Team preview: Chicago Bears
Prior to the start of the 2013 season, Bears general manager Phil Emery knew he had to fix Chicago’s offense, which was one of the worst in the NFL. Part of the solution came in hiring Marc Trestman as the team’s new head coach. Trestman is an offensive genius and quarterback Jay Cutler and the rest of the unit bought into the new scheme. The results were immediate, with the offense going from one of the worst in the league to one of the best.
The problem with the Bears in 2013 was not offense, but the usually strong defense. New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker pretty much kept former coach Lovie Smith’s scheme in place, but the players performed nowhere near the same level. One problem was age and the other was injury. The 2013 Bears had an inordinate amount of injuries on the defensive side.
Going into 2014, Emery did to the defense what he did to the offense in 2013. He completely reassembled the unit through free agency and the draft. There were also coaching changes on the defensive side. Brought in were veteran NFL coaches Paul Pasqualoni and Reggie Herring to coach the defensive line and linebacker groups.
Did the Bears do enough? We will find out the answer to that in about a month when camps open. On paper they have a very strong team on both sides of the ball. If they stay healthy, they will challenge for the NFC North and perhaps even more.
The Bears will go as far as Jay Cutler can take them. Cutler showed drastic improvement last year under Trestman, but still had a tendency to throw the costly interception at the wrong time. Now in his second year in Trestman’s system, Cutler should show even more improvement, as he is more comfortable in understanding the offense.
Cutler has to stay on the field if the Bears want any chance of making a deep playoff run.
A problem Cutler has had while with the Bears is staying healthy. Chicago had a great backup a year ago in Josh McCown, but he left in free agency to sign with Tampa Bay. Behind Cutler this year is a question mark.
At the top of the depth chart is Jordan Palmer, but the reality is that he has played very little during his first five years in the league. The Bears drafted San Jose State quarterback David Fales, who many feel has a bright NFL future. Late in the off-season program the franchise signed former Panther quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Off of Clausen’s Carolina performance, he doesn’t look like the answer. My guess is that when Fales becomes comfortable with the scheme, he will be the primary backup to Cutler.
In Matt Forte, the Bears have one of the top running backs in the league. He is very efficient as a runner, receiver and blocker. The Bears drafted Ka’Deem Carey, who rushed for over 1,800 yards last year at Arizona, to be Forte’s primary backup.
The third back will be either second-year man Michael Ford, who was an undrafted free agent a year ago and showed some promise, or former Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. Lynch has never played running back, but was a pleasant surprise during OTAs.
At fullback is the always reliable Tony Fiammetta.
Receivers and tight ends
Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery give the Bears one of the best receiving duos in the NFL. Both received Pro Bowl bids a year ago and have rare size and very good speed.
Going into camp, the third receiver looks like it will be second-year man Marquess Wilson. Wilson had a very strong off-season. The other two or three receivers will come from the group of Eric Weems, Josh Morgan, Chris Williams and Terrence Tolliver.
The tight end is Martellus Bennett, who gave the Bears their best threat at the position since Greg Olsen was traded. Who will be Bennett’s backup is a question mark, but my guess is it will be Dante Rosario or Jeron Mastrud.
Going into the 2013 season, the line was a big question mark. But the new group ended up giving the Bears their best O-Line play in years. The entire group is back for 2014.
The tackles will be Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills. Mills was a fifth-round pick a year ago and started every game. Last year’s first-round pick, Kyle Long, went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. The center is veteran Roberto Garza, now in his 14th year. He has a strong presence in the locker room.
At left guard, 2013 free agent signee Matt Slausen is the starter. He came in a year ago on a one-year contract and was quickly rewarded with a multi-year deal after the season. The backups will be Eben Britton, Brian De La Puenta and James Brown. De La Puenta was a starter for New Orleans in 2013. A rookie with an excellent chance to make the squad is Charles Leno.
The defensive line play in 2013 for the Bears was horrible. Emery hopes he fixed the problem with both free agency signings and the draft.
ICONLongtime Viking Jared Allen left Minnesota for Chicago this past off-season.
The Bears signed three key veteran free agents with the big name coming in the form of former Minnesota Viking Jared Allen. The other notable name at end is former Raider Lamarr Houston. Houston will play outside on base downs, but will most likely play tackle on pass rush downs. In passing situations, the Bears also have former Lion Willie Young. Young will play end when Houston moves inside.
The tackles are led by former Dallas Cowboy Jay Ratliff. He was injured most of last year but played well when he returned at the end of the season. He will work in a rotation with three other players, two of whom are rookies.
The Bears spent their second and third-round picks on defensive linemen. The second-round pick was LSU junior Ego Ferguson and the third-rounder was Arizona State 3-technique Will Sutton. Sutton and Fergusson’s games complement each other very well.
The fourth man in the defensive tackle rotation will most likely be Nate Collins, who played very good football a year ago until he got injured. The odd man out could be 2011 second-round pick Stephen Paea. The overall strength of the defensive line is far superior to last year.
Perennial All-Pro Lance Briggs has a firm grip on the Will linebacker position. He hasn’t slowed down 12 years into the league. The Mike linebacker will be D.J. Williams. Williams was signed as a free agent a year ago and was having a very good season until he was injured. He could get challenged by second year man Khaseem Greene.
The Bears have moved former first-round pick Shea McClellin to Sam linebacker. He was too undersized to play defensive end and looks more comfortable on his feet. He will be challenged by last year’s second-round pick Jon Bostic. Bostic is athletic and a big hitter, but has questionable instincts.
The Bears have a good group of corners, led by Charles Tillman. Tillman does a great job matching up against the bigger receivers in the league. Opposite Tillman will most likely be 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech. Depending on who you talk to, he was either the second or third best corner in this draft class.
Last year’s starter, Tim Jennings, moves inside to play the slot. He has the quickness and explosiveness to match up well versus NFL slot receivers. In reserve will be Kelvin Hayden and Isaiah Frey. Frey was the nickel corner last year.
It seems like safety is always a trouble spo t for Chicago. Going into camp, it still is. I’m not sure if the Bears know who their starters will be.
Chris Conte missed all of OTAs recovering from shoulder surgery and had his worst season in 2013. The strong safety in 2013 (Major Wright) left in free agency. After OTAs, the strong safety looks like it will be Ryan Mundy, who was with the Giants in 2013. The free safety could be rookie Brock Vareen from Minnesota. Also in the mix is former Packer M.D. Jennings and Craig Steltz.
Just after OTAs ended the Bears signed former All-Pro Adrian Wilson. Wilson is 35-years-old and coming off an Achilles tear, so who knows what he has left.
Like every team in the NFL, the Bears have to stay healthy, especially at quarterback. If Cutler continues to show improvement under Trestman, there is no reason the Bears can’t win the NFC North.
Chicago spent a lot of money to improve the defense, so much is expected. I think at worst the Bears are a wild card team in 2014.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @greggabe