Chicago Bears Offseason Wishlist: 10 Positions That Need an Upgrade
A big-play, every-down, all-purpose threat at wide receiver. A backup quarterback. More linebackers. Yet another safety.
The Bears have needs at almost every position on the field.
But heading into the offseason, many of their problems are good: three capable running backs, depth on the lines and only a few starting jobs open for competition.
Truth is, the Bears were a legitimate playoff team this year prior to injuries.
And general manager Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith are only signed through 2013, so they're running out of chances to prove they should stick around.
Fortunately, Chicago isn't more than a few pieces away. If the Bears can put a playmaker at wide receiver and get healthy, they'll contend with every team in the NFL. And they have opportunities to add talent to last year's roster, too.
Here's a look at the top 10 positions of need this offseason.
1. Wide Receiver
This was at the top of Jay Cutler's wish list last season, too.
Because it's clear: Earl Bennett is the best receiver on the Bears.
And Bennett's good, but he doesn't scare defenses. If Chicago wants to be a legitimate contender, it needs to find someone who does—a big, physical, viable passing target.
The draft could offer the Bears options like Michael Floyd or Alshon Jeffery but they'd have to fall all the way to pick 19, and if it were held tomorrow that would be unlikely.
If Jeffery's ejection from the bowl game hurts him it's possible he gets overlooked, so maybe an elite receiver falls to them. No matter what, try to forget the fact that if Chicago had lost to Minnesota in Week 17 they would have drafted at least six spots higher and been in a legitimate position to nab one.
A sleeper candidate for Chicago is Marvin McNutt, the 6'4" former-QB-turned-WR who shattered the receiving records at Iowa in just three years. He could still be available in the second or third round.
On the other hand, several free agents will hit the market and might be a better fit for a team looking to win in 2012.
Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker, Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson and Reggie Wayne are the biggest names, though some are expected to re-sign with their current clubs.
If Bowe doesn't get the franchise tag from KC he would be an intriguing fit. He's used to the Midwest climate, plays for a running team, can block downfield and can still be a go-to receiver. A combination of Bowe and Bennett, with Johnny Knox and Devin Hester as slot reserves, would make defensive coordinators wince.
Unknowns: Is Knox going to be the same player he was prior to injury? Is Roy Williams going to return for the final year of his contract or get cut?
2. Backup QB
Jay Cutler is Chicago's quarterback.
However, this season the Bears proved having a capable backup is critical. Without one, a 7-3, playoff-bound Chicago team finished just 8-8.
The defense is getting older, the window of opportunity is closing, and this group of coaches and players can't afford that kind of collapse again.
There might be a backup QB on the roster, but if Chicago looks outside the organization for a Kyle Orton-level play-caller, don't be surprised because the line between competing with Cutler and getting embarrassed behind Caleb Hanie was thin.
Candidate to Beat: Josh McCown
He leapt off his couch and into service the last few weeks of the season and was surprisingly adequate.
Without a Nathan Enderle sighting, Bears fans have to wonder if Chicago wasted a sixth-round selection last year.
Unknowns: Will Mike Martz return? His offensive system is prohibitive for players unfamiliar with the playbook.
Do the Bears want to invest in another developmental quarterback in the draft? It's hard to imagine a rookie coming in to do the job with Martz around, but Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton all proved some kids can start. Any of those three would be pushing Cutler for his job over the next few years.
That wouldn't be bad. It's what a good backup looks like.
Expect the Bears to kick the tires on Matt Flynn from Green Bay, but he might be too expensive or played his way into a starting gig somewhere.
Brian Urlacher will be 34 and his contract expires at the end of next year.
Nick Roach is signed through 2012, too.
Lance Briggs wants more money, a trade, or both. Again. And he might holdout to get it. Again.
And behind those guys are Patrick Trahan, J.T. Thomas, Dom DiCicco and Jabara Williams.
DiCicco looked good on special teams and hits hard, but he's just a rookie. So are Williams and Thomas. And Trahan has just a year of experience. It's unclear if the Bears view them as role players or the future of the squad.
Unknowns: Will Urlacher, Roach or Briggs get an extension? Will there be a trade? Are the Bears planning to invest draft picks?
What's the plan for 2013 and beyond?
Chris Conte looked good. Brandon Meriweather looked like his initials. Major Wright could still become a solid contributor if he stays healthy.
But Wright may be a backup-level player for his career, kind of like free-agent teammate Craig Steltz.
Meanwhile, Conte should enter 2012 with a firm hold on the starting job at free safety, though nothing's guaranteed.
And whether the Bears can find an upgrade at either safety spot is a legitimate question.
Candidate to Beat: Major Wright
Unknowns: How much will the Bears invest in these positions? More or less than a middle-round draft pick? Does Chicago want Meriweather at all, even as a backup?
Charles Tillman finally got his due and is headed to the Pro Bowl. It's about time.
Tim Jennings is not a bad second cornerback, but there's a reason Zack Bowman challenged him for playing time this season.
And both Jennings and Bowman are free agents and there are better players out there. Whether the Bears can identify and acquire any of them remains to be seen.
The Bears could make a splash by spending a high-round draft pick on a cornerback.
They might also bring back Jennings or Bowman and sign another starter, like Brent Grimes, Cortland Finnegan or Terrell Thomas, depending on how much they want to spend.
