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Where have they improved the most this season? What would their record be with Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith? – Boston Herald

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The Chicago Bears take a seven-game losing streak and 3-11 record into the final three games of the 2022 season, beginning with Saturday’s Christmas Eve engagement with the Buffalo Bills. Despite all that losing, Brad Biggs’ weekly Bears mailbag opens with a question about the team’s biggest positive.

Is there a specific development, not necessarily related to one player, that has been most surprising about this team? — Paul, Oak Park

My first instinct would be to point out the Bears lead the NFL in rushing. They would have to absolutely fall off a cliff with three games remaining not to be No. 1 at the end of the season, too, as they’re averaging 186.9 yards per game, 23.2 better than the second-place Baltimore Ravens. I don’t think anyone saw that coming, and while I know the coaches prioritized the ground game going back to the very beginning, the success has been dramatic.

Beyond that, the offense has become super efficient on third down, and that’s a little more nuanced. The Bears are converting 44.6% of third downs, which ranks seventh in the league. They have reached 43% only twice in franchise history: 43.0% in 1991 and 43.9% in 1989. A lot of these statistics and rankings are due in large part to quarterback Justin Fields’ ability to create plays off schedule. He has gotten better as the season has gone on.

Did Alex Leatherwood’s struggles push the coaching staff to consider trying him at guard these last few weeks to see if he can be a starting option inside? — @mmurphy_il

I don’t know if they would pivot immediately and move Leatherwood inside when he probably has been practicing exclusively at right tackle the last several weeks. But with Teven Jenkins (neck) and Cody Whitehair (knee) on the injury report Tuesday, the Bears might need more than reserve Michael Schofield to play guard this week.

It sounds like the rotation at right tackle with Riley Reiff could be over for now. Leatherwood had a rough ride in Sunday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. He played 17 snaps and was worked over by Haason Reddick on the final two, allowing a pressure on second-and-16 and a sack on third-and-16. It looked like Leatherwood was moving in slow motion and he had poor technique.

“You know, I thought he got some good reps there,” coach Matt Eberflus said Monday. “I thought he had some good moments in there going against some good pass rushers. So I think he learned some in there as well. He had some adversity. That is always going to happen when you play some good rushers, and he just has to build upon that and learn from that experience.”

That sounds encouraging, right? When asked if the Bears would maintain the rotation, Eberflus was noncommittal, and Leatherwood didn’t get a snap on offense in the second half. He came in to start the third series in the first half and manned the position for three possessions before Reiff took over for the remainder of the game. That’s a telling sign.

“We’ll see as it goes,” Eberflus said. “You know, we’ve got some guys coming back. We’ll see what happens.”

The player coming back could be Larry Borom, who has been sidelined with a knee injury. Perhaps the Bears want to get him some playing time before the season ends.

Is it really fair to say durability is a “concern” for Teven Jenkins as you suggested in 10 thoughts on Monday? It’s not like he has missed a lot of time since recovering from back surgery. Remember, coaches were rotating him earlier in the season. He was healthy. How long do you hold the back surgery over him, as he’s played very well? — Hurricane Rob, Wheeling

I agree that Jenkins’ development at right guard this season has been a terrific occurrence for the offense. The Bears are looking for as many building blocks as they can find, and Jenkins looks like he could be a solid part of the future. He’s young and probably will continue to grow into the position and develop. It’s possible he is just scratching the surface, and it’s evident he has a lot of talent as a big, powerful guy with some movement ability.

The durability question goes beyond the back surgery he underwent during training camp in 2021 — and it’s fair to say that once a player has a back issue, it can be the kind of thing that never fully goes away. Here’s another thing that gives me concern about his durability: He has played 100% of the offensive snaps in six of his 12 career starts. Part of that is due to the rotation with Lucas Patrick that you referenced. In comparison, left guard Cody Whitehair has been on the field for every offensive snap in 100 of 105 career starts. It was former Bears coach John Fox who said a player’s greatest ability is availability, and while I doubt Foxy came up with that line on his own, it’s applicable here.

Jenkins left Sunday’s game in the first quarter with what I believe was a stinger. That’s the same injury that knocked him out in the first quarter of the Week 16 game in Seattle last season. His availability for this week and the remainder of the season is unknown.

“He’s here, engaged, walking around, moving around, looking good,” Matt Eberflus said Tuesday.

Eberflus labeled Jenkins “day-to-day,” his standard response for most injury queries. However, he said there’s a chance Jenkins will practice Wednesday, so that’s good news.

Jenkins dealt with a hip injury earlier this season that cost him two games. Hopefully he is able to do some training in the offseason that will put him in good position physically for the start of 2023. The third season is a telling one for a rookie on a four-year contract, and it’s not unreasonable to expect the best Jenkins has to offer next year.

Can you explain how draft order is determined when it comes to teams being tied? I’m confused how Denver’s position is better than the Bears if they end with the same record. Same with the Rams. — Gerry, Chicago

The first tiebreaker in draft order, regardless of whether the teams are from the same conference, is strength of schedule. The team that played the schedule with the lower winning percentage is awarded the higher pick.

The Bears’ current strength of schedule is .574, so high they are destined to lose any tie. That’s because they matched up with the NFC East (worst record is the Washington Commanders at 7-6-1) and AFC East (worst record is the New England Patriots and New York Jets at 7-7).

