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Is Calais Campbell a possible target?

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The Chicago Bears begin organized team activities Thursday at Halas Hall, the next step in offseason preparations for the 2024 season.

One area the Bears have not made many additions since last season ended is the defensive line, and the Tribune’s Brad Biggs has received multiple questions in his weekly Bears mailbag about possible interest in six-time Pro Bowl end Calais Campbell, who remains unsigned.

Do you think the Bears will make a move to sign Calais Campbell as a veteran to help anchor the defensive line? — Vic W., Yuma, Az.

That has been a popular question for a few weeks. It will be interesting to see what happens with Campbell, who turns 38 on Sept. 1 and has been a high-level performer for 16 seasons, tying for the Atlanta Falcons team lead last season with 6½ sacks. It remains to be seen if Campbell indeed wants to suit up for a 17th season. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said earlier in the offseason that “we’ll never close any doors” about possibly re-signing Campbell, who played for a base salary of $7 million last season plus incentives.

Campbell is a defensive end, and I think some have confused the 6-foot-8, 282-pounder as an interior lineman. He’s a completely different type of player than Yannick Ngakoue, the free agent the Bears signed to a one-year, $10 million deal last summer after training camp opened.

I reached out to a veteran personnel executive who spent some time reviewing the Falcons last season to seek his opinion on Campbell, who started all 17 games and was on the field for 63% of the defensive snaps, totaling 17 quarterback hits.

“I think he’s still got one good year in him if he wants to play,” the executive said. “He’s still a real force at the point of attack. You cannot get that guy’s edge. He’s so long and so strong and he’s (really) stout. Anybody who wants to try to run zone his way is not getting the edge of the defense because of his length and pure stoutness.

“As a pass rusher, he’s still got power, so when he drops his pads — because of his length he plays at a really high pad level naturally — but when he puts a little bend into his play, because of his power, he cannot be stopped one-on-one. Now, he’s of the age that he cannot bring that every play or every game, but when he does, he’s still got a lot.

“As a veteran free agent, he’s going to be a great locker-room presence. He would be really good for the mix, really good for the locker room, and in spot situations, base downs, base personnel, he would be a big add. You’d just have to limit his reps. He’d be kind of a rotational rush guy. You wouldn’t want him in there all the time. When it’s on the line, that guy brings it.”

The big question in my mind — beyond the overall talent the Bears have at the position — is how they feel about DeMarcus Walker after his first season with the team. He’s the Bears’ stout, run-stuffing end and he’s signed for two more seasons, due $8 million this year and $5.25 million in 2025, provided he remains with the team.

Walker played in all 17 games last season with 30 tackles (nine for a loss) and 3½ sacks. He had 16 QB hits, 11 coming in the final six games. If the Bears are pleased with what Walker brought to the field — I believe they liked the leadership element he provided — and like the idea of him starting opposite Montez Sweat, then I tend to think Campbell would be a bit redundant for a team with a little more than $12.4 million in effective cap space, according to overthecap.com.

That being said, GM Ryan Poles has been aggressive at times entering his third season, and I wouldn’t rule anything out. I’m sure the Bears have kept tabs on Campbell and other remaining free agents who potentially could bolster the roster when looking ahead to the end of August and cut decisions. It definitely will be interesting to see what the future holds for Campbell, who has 105½ career sacks and likely will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.

As more and more rookies are signing their contracts, how concerned should we be that the Bears will not come to terms with Caleb Williams? Most rookie contracts get done under the current CBA as contracts are slotted to their draft position. Still, can Caleb Williams and his camp demand that any contract they sign contain language that stipulates that the Bears cannot apply a franchise tag on him after the fifth year? If any rookie will demand this, would it not be Williams? If this is possible, would the Bears agree to that? I fear a holdout is coming. — Jay, Minnesota

I have a hard time believing Williams will have any provisions in his contract that potentially change the landscape for future No. 1 draft picks. I also would not fear a holdout at this time, with a lot of time between now and the beginning of training camp.

The Bears would be roundly criticized by the other 31 teams if they gave Williams a deal that future top picks could use as leverage in negotiating rookie contracts. Williams can ask for anything he wants, but the system in place hasn’t been bucked yet and I find it hard to believe there wouldn’t be a provision for the standard fifth-year option and the possibility of the franchise tag being utilized down the line.