Unknowns: Are the Bears playing to win next year? Is Jerry Angelo's job on the line? If so, the Bears could spend money this offseason for a quick fix at cornerback. If they want to spend elsewhere, Jennings is the best bet to return at a reasonable rate.
6. Defensive Line
Israel Idonije and Amobi Okoye will be unrestricted free agents.
And the Bears have plenty of depth, with Matt Toeaina, Stephen Paea, Henry Melton, Anthony Adams and Chauncey Davis.
But the Bears can't seem to resist a good defensive lineman in the draft. There are two in this year's class who could be available between the second and fourth round: Fletcher Cox from Mississippi State and Kendall Reyes from the University of Connecticut.
Both are physically gifted for their size, running the 40 in less than five seconds, while listed at 6'4" and 300 lbs.
Lovie Smith, Jerry Angelo and Rod Marinelli have to be drooling over that potential. All three know that a disruptive interior tackle makes the defense a turnover machine. It's why Julius Peppers moved inside on occasion this season.
Unknowns: How do the Bears feel about Okoye and Idonije? Good enough to sign both or willing to let one go? Is the need pressing enough to spend a high-round draft pick?
7. Offensive Line
Jerry Angelo rarely misses the chance to play it safe. For that reason alone, he can be expected to select an offensive lineman somewhere in the draft.
But the Bears line actually wasn't that bad and improved throughout the course of the year. Mike Tice works miracles, it seems.
Roberto Garza made the Pro Bowl as an alternate, justifying the faith Tice put in him after naming him the new center. Rookie Gabe Carimi was shaping up to be a force at tackle before an injury sidelined him. And Lance Louis, Chris Spencer, Chris Williams and J'Marcus Webb proved they can be NFL starters (most of the time).
Levi Horn and Edwin Williams add more depth.
Unknowns: The Bears have four picks in the first three rounds, and no serious concerns on the offensive line. But what will Angelo do?
8. Backup Running Back
The Bears are fortunate: Matt Forte is a free agent but the Bears can (and probably will) put the franchise tag on him.
Marion Barber is under contract through 2012.
Beyond that, Kahlil Bell is a restricted free agent. So, contingent on a qualifying offer, the Bears will have the right to match any deal or receive draft pick compensation if he signs with another team.
That would give the Bears three capable runners, and no significant needs at the position.
Unfortunately for Forte, that means a holdout is unlikely to work. The Bears feel they can win with Barber and Bell, so Forte's bargaining power is low even if he's the best back on the team.
Asked about a deal, Forte said, "I have no idea. Nobody is talking right now, so we'll see."
He also acknowledged his agent said the longer he waits the harder it's going to be to get a deal. And, not coincidentally, he wants to play in the Pro Bowl.
Forte's best bargaining chip was playing well this season to land a big extension this offseason. The injury damaged his knee and his chances of making that happen.
But the Pro Bowl could change the stakes because Forte can use the Pro Bowl to prove he's healthy and coming back as the player he was before: one of the best in the league.
Even so, barring a trade or something unforeseen, expect the same trio of backs carrying the ball for the Bears in 2012.
Unknowns: Will Bell get an offer from another team? Will the Bears reach agreement on an extension for Forte? Will the team decide it doesn't need to spend money on Barber and release him?
9. Tight Ends
Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis did what they were asked to do: block, block, block, and occasionally catch a pass when no one expects it.
If the Bears are OK with that moving forward there's no reason to think the roster will change.
But both players are free agents, and if Martz leaves, there may be different concerns.
What if the new offense heads a new direction and needs a receiver at tight end?
Jermichael Finley is going to be a free agent, and he's mentioned primarily because the idea of snagging a well-known Bear-killer from the rival Packers is too sweet to pass up.
That said, Finley is overrated: He drops too many passes and has been injured too frequently for someone expecting to be paid like a key offensive player.
But there's no denying he's better than Davis or Spaeth, and he could be a cheaper alternative than paying big bucks for a big-name wide receiver. Finely would still require the defense to pay attention and, in that sense, still helps the Bears passing game. Besides, Chicago already has deep threats—it needs more physical, big targets, and Finley is certainly that.
So feel free to speculate.
Unknowns: Is Martz still around? If so, blocking tight ends are going to stay. But if not the Bears could make a move, and that's a little ridiculous only because Greg Olsen is now with the Carolina Panthers.
10. Kicking, Punting and Special Teams
Robbie Gould and Adam Podlesh were excellent, and both are signed through at least the next two seasons.
A long snapper is of some concern because of the injury to Patrick Mannelly this year, but Mannelly is signed through 2012 and is expected to return healthy.
Other than that, free-agent and freshly minted Pro Bowler Corey Graham is likely to come back because of his value on special teams. And he also became a bigger contributor on defense this year when D.J. Moore missed time, so he gives the Bears a player who fills two roles.
What Happens Next?
There's no hiding the need to add a viable passing target, whether it's a wide receiver or a tight end.
And it's time to address the backup quarterback situation, especially if Nathan Enderle is going to remain on the team as a third-stringer that can't play on Sundays.
Perhaps most importantly, if the Bears don't solidify the linebacker position the squad is one injury away from becoming an aging liability on defense. And Julius Peppers is good, but he can't play linebacker for a full game.
The Bears have a lot of questions heading into the draft, but they aren't far away from returning to contention.
The question is, what kind of success will it take in 2012 for Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith to return in 2013? Are they playing to win now?
Because that speaks volumes about what happens this offseason.