Here’s the strength of schedule for the five other teams with four or fewer wins:

  • Houston Texans (1-12-1): .504
  • Denver Broncos (4-10): .483
  • Los Angeles Rams (4-10): .500
  • Arizona Cardinals (4-10): .517
  • Indianapolis Colts (4-9-1): .508

Unless the Bears have a tie in the final three games, it’s impossible they would be deadlocked with the Texans or Colts. Keep in mind, division standing and head-to-head have no bearing on the first tiebreaker.

The Bears are in just about about every game up until the very end. What would their record be had they not traded away their top two defenders? — @dersour

I assume you are talking about trading Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith. Mack has seven sacks this season with the Los Angeles Chargers, who don’t have a good defense, but he’s surrounded by better players than the Bears have. Let’s pretend Mack was with the Bears and had seven sacks. That would give them 24 sacks, which would rank 30th in the league. Maybe Mack’s presence would make other players on the defensive front better, so maybe the Bears have 29 sacks with Mack on the team. That would rank 23rd. In other words, the pass rush still would be bad.

The Bears were 3-5 when they traded Smith, and they lost the next three games by three points to the Miami Dolphins, by one point to the Detroit Lions and by three points to the Atlanta Falcons. Maybe the 3-11 record would be slightly better with Mack and Smith on the roster, something like 5-9, but not much better than that.

I can tell you that having Mack and Smith on the roster wouldn’t mean a lot for the point spread. According to ESPN’s Joe Fortenbaugh, individually the presence of either one wouldn’t affect the spread on a weekly basis. “Together, maybe a point or 1½ points but not near a key number,” he said. “They aren’t enough to move it from 2½ to 3½.”

The Bears have had their share of injuries to key players with all of them basically happening during meaningless games. Is it time to shut down the starters? Would hate to see another injury or lose the No. 2 pick as they continue to build. Your thoughts? — @capncoverspicks

There’s no way this is a consideration for the coaches at Halas Hall, who continue to plan each week to put the team in the best position to win. You’re talking about tanking in games with a meaningful impact on the playoff races in both conferences. The Buffalo Bills — whom the Bears host Saturday — and Kansas City Chiefs are both 11-3, a game ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals in the race for the AFC’s No. 1 seed and first-round bye. In Week 17, the Bears travel to Detroit to face a Lions team vying for its first postseason appearance since 2016. Wins and losses in these games affect the rest of the league.

“When you get into these situations, then it involves the integrity of the entire league, and I believe you have an obligation to go out and try to win,” former Bears coach Dick Jauron said in 2001 when asked about sitting out key players if the team was locked into a playoff position. “It’s really important for us and for the integrity of the sport and the league that everybody plays and plays hard.”

Injuries are part of the game, and everyone hates to see them. The factor you’re not considering is players want to be on the field. They want to suit up every week and be on the field for every snap. The coaches can’t maintain buy-in from the players if they sell a plan that isn’t doing everything possible to win each week. Players aren’t interested in where the team picks in the draft. They’re tired of losing and would do anything to experience a victory and brighten the mood in the locker room.

It’s one thing to rest a few key starters to keep them healthy for the postseason — although some debate whether that pays off, as a week off can make players a little rusty and less sharp in practice. The Bears don’t have a postseason to rest up for.

Matt Eberflus was asked about Justin Fields’ passing in the last two games and pointed to continued improvement on a weekly basis. Growth is happening and he has to be on the field for that to continue. No one in the building has a fatalistic view of the final three games, wondering, “What could happen to Fields?” They’re intrigued to see what’s next in his development.

Is there an update on Chase Claypool and N’Keal Harry? — @minimeatstick

Matt Eberflus indicated after Sunday’s game that both were trending in the right direction, so that’s a sign one or both could be available Saturday against the Bills. Claypool was sidelined with a knee injury and Harry had a back injury. It’s worth noting Harry was limited in practice last week, so he at least has been on the field. Claypool did not participate in practice last week. Equanimeous St. Brown remained in concussion protocol Tuesday.

Regardless of current record, which NFL team’s 2022 overall draft turned out to be a cut above the rest? — @leiberrick

Two teams stand out with terrific rookie classes. Veteran quarterback Geno Smith has been the main story for a Seattle Seahawks team that’s much more competitive than most expected at 7-7 and in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt. But a productive rookie class has bolstered the roster. The Seahawks got left tackle Charles Cross in the first round and found right tackle Abe Lucas in the third. In between they added running back Kenneth Walker in the second round. On defense, they got cornerbacks Tariq Woolen (Round 5) and Coby Bryant (Round 4). That’s five starters, and edge rusher Boye Mafe, another second-round pick, plays in the rotation up front. The Seahawks are loaded with extra draft capital for 2023. They own the Broncos’ first- and second-round picks as part of the Russell Wilson trade.

The New York Jets did really well, too, grabbing cornerback Sauce Gardner and wide receiver Garrett Wilson in the first round. Running back Breece Hall, a second-round pick, is on injured reserve but was playing very well before suffering a torn ACL and minor meniscus injury. Edge rusher Jermaine Johnson, their third first-rounder, has had a slow season with 2½ sacks, but overall the Jets feel very good about the young players they added.

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