minutes later he learned the Bears would have a new right tackle for the game.

Bears offensive tackle Elijah Wilkinson plays against the Buffalo Bills during a preseason football game on Aug. 21, 2021.

Bears offensive tackle Elijah Wilkinson plays against the Buffalo Bills during a preseason football game on Aug. 21, 2021. (David Banks/AP)

Wilkinson became the fifth player to be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list in the last two weeks and the fourth player currently with that designation. Running back Damien Williams was activated from the reserve list Saturday; he was the first to go on it, followed by outside linebacker Robert Quinn, tight end Jimmy Graham, inside linebacker Caleb Johnson and now Wilkinson.

“I saw Elijah and (line) coach Juan (Castillo), they were watching film in the hotel,” Fields said. “So when I heard that getting here in the locker room, I was just surprised. I was like, ‘Elijah who?’ And then Cole (Kmet) told me that it was him and I was just surprised because I just saw him 45 minutes ago watching film, figuring he was going to play. That’s the life of the NFL.”

It’s a rough existence for the Bears, who appear to have the virus spreading through the team. Wide receivers coach Mike Furrey was recently sidelined too. It raises the question of whether the team will be forced into enhanced protocols and perhaps daily testing for players and staff. Currently, only players who are not vaccinated have to submit to daily testing, which was done early Sunday at the team hotel.

“That I don’t know,” Matt Nagy said. “I’ll find out more probably tonight as far as where we’re at with everything (in terms of testing).”

It could lead the Bears to shift what they’re doing with schedules or group meetings in rooms. The four players currently sidelined represents the most in the NFL. The Arizona Cardinals have three players on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

“It’s stating the obvious that we’ve had a few that have come up, so what we need to do is make sure that we’re doing everything we can to be smart,” Nagy said.

Wilkinson’s absence forced Lachavious Simmons into the starting lineup, and that was a mistake. The Buccaneers worked him over, and that led to a benching in the second quarter with Alex Bars replacing him. It certainly didn’t alter the outcome of the game, but it could change Simmons’ future trajectory on the roster.

6. The more the Bears give DeAndre Houston-Carson to do, the more he shows he can handle.

Bears defensive back DeAndre Houston-Carson breaks up a pass to Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans in the 2nd quarter in a game at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021.

Bears defensive back DeAndre Houston-Carson breaks up a pass to Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans in the 2nd quarter in a game at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

He has been the glue guy for special teams coordinator Chris Tabor the last few seasons, and there’s a chance he has reached a point where he could seek a modest multiyear contract with a small amount of guaranteed money, not unlike what Sherrick McManis finally got from the Bears after reaching his peak. Houston-Carson, who is on his second one-year deal with the team, started in place of Tashaun Gipson (hip) at safety and finished with 11 tackles, tied with Eddie Jackson for second behind Roquan Smith (13). He had seven solo tackles and was credited with a pass breakup and a fumble recovery.

Houston-Carson has proved his value as a dime back, getting about double the amount of time in that role this season under coordinator Sean Desai than he did a year ago for Chuck Pagano. He can help out in the nickel in a pinch, and he’s a bit of a Swiss Army knife in the secondary while also being a leader on special teams.

Houston-Carson won’t command a big payday, but good teams need players like him and the really good teams have a lot of players with positional flexibility who can bring a bunch of things to the table. There are bigger reasons the Bears have played well defensively this season, but the value of a player like Houston-Carson is at least worth considering when thinking about a multiyear deal that would reward a drafted and developed player in the organization.

7. Barring a turnaround by an offense that has been moribund through seven games, the organization could see significant change after the season.

Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney, coach Matt Nagy and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree stand on the sidelines late in the 4th quarter against the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021.

Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney, coach Matt Nagy and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree stand on the sidelines late in the 4th quarter against the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

Aaron Rodgers’ heat-of-the-moment jab at the Bears — and their fan base — will linger within the organization more than you might think. That strikes me as the kind of thing that really will stick in the craw of Chairman George McCaskey and ownership. Perhaps McCaskey won’t admit that publicly, but I can’t fathom his being comfortable with the quarterback of the team’s archrival declaring, “I still own you!” after scrambling into the south end zone at Soldier Field for a 6-yard touchdown. That’s the kind of thing that will gnaw at the folks at the top of the organizational flow chart after the season.

It didn’t go unnoticed in Tampa last week either. Tom Brady is perhaps the most calculating figure in the NFL. He doesn’t say anything without a purpose behind it, and during an appearance on SiriusXM Radio with Jim Gray, Brady steered the conversation to Rodgers and the Bears.

“I was studying a little bit on the Bears and the Packers and watched a lot of that,” Brady said. “That was another great game. And actually before we get started, I wanted to say congrats to Aaron Rodgers obviously. I know he’s a great quarterback but I guess he’s now a shareholder of the Bears. I saw a clip of him really enthusiastically telling the crowd how happy he is to own Soldier Field.

“That’s really great stuff. He owns the (Milwaukee) Bucks now, part owner of Soldier Field. He’s got a great career beyond football.”

Brady was chuckling as he gave props to Rodgers — humor coming at the expense of the Bears, whom the Packers have dominated for three decades now. Rodgers is 22-5 as a starter in the series.

“When I got down to my knee and looked up, all I could see and hear was obscenities,” Rodgers said during an appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “I didn’t plan on telling the crowd that I own them. I think based on the statistical reference of my career, win percentage down there against them, definitely our teams have done some good things.”

Beating the Packers is at the top of the list for McCaskey and the Bears, just as the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings also have had the hardest time getting out from under the Packers and their run of exceptional quarterback play. McCaskey stepped into his current role in the spring of 2011, the season after the Bears lost in the NFC championship game at Soldier Field to the Packers, who went on to win the Super Bowl. I go back to something McCaskey said that summer.

“The Bears have more wins than any other team in NFL history,” McCaskey said. “But we do not have more championships than any other team. Our goal is to be tops in both categories, so when the defending Super Bowl champion is your archrival, your division rival, that is extra motivation. We want to get going on the 2011 season. We need to beat (the Packers) twice. Three times, if necessary.”

The Bears are 3-18 against the Packers since McCaskey became chairman, and now Rodgers has made light of his dominance in the series, which won’t be forgotten anytime soon. It’s almost like Brady used it as motivation for himself this week, along the lines of, “Hey, Aaron, check out what I’m going to do.”

8. As has been detailed in this space at length in previous weeks and over the summer, the Bears are right up against the salary cap this season with high-priced players at a handful of positions.

Bears offensive lineman Teven Jenkins (76) and other players work out during minicamp at Halas Hall on June 17, 2021.

Bears offensive lineman Teven Jenkins (76) and other players work out during minicamp at Halas Hall on June 17, 2021. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Everyone knows who the top earners are, and that’s not the point here. What’s interesting when you project ahead is that the franchise potentially has some building blocks at key positions who will have low cap numbers. Quarterback Justin Fields is the most obvious one. His development is the key to the entire thing. What do perennial playoff contenders have in common? All of them have a franchise quarterback in place. That’s no secret, and Fields’ growth and maturation in his rookie season will be the top storyline.

But the Bears have other players on rookie contracts at premium positions where — if they also develop — they could help set up a cap situation with flexibility. Cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson and Kindle Vildor are in Year 2 of four-year contracts. Johnson has emerged as one of the better young cornerbacks in the league and was a terrific find in the second round in 2020, the seventh player selected at the position. No one can say Vildor is a long-term option yet, but barring an injury, he will have a ton of tape to evaluate at the end of the season and he’s getting every chance to prove he’s worthy of the job.

The Bears also hope to have a pair of starting offensive tackles on rookie contracts. Injuries have prevented them from even beginning to evaluate second-round pick Teven Jenkins and fifth-round pick Larry Borom, but in the big picture at Halas Hall, the team sees both as potential long-term options. Given the cost — and at times lack of selection — on the open market, drafting and developing starting offensive tackles could be a huge boon.