As best I can tell, only two of the top 10 picks have contracts completed: New York Giants wide receiver Malik Nabers (No. 6) and Tennessee Titans offensive tackle JC Latham (No. 7). Being unsigned does not make Williams an outlier at this point, and I don’t think there is anything to be concerned about here.

What is the measure of success for the 2024 Bears? The last two years, success would’ve been Justin Fields showing he belongs, mostly independent of team record. With an improved roster and Caleb Williams expected to provide at least average QB play, fewer than nine wins feels like it will be disappointing. — @chad_vonk

Optimism abounds at Halas Hall and among the fan base for the season ahead. Williams has a cast of players around him that is as good or better than the Bears have had on offense in quite some time. There are fair questions about the offensive line, but if he’s able to play somewhat consistently within the structure of the offense, that should take off some of the pass-rush pressure. I think it’s fair to circle nine wins, and that was the lead topic in last week’s mailbag.

There will be a lot of pressure on Williams because — I don’t care how good the supporting cast is — the NFL can be a cold, cruel world for rookie quarterbacks. I also think it’s unfair to judge expectations for Williams in a much different light than Fields. You’re looking for the same thing: tangible evidence that Williams “belongs.” That means steadier performances and proof based on more than splash highlight plays sprinkled in throughout games.

Expecting the Bears to eclipse .500 seems like a reasonable goal, especially considering the schedule and how they performed during the second half of last season. If they can do that, there should be no shortage of playoff talk after Thanksgiving — a welcome change of focus as most have been eyeing the draft and free agency by then in recent years, if not wondering about a potential coaching change.

Could Gervon Dexter be used as a future nose tackle if he doesn’t show that he can penetrate the pocket in the next year or so? Andrew Billings got an extension but maybe Dexter is best suited to take over for him if he continues to struggle getting off the ball. — @coachsmyth

Bears defensive tackle Gervon Dexter stretches before a game against the Vikings on Oct. 15, 2023, at Soldier Field. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Bears defensive tackle Gervon Dexter stretches before a game against the Vikings on Oct. 15, 2023, at Soldier Field. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Interesting question. The feeling I get is the Bears want Dexter to have the flexibility to play both positions. He has a massive frame at 6-6, 312 pounds, and that’s not the prototype for a three-technique in the Tampa-2 defense. I think they still like the idea of him as an interior pass rusher in sub packages, and remember, teams are in their nickel package more than in base personnel.

Billings is a better nose tackle right now. He is a massive rock in the middle of the defense, understands his role and rarely is out of position. Dexter got better as last season went along. He had 2½ sacks in the final five games and nine QB hits from Weeks 10-17. Let’s see what he can do in his second season, how he’s utilized and if he can take a jump now that he’s accustomed to playing with better leverage.

Still trying to figure out why Ryan Poles neglected the defensive line in the offseason. An injury away from having a pass rush that is completely absent. Vegas is right. This is a .500 team, at best. — @squaretail99

I don’t know if I would use the word “neglect.” Did Poles prioritize the defensive line? Not really. But it hasn’t been ignored either. You need to account for two moves during the middle of last season. First, the trade for Montez Sweat and the subsequent contract extension he received. Second, the contract extension for nose tackle Andrew Billings, an under-the-radar hit in 2023 free agency. Those moves used cap space for this season (and beyond) and should be part of the discussion about what Poles has done for 2024. Since then, the Bears drafted edge rusher Austin Booker in the fifth round, and otherwise the group is pretty much unchanged.

There are more question marks about quarterback and Caleb Williams than any other position. Beyond that, you can make a pretty good case for the defensive line and pass rush after Sweat as the area with the most questions. It was a down year for free-agent defensive linemen. Christian Wilkins would have been a nifty addition to the middle of the line, but he signed with the Las Vegas Raiders for $110 million over four seasons. That’s more than the Bears paid Sweat.

A couple of intriguing defensive ends were on the market, but it fell off pretty quickly. And if the Bears had paid market-plus — which is what you’re doing in the first wave of free agency — for another pass rusher, all of a sudden they probably have too much money tied up in one position. Sure, you can say they’ve done that at wide receiver after the trade for Keenan Allen, but that’s a one-year deal and the books will reset after this season. The Bears’ defensive line issues aren’t due to a lack of spending. What they’ve struggled to do is develop a homegrown edge rusher.

