Five Bears not named Caleb Williams who will determine playoff fate in 2024 (2024)

Caleb Williams and the Bears will enter the 2024 season with playoff expectations after an offseason filled with franchise-altering moves.

Williams is aware of the weight of those expectations, and the No. 1 overall pick is choosing to embrace the pressure instead of pretending it doesn't exist.

“What’s the reason toduck?" Williams said at his introductory press conference. "It’s here. There’s no reason toduck. I’m here. [Rome Odunze's] here. Keenan Allen, the top-five defense that we had last year, special teams, all the new roles – whatever. We’re here. I’m excited. I know everybody’s excited. The Bears fans are excited from what I’ve heard and seen, and there’s no reason toduck. Attack it head first and go get it.”

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Williams has taken up all of the oxygen surrounding the Bears since he arrived at Halas Hall.

He'll be story 1A and 1B this season for the fast-improving Bears. But the Bears' NFC North and playoff hopes won't rest squarely on his uber-talented right arm.

Here are five key Bears besides Williams who will be vital to playoff hopes this fall.

Gervon Dexter, DT

Let's start with the most obvious choice.

Head coach Matt Eberflus has talked for three years about the three-technique being the engine of his defense, and the Bears drafted Dexter in the second round last year to grow into that game-wrecking motor.

Dexter got off to a slow start last season, but he started to find something during the back half of the season.

Per Pro Football Focus, Dexter notched four sacks and 18 pressures in the Bears' final seven games. He recorded just 11 pressures in the first 10 games and did not register a sack.

The Bears did little to address their defensive line needs in the offseason. They watched defensive tackle Justin Jones leave for the Arizona Cardinals in free agency and have so far been content with fourth-round pick Austin Booker and free-agent signee Jacob Martin being the only additions on the edge.

With Jones gone, the Bears plan to rely on Dexter to fill the starting three-technique spot and will need him to generate constant disruption on the interior to make life a little easier for Montez Sweat on the edge.

Dexter arrived at the offseason program in tremendous shape, and the Bears see a young defensive tackle ready to take the next step.

"I’m going to tell you the biggest thing is just how assertive he is," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said of Dexter. "You can tell there’s a growing confidence. He’s assertive. He believes that he belongs in the lineup and he believes that he can be a major factor.”

The Bears need Dexter to elevate his game and be a force on the inside. If he fizzles in Year 2, the defensive line could be a weak point that will cause them to fall short of their goals.

Braxton Jones, LT

The Bears could have tried to upgrade at left tackle this offseason but elected to stick with Jones as Williams' blindside protector.

After an expected rocky rookie season, Jones took a noticeable leap in Year 2.

In 421 pass-blocking snaps last season, Jones allowed just two sacks and 32 pressures, per PFF. Those numbers were down from the seven sacks and 40 pressures he allowed in 2022.

However, those 32 pressures rank 40th among all tackles with at least 420 pass-blocking snaps. Jones was tied for ninth in sacks allowed. He ranked 52nd in pass-blocking efficiency at 95.8, per PFF.

The Bears need Jones to take another big step forward in Year 3. If Jones stagnates or regresses, Williams will be under fire, and their playoff hopes could be dashed.

Tyrique Stevenson, CB

Washington said he believes the Bears have the best back seven in the NFL.

For that claim to be true, Stevenson has to make the expected Year 2 jump.

The 2023 second-round pick took his lumps last season. According to PFF, Stevenson gave up the most touchdowns, second most catches, and third most yards last season.

Stevenson played better down the stretch but gave up 109 yards in the season finale against the Green Bay Packers when Jaylon Johnson was sidelined with an injury.

After the loss in Green Bay, defensive end DeMarcus Walker pleaded with the Bears to "pay Jaylon Johnson." The Bears listened and locked in the star corner with a four-year, $76 million extension.

Opponents avoid throwing at Johnson as much as possible. Last season, Johnson was targeted 50 times, while opponents picked on Steveson 110 times.

If the Bears' defense is going to become elite, Stevenson needs to take the required second-season leap. If he's a weak link again, the defense will have a clear ceiling—one that could stop the Bears from breaking through to the postseason.

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Ryan Bates, C/G

The Bears have some question marks on the interior of their offensive line, with right guard Nate Davis only participating sparingly in the offseason program and Teven Jenkins' future past 2024 unclear.

Eberflus said he expects Davis to be the starter at right guard this season, but it will be a competition come training camp.

"I really don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see how it goes," Eberflus said of the situation at right guard. "I’m just thinking through my head a bunch of multiple combinations. I really don’t know exactly. Sure, we had Bates there. He’s played there. [Coleman] Shelton has played at center, of course.Davishas played there. [Teven Jenkins] has been on the other side. [Matt Pryor] has been in and been out. The versatility there has certainly been helpful. Ryan did a really good job of having those pieces in there so we don’t like last year or prior years, you know, a guy goes down and we’re like, ‘Oh, what are we going to do?’ At least we have that flexibility at the O-line position."

Jenkins will be the starting left guard, but he has struggled to stay healthy. He played in just 12 games last season after starting and finishing just 11 games in 2022.

The Bears acquired Bates this offseason, hoping he would be their starting center this fall. However, general manager Ryan Poles also signed center Coleman Shelton to give Eberflus and offensive line coach Chris Morgan flexibility on the interior.

Bates can play both center and guard. His versatility will be key this season, especially if Davis or Jenkins misses time.

During the 2022 season, Bates' last as a starter, he gave up just 28 pressures and one sack in 615 pass-blocking snaps between right guard and center.

The Bears have had 18 different offensive line combinations over the past two seasons. The hope is that there will be more continuity in front of Williams this season, with Bates manning center in between a healthy Jenkins and Davis.

But if the Bears' offensive line is again hit with injuries, Bates will become even more valuable as a reliable starting-caliber guard who can help solidify the pass protection in front of Williams.

D'Andre Swift, RB

Swift was the most underrated move the Bears made this offseason.

After going with a running back by committee approach last season, the Bears signed Swift to a three-year, $24 million contract this offseason.

Swift is a do-it-all back who is fresh off a 1,000-yard season for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bears will lean on Swift in the run game this season, but it's his ability as a pass-catcher and pass-protector that will allow the Bears' offense to be at its most lethal.

During OTAs and mandatory minicamp, the Bears utilized Swift quite a bit in the passing game. Williams found him on arrow routes, swing screens, and flat routes early and often.

Swift's versatility should allow the Bears to keep defenses on their back foot. He should also face plenty of light boxes this season, with the Bears expected to operate out of three wide receiver sets quite often.

All of this should make life easier for Williams, especially early on as he looks to find his footing in the NFL.

The Bears' passing attack has grabbed all the headlines this offseason, but Williams and Co. will need a competent ground attack led by the versatile Swift to reach their ceiling this fall.

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Five Bears not named Caleb Williams who will determine playoff fate in 2024 (2024)

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