The 2015 Chicago Bears: A Team In Transition
Last season was the epitome of the dread that has plagued Bears' fans for the past decade: high expectations that end up kicking you in the groin, leaving you in the fetal position as Green Bay Packers' fans laugh watching you gasp for air. Of course, that's only hyperbole (kind of).
This upcoming Bears' season leaves a different flavor in your mouth than most. Quarterback Jay Cutler has gone from savior to most despised figure in Chicago sports; the Bears' vaunted defense, that was led by the likes of Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, is a shell of its former self; and gone is popular wide-receiver Brandon Marshall, now with the New York Jets.
Even the most optimistic Bears' fans are finding trouble believing in this club this upcoming season. With a new head coach and general manager, the Bears seem to be in Year One of a transitional process that will leave this team looking drastically different in the coming years. No player is safe, evidenced by franchise stalwarts in Tillman and Briggs being asked to close the door on their way out this offseason.
Even though the Bears appear to be a team in transition, they definitely don't lack for some interesting story lines to watch this upcoming season. There's a couple of players and coaches whose performance will change the Bears' identity this season and in the future.
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Expecting more out of Cutler than what he's shown thus far in his career is just nonsensical. Cutler is not a quarterback that is going to make other players around him better; he needs to operate in an offensive system that will hide his weaknesses and mitigate the disastrous mistakes that have plagued his career.
Cutler enters this season on the shortest leash he's ever been on. Rumors of the Bears moving up to grab quarterback Marcus Mariota in the draft prove just how expendable he is to this front office. If not for his unmovable contract situation the Bears were faced with this offseason, he probably wouldn't even be on this roster.
Next offseason is a different story though. There's still a huge amount of dead money the Bears would have to incur ($13 million) to release Cutler, but there are actual cap savings ($4 million) if they choose to do so. There's a possibility that the Bears could cut their losses with Cutler next offseason and start over by drafting a young quarterback in the draft.
One thing is evident: if Cutler wants to be on this roster next season, he has to improve substantially from his dreadful 2014 campaign. So just how likely is Cutler to improve next season? Well, even with the loss of Marshall, Cutler is in a much better situation than he was last season.
Now Cutler enters a situation with a proven commodity in head coach John Fox, and possibly the best offensive coordinator he's ever had in Adam Gase.
Cutler has produced better seasons than the one he produced last year, and if this coaching staff could minimize his disastrous weaknesses, he could have a bounce back season. If he doesn't, he will be another team's problem.
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Since Forte started his career with the Bears, he has been the model of consistency through many tumultuous seasons. With an expiring contract situation on the horizon, his time in Chicago could come to an end next offseason.
Former Bears' Director of College Scouting Greg Gabriel had this to say about Forte heading into the 2015 season, via National Football Post:
"He is one of the most consistent and underrated backs in the NFL. Few have the overall game that Forte brings to the table. He is a consistent runner inside and out and is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL. The only negative is his age, and with that, brings the question of how much is left in the tank?"
And this is the question the Bears will try to answer when deciding whether to offer Forte a competitive contract extension next offseason. So how much does Forte really have left? Well, his 3.9 yards per carry last season was tied for the second lowest of his seven year career, but he did post career highs in receptions and receiving yards.
Forte's career has been mostly absent of the hard hits from defenders that decimate running-backs' careers over the long haul, but Forte did just pass 1,800 rushing attempts last season; this is significant because running-backs' production will usually fall off a cliff the season after they reach this milestone.
Pace did invest a fourth-round pick in running-back Jere my Langford in the 2015 NFL Draft, but it's hard to tell if this really means anything about Forte's future with the Bears.
Could Pace be preparing for life after Forte by drafting a possible replacement in the speedy Langford, or could he just be adding depth to a running-back position that needed it badly last season? It's more likely the latter as Langford's draft profile doesn't peg him to be a future starter one day in his career, evidenced by him again being a fourth-round pick.
So how much will Forte's production this year matter, when the Bears are assessing his future with the team next offseason?
Well, if he produces another consistent year full of positive production, Pace might think Forte will be way out of the price range he's willing to invest in a 30-year-old running-back approaching 2,000 rushing attempts.
If Forte declines this season and shows signs of slowing down, Pace might think it would be better to invest his money in another draft pick at running-back or give Langford a shot at the starting position, depending on his production in 2015.
