Friday, March 2, 2012

NFL Offseason Preview -- Chicago Bears

There needs to be an investigation into how this happened!
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.

We continue the previews with the unofficial ‘Injured Reserve All-Star Team’, the Chicago Bears. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:

*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  Estimated cap is $124 million.*

Chicago Bears

2011 Record:  8-8
PPG For: 22.1 (17th)
PPG Against:  21.3 (14th)
2012 Cap Number:  $101,887,741
Draft Position:  #19 Pick

This may come across to you as being rather self-indulging, but I feel almost certain that I singlehandedly caused the Bears to collapse last season. I spent all of 2010 talking about how “fraudulent” the Bears were. Then I spent all preseason talking about how the Bears were “sure to regress” in 2011. I mean, I was so sure that the Bears weren’t actually good that I might have been willing to wager a body part that they’d miss the playoffs. But then the Bears won 5 straight in midseason, including a stretch where they took down Philly, Detroit, and San Diego in successive weeks. Jay Cutler was playing extremely well, Matt Forte looked like an MVP candidate, and the Bears seemed destined to cause more trouble in the playoffs. And then it happened…I jumped on board. And that, dear Bears fans, is what killed your season. Cutler and Forte’s injury – on me. Marion Barber going out of bounds and then fumbling – well, that was Tebow, but you get the point. I apologize for killing coming over to your side and consequentially killing your team. My bad.

The Good: 

Jay Cutler and Matt Forte are coming back. Healthy. And Caleb Hanie is not coming back. Good enough?

The Bears defense and special teams usually get most of the accolades, but it was the offense that really propelled them to their 7-3 start. In atypical Bears fashion, Cutler and Co. topped the 30 point mark in 6 of their first 10 games…and that was the hard part of their schedule! After Cutler’s Week 11 injury, the Bears faced Oakland, Kansas City, Denver, Seattle, and Minnesota. Now you tell me, how many of those games would they have won with Cutler and Forte? Maybe all 5! With those guys returning next year, Chicago should immediately be 2-4 wins better.

The Bad:

That offensive line is so, so terrible, and the only shocking thing about Cutler’s injury is that it didn’t happen much sooner. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m surprised Cutler didn’t fake an injury during camp so he wouldn’t have to play behind these guys. J’Marcus Webb had some nice moments in his rookie season, but there really isn’t any other positive thing I can say. Chris Spencer was bad, Chris Williams is a huge bust, Roberto Garza is washed up, and Lance Louis is clearly not an NFL player. Chicago badly needs last year’s first round pick, Gabe Carimi, to live up to his lofty draft status, because they can’t take too many more Chris Williams-like busts.

Key Free Agents:  RB Kahlil Bell, TE Kellen Davis, RB Matt Forte, DE Israel Idonije, CB Tim Jennings, S Brandon Meriweather, DT Amobi Okoye, S Craig Steltz, WR Roy Williams

3 Key Questions:

#1 – Is age going to kill the defense?

Father Time has slowly been creeping up on the Bears, and it’s fair to wonder whether Chicago’s once-vaunted defense is going to be a casualty. Brian Urlacher has long been the heart and soul of this team, and he’s remained a top notch player for quite some time, but can he maintain his level of play at 34 years old? The same question can be asked of Lance Briggs (32), Julius Peppers (32), and Charles Tillman (31). But hey, this question has been asked of them before, and they always seem to respond. Of course, the questions carry a bit more weight following a season where the defense was pretty average.

#2 – Can Cutler and Forte pick up where they left off?

At one point last year, you could have made a convincing argument for these guys as the best QB-RB combo in the league. I personally think Forte was the engine behind it, but there’s no doubt that Cutler was playing at an entirely different level than we’ve seen before. But coming off major injuries, can they regain that magic? Cutler specifically has been extremely hot-and-cold in his career, and it’ll be interesting to see what he looks like next season. As I’ve alluded to, I think those two will have a heavy burden to carry for this team, and their ability to play at 100% will be vital to Chicago’s playoff chances. Especially in the ridiculously tough NFC North, a slow start could prove fatal.

#3 – What will the offensive line look like?

Their line has been one of the league’s worst for at least the last two seasons, and it’s not going to be possible to rebuild it in one offseason. Still, strides need to be made. Badly. J’Marcus Wade is the only returning starter worth looking at, and a move over to RT seems logical. He’s certainly got the requisite size to dominate, but he just wasn’t athletic enough to play on the left side. That’s where Carimi comes in. Draft experts were divided on whether he was a LT or a RT, but Chicago’s need is squarely on that left side. To my untrained eye, he looked the part of a successful NFL left tackle, and I’m definitely not betting against him. Remember, he faced guys like Adrian Clayborn and Ryan Kerrigan on a weekly basis in college, and he held up against them just fine. Beyond those two, there are nothing but empty spaces. Whether through the draft or free agency, Chicago needs to bring in some competition for Spencer and Williams, in hopes that maybe one of them regains what made them first round picks in the first place.
Draft Thoughts: 

David Decastro, Cordy Glenn, Peter Konz. In that order. Chicago needs all kinds of help on the line, and the best available guys will likely be interior players. It’s unusual to take those positions at #19, but the Bears have an unusually bad line.

Another possibility would be WR Michael Floyd. If you listen to the podcast, you know that I have a literal man-crush on Floyd, and that I think he’s every bit as good a prospect as Justin Blackmon. Honestly, I’m not sure I could pass up on him if I were Chicago. They’ve needed a #1 WR for a long, long time, and getting a downfield threat like Floyd could take this offense from good to great.

Summary Thoughts:

Assuming they address the line to some degree, there’s no reason to think Chicago won’t be contending for the playoffs. Prior to Cutler’s injury, I would have said that the Bears were the third best in the NFC, and I honestly believe that they were every bit as good as San Francisco. Whether they can elevate their play to level again remains to be seen. What won’t help their cause is the division they play in. Green Bay has clearly cemented themselves as the team to beat, and Detroit looks poised to challenge them as soon as next season. Is there room for Chicago in that group? Will the defense hold up for another year? Will Cutler and Forte stay healthy? Perhaps the most pressing question is, how in the heck did Mike Tice become offensive coordinator?! These questions all have their answers, including the eventual revelation that Tice has pictures of Lovie Smith doing something he’s not supposed to be doing. (Seriously though, can you think of any other reason Mike Tice would be an offensive coordinator???)

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