Jenkins remains on the physically unable to perform list after back surgery in late August. The team has offered no timetable on his return to football activities. It wouldn’t surprise me if he remains out for several weeks. He might not be available until close to the end of the season. The Bears don’t want to rush him back from that type of injury, and then it would be a challenge to get him game-ready considering he missed all of training camp and has done zero work with pads on. Once he gets on the practice field, it will be a process from there because the Bears don’t have any idea what he will look like.

Borom has been on injured reserve after suffering a high ankle sprain in the season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams when starter Jason Peters and then backup Elijah Wilkinson were both knocked out. Borom is definitely closer to returning than Jenkins, and it could happen soon. With Germain Ifedi (knee) on injured reserve and Wilkinson shifted to the reserve/COVID-19 list before the game Sunday, there’s a potential opening for Borom if he can get back soon. Keep in mind, though, Borom missed nearly two weeks of training camp with a concussion and has missed a ton of practice time with this injury.

I imagine the Bears will craft a plan to get Jenkins and/or Borom on the field to evaluate them. Peters and Ifedi are on one-year contracts, as is Wilkinson. Peters, 39, clearly isn’t part of the future, and Ifedi looks like someone signed to help get the team through the season.

The Bears don’t want to undermine what they’re trying to accomplish offensively by forcing rookie tackles onto the field before they’re ready, but game experience is the best way for Jenkins and Borom to develop and be evaluated.

It would not surprise me if the Bears look at Borom at left tackle and have Jenkins work at right tackle or maybe even guard in the next phase of their development. No one has said that, but given how the team reacted to the limited practice time Borom had on the left side, the feeling was he had the traits and skills necessary to warrant a shot at the position.

Jenkins, as has been detailed, was primarily a right tackle at Oklahoma State, and back in the spring I couldn’t find a scout who thought he projected as a left tackle in the NFL. In fact, some scouts suggested he would be best off playing guard. Who knows? Maybe both get a look on the left side at some point, but I’m just playing a hunch that the Bears could look at Borom on the left and that Jenkins’ first chance will come at right tackle or guard.

Given the huge salaries that premium offensive tackles — on both sides — get with their second contracts, it would be a hit if one or both work out.

9. The Bears worked out a group of specialists last Tuesday at Halas Hall, which made perfect sense as COVID-19 creates some roster juggling at other positions.

Bears long snapper Patrick Scales, punter Pat O'Donnell and kicker Cairo Santos practice during warmups before the start of a a game against the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021.

Bears long snapper Patrick Scales, punter Pat O’Donnell and kicker Cairo Santos practice during warmups before the start of a a game against the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

The New Orleans Saints signed kicker Brian Johnson off the Bears practice squad the previous week, so the team’s cover is gone in the event something happens with the reliable Cairo Santos. The Bears really liked what they saw in Johnson, beginning in the spring when he showed up as an undrafted free agent from Virginia Tech, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he eventually gets a foothold on a job in the league.

The Saints signed Johnson after placing ex-Bear Cody Parkey on injured reserve with a groin injury. They have been shuffling through kickers with Wil Lutz sidelined after surgery to repair a core muscle injury. Lutz was designated to return from IR last week, when the Saints were coming off a bye, but Johnson might be kicking Monday night when the Saints visit the Seattle Seahawks. If so, Santos surely will be watching — a day after he hit a 28-yarder for his 35th consecutive made field goal, leaving him five behind Gary Anderson for third place on the NFL’s all-time list.

Johnson has a strong leg, was accurate over the summer and in the preseason and also was accurate in pregame warmups in which he got in work every week. How he will perform under the pressure of a regular-season game is anyone’s best guess, but as many kickers as the Bears went through to get from Robbie Gould to Santos, it’s worth noting they brought in a kicker this year who was, at least initially, quite impressive.