It seems more likely than not that Forte will play his last down in a Bears' uniform this season, pending a significant hometown discount.
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Jeffery enters this season in a precarious situation, unlike his first three seasons in the NFL. With Marshall gone, Jeffery is the clear top wide-receiver on this roster.
Last season was a little snapshot of Jeffery's ability to be a No. 1 wide-receiver in this league, with Marshall slowed down by injuries, but the results were disappointing.
Last season's production pushed Jeffery outside the top-10 wide-receivers in the NFL, rather than the previous season where he was producing elite-like numbers.
Much of this could be explained by Marshall struggling with those injuries last season. Marshall consistently forced defenses to pay close attention to him when he was healthy, opening up passing lanes for Jeffery to take advantage of.
When Marshall started getting hampered by injuries, Jeffery became the de facto No. 1 wide-receiver on this roster, despite him proving that he was not quite ready to take on this responsibility.
Jeffery has the talent to be one of the upper echelon wide-receivers in the NFL, but right now he doesn't belong in that discussion. Entering the last season of his rookie deal, Jeffery is in position to cash-out on the big extensions earned by two of those upper echelon wide-receivers, Dez Bryant and Demaryious Thomas.
If Jeffery takes another step in his development and emerges as an elite wide-receiver, he'll have the opportunity to be paid like one of these upper echelon players.
If he remains stagnant and produces a season like the one he did last year, the Bears would be left in a precarious situation and would more than likely end up franchise tagging the promising wide-receiver.
The smart thing for the Bears to do would be to extend Jeffery before or during the regular-season. Coming off an unspectacular season, the Bears could save future cap space by extending Jeffery now. Jeffery has flashed the talent to be a No. 1 wide-receiver, and if he puts it all together this season he could command a Bryant/Thomas-like ransom.
Pending some unforeseen outcome, Jeffery will be on this roster next season, but at what price?
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Adam Gase & Vic Fangio
Fox's ability to obtain elite coordinators was on full display after arriving in Chicago. Obtaining Gase as his offensive coordinator and Fangio as his defensive coordinator, arguably the two most desirable coordinators at their respected sides of the football this offseason, puts the Bears in a great position to improve on a horrid campaign last season.
The interesting dilemma for the Bears next offseason is that if both sides of the ball improve substantially this season, one or both of these coordinators could be headed for head-coaching positions.
In the case of offensive coordinator Gase, he would have likely landed the San Francisco 49ers' head coaching job if he would have agreed to hire Jim Tomsula as his defensive coordinator. Gase refused and is in now leading the Bears' offense with Cutler at the helm.
Gase was a hot commidity this offseason for a head coaching gig and if he can make Cutler look even respectable this season, he'll put himself over the top for a head coaching position.
Fangio was interviewed for that same 49ers' head coaching position, but was passed over by his defensive line coach Tomsula. Fangio has been a respected coordinator in the NFL for a long time, and if he can take one of the worst defenses in the NFL and turn them respectable or better, it could propel him into a head coaching job next offseason.
The MMQB made a ranking of the next 32 head coaches, in order of likelihood for the 2016 season and beyond. Gase and Fangio, unsurpringly, finished ranked first and 18th on that list.
It will be interesting to see if one or both of these units improve this season and if they do, Fox will add to his growing coaching tree.
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Paired with the signing of defensive lineman Lamar Houston, Allen was a part of the Bears' blockbuster haul in the 2014 offseason that garnered Super Bowl predictions far and wide. To no avail, Allen didn't come close to delivering the production his contract promised.
In retrospect, Allen put together a pretty average season, but it's hard to garner a lot of sympathy for a player who is currently on the books to count $12.5 million against the Bears' cap this season.
Just like Cutler, Allen was a player the Bears' front office would have probably loved to release considering his massive cap hit, but doing so would have produced no cap savings and $12.5 million in dead money.
One thing former General Manager Phil Emery did right was front-loading guarantees on contract extensions. Allen's $15.5 million in guarantees is comprised of his 2014 and 2015 seasons, so the Bears can relinquish themselves from his $8.5 million cap hit next season with no dead money incurred upon his release.
At the age of 33, Allen would have to have a spectacular season for him to remain on the Bears' roster next season.
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