The next thing I’d say is, OK, if you’re still hung up on the quality and depth of the defensive line, you probably have to subtract from somewhere else to add there. The Bears have roughly $12.4 million in cap space and that will give them some flexibility as the season approaches, but I doubt they want to take a big chunk out of that anytime soon. So if you could roll back the clock, where are you removing a player they added and using those resources to fortify the defensive front?

If you say Allen or maybe tight end Gerald Everett, I suppose I can understand. But this is a new era with a rookie quarterback the team wants to support in every way possible. Bears fans may need to rethink how the team approaches roster building for the foreseeable future. Instead of a defense-first, run-the-football approach, perhaps the franchise is joining the teams that build around their quarterback. Tough decisions are required.

Finally, I agree with you that the Bears would be in a tough spot if something happens to Sweat. But there aren’t a lot of teams with a premier edge rusher that wouldn’t be in a jam if their big dog went down with an injury. That’s reality at nearly every position.

Does Khalil Herbert have a role on this team? — @diehardredsfan9

Bears running back Khalil Herbert runs for a touchdown against the Cardinals on Dec. 24, 2023, at Soldier Field. (Trent Sprague/Chicago Tribune)
Bears running back Khalil Herbert runs for a touchdown against the Cardinals on Dec. 24, 2023, at Soldier Field. (Trent Sprague/Chicago Tribune)

My first reaction is it will be tough for the third running back on the depth chart to get a uniform on game days because Travis Homer is one of the team’s top special teams players and likely to dress every week if he’s healthy. Homer was fifth on the roster in special teams snaps last season and got only six snaps on offense.

That puts Herbert in a competition with 2023 fourth-round draft pick Roschon Johnson to be the No. 2 running back behind D’Andre Swift. If Herbert can assert himself as the guy, he would have a spot in the offense for a few carries and some plays each game. The Bears could get a little more utility out of Johnson, who also was active on special teams last season, logging 152 snaps compared with one for Herbert.

So if you’re zeroed in on what the future could hold for Herbert, keep a close eye on how he and Johnson perform over the summer. There won’t be a lot of situations in which the team wants four running backs (not including fullback Khari Blasingame) active on game day. Teams have to find offensive players to fill roles on special teams, and that usually means reserve running backs and/or reserve wide receivers. Herbert hasn’t been a fit there to this point.

We’ll know more from camp but curious what offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s view of fullback Khari Blasingame is and how he plans on using him? Perhaps if he ends up in more of a TE-type role than a fullback in Waldron’s offense knowing his personnel decisions? Or were those choices based more on the roster he had in Seattle? — @aj_katz18

Like you, I’m curious how things will shake out for Blasingame when we get to training camp. It’s fair to wonder if there will be a role for a blocking back in the offense. I don’t know about using Blasingame as a hybrid H-back or off-the-ball tight end because that might not be playing to his strengths. The Seahawks, last season at least, inserted wide receivers and tight ends in the run-blocking scheme.

The Los Angeles Rams, for whom Waldron worked under Sean McVay before he went to Seattle, also don’t really use a fullback. That’s interesting because in that offensive family, there is a spot for the position. San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan leans heavily on a fullback in his offense.

Blasingame played 186 offensive snaps last season. The Seahawks ran 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) for 12 snaps last season. The Rams, for what it’s worth, had zero snaps with that personnel grouping. The Seahawks had five snaps in 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver) in 2023 compared with zero for the Rams.

The Seahawks did run 224 snaps in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers), and that ranked 14th in the NFL. The Bears certainly have the personnel in place to lean into that this season with Cole Kmet and newcomer Gerald Everett. The Rams, by comparison, had only 58 snaps in 12 personnel, the fewest in the NFL.

In 12 personnel, I think Everett projects as the move guy. The Bears can throw screens and crossers to him because his strength is playing in space. Kmet would run more of the traditional tight end route tree.

We’ll have to wait and see what kind of role there is for Blasingame. I could see Waldron adjusting what he did with the Seahawks, who did not have a blocking back, and carrying one. I also could see the Bears more or less phasing out the position.

Are you concerned about the development of third-round pick Kiran Amegadjie? Seems like he will be behind when training camp opens. — Gary W., Gurnee



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