“He really impressed me by his ability to learn so quickly and develop so quickly,” Santos said. “We started working together in the spring and definitely saw the talent that he had. Really good ball striker, especially out here, and then some things that (kicking consultant) Jamie Kohl and (special teams coordinator) Chris Tabor and myself tried to bring to him in a place like this to help, he was able to adapt and develop so fast and it showed in preseason. He hit some long kicks right down the middle. I think he’s going to be a great kicker in this league.”

Johnson arrived with a tool box full of everything needed to launch a successful career. What Santos noticed is Johnson needed to refine his approach to the ball a little bit. The Bears also worked on having him get to the ball a little quicker with a two-step approach.

“To be a good ball striker, you need to be able to repeat everything, and a lot of young guys that come out of college — and I was one of them — have what we call a jab step where they take basically three steps to the ball instead of two,” Santos said. “And that just can add a longer approach and more can go wrong. So if you shorten that, you have a greater chance of repeating the same steps to the ball and the ball-striking position. That’s what we believe, so I think that is something that helped him get the consistency that he showed.”

Santos also credited Johnson for helping him out the last couple months as Johnson seamlessly joined a tight-knit group of specialists with punter Pat O’Donnell and snapper Patrick Scales.

“I appreciated how he was such a good rookie for us,” Santos said. “He was able to take reps during practice to save my leg, helping out in pregame and just talking about winds, and he would kick before the game and I would watch him. I would learn how the wind was moving his kicks. He was a great kid, too, and kind of knew his position and he just wanted to absorb as much as possible and respected our space and our routine during the week. It was a pleasure to have him around.

“We competed really hard. How well he kicked, I had to kick really well or he was going to make me look bad. In a way, you’re kind of pushing yourself. You’re kind of proud to be a small part in his development. That’s how veterans were with me when I came in. (Ryan) Succop, obviously, competing against him my rookie year (in Kansas City). Such an awesome guy and I still have a great relationship with him. Robbie Gould reached out to me after I made the team and had some early struggles. And Stephen Gostkowski was kind of the first veteran in the pregame talk that we get that said some words to me that I gained confidence hearing from a guy that I looked up to and have a lot of respect for. Those three guys had an immediate impact on how my career got started.”

The kickers the Bears brought in for a workout were Alex Kessman, Matthew McCrane and Nick Vogel. The punters were Sterling Hofrichter and Tyler Newsome, and the snappers were Mitchell Fraboni and John Wirtel, a Mount Carmel alumnus.

10. You have to be loaded offensively to come out of a 38-3 game with five offensive touchdowns and bemoan the effort.

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady throws during the second quarter against the Bears on Oct. 24, 2021.

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady throws during the second quarter against the Bears on Oct. 24, 2021. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

But that’s where the Bucs are right now, in an entirely different universe than the Bears.

“We scored 38 points, really didn’t play well offensively,” said coach Bruce Arians, who estimated the Bucs left 20 points on the field. “We let everybody we’ve played back in (the game), and we were determined not to make this one close and defensively did their job. Offensively, again, we were stopped inside the (2-yard line) as many times as we were, that’s ridiculous.”

I guess you give the Bears defense a little credit. The Bucs didn’t chew up many long fields. But there was very little pressure on Tom Brady, and the Bears surrendered 182 rushing yards at 5.9 a carry.

10a. It didn’t help when defensive lineman Bilal Nichols was ejected for throwing a punch. It’s understandable players would be frustrated. The guess here is he gets a fine but likely avoids further discipline.

10b. The Bears are averaging 14.4 points per game, 30th in the NFL and ahead of only the Houston Texans (13.9) and New York Jets (13.3). Eight teams are under 20 points per game.

10c. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack was credited with one solo tackle.

10d. The Fox Sports crew of Adam Amin, Greg Olsen and Pam Oliver will call Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field.

10e. The 49ers opened as four-point favorites over the Bears at Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas.

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