Grading Strength of Every Chicago Bears Positional Unit, Pre-Draft Edition
With just a month to go until the NFL draft, teams are starting to wind down from the free-agency binge of March and prepare to look at the players who could be with their team for years to come.
When it comes to the Chicago Bears, their biggest offseason acquisition did not actually come from a free-agent signing. Instead, the Bears made the biggest trade in the league, bringing in Pro Bowl but controversial wide receiver Brandon Marshall for just two third-round draft picks.
With Jay Cutler and Matt Forte getting healthy, the Bears offense has the potential to be the best Chicago fans have seen in years. But will the team be able to protect their quarterback? Can the aging defense play at a top-10 level for another year?
Here are the grades for every position as we head towards April's draft.
If we were merely grading starting quarterbacks, I'd lower the grade to a B+, or perhaps even a B. While Cutler has shown flashes of brilliance, he still hasn't the type of consistency you'd want to see from a franchise quarterback.
However, with the offense improving around him, he should see his numbers improve.
What I give new Bears general manager Phil Emery credit for, though, is providing the kind of quarterback depth this team never saw under Jerry Angelo. For over a decade, we saw the Bears signing or drafting backups such as Jonathan Quinn, Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel and most recently, Caleb Hanie.
Did Emery use this approach? Absolutely not.
He went after and signed Jason Campbell, an experienced starter who was quite frankly having a pretty productive season in Oakland last season until injuries sidelined him for the rest of 2011. With Carson Palmer now starting, he was expendable, and the Bears snagged him before a team like the Miami Dolphins brought him in to start.
The team also held onto Josh McCown, a veteran brought in from the streets last year who did not look half bad. What this means for Nathan Enderle, though, is a whole other question.
Running Back: A
Another thing that was incredibly frustrating in the Jerry Angelo era was the outright refusal to use two, three or sometimes even four running backs in a game so you could keep players fresher as the season wore on.
While you could also place blame on Lovie Smith for this, he didn't exactly have a lot to work with either. The Chester Taylor experiment failed in 2010, and while Marion Barber played adequately for much of last season, he will be remembered only for his spectacular failures against Denver.
With Barber on his way out, the Bears signed Michael Bush, another former Raider who has improved every season in the NFL. Bush rushed for 977 yards this year and caught for another 418.
Of course, the Bears have Matt Forte, who emerged as one of the best running backs in the NFL last year until a sprained MCL ended his season. While we can debate endlessly about his contract, the fact is, these two should provide a good one-two punch.
If the Bears can bring back Khalil Bell, it will make this team even stronger. Bell looked very good in limited action last year, running for 337 yards on just 79 carries.
With these three on the roster, it's certainly not impossible to see the Bears rushing for over 2,000 yards next season.
Wide Receiver: B
Brandon Marshall coming here brings instant credibility to the Bears passing attack. He and Jay Cutler were pure magic together in Denver, as the two connected for over 100 receptions for two straight years in 2007 and 2008.
Now they hope to recapture that magic in 2012.
After Marshall, the Bears will bring back a familiar group of receivers that can all be classified as "average."
Johnny Knox could see a lot of single coverage next year, but his recovery from back surgery leaves his status uncertain. Does this mean Hester may take this No.2 role, or will the team continue to allow him to focus his attention on the return game?
Earl Bennett now could become one of the better No. 3 possession receivers in the league if Chicago can figure out who will be the team's second receiver.
After that, you have Dane Sanzenbacher who earned a spot on the team last year and could indeed see some time as the Bears' fourth wideout. Eric Weems was brought in from Atlanta to essentially replace the disaster that was Sam Hurd. Expect him to spend most of his time on special teams.
Tight End: D
You can thank the now-departed Mike Martz for the trainwreck this position finds itself in. He insisted that he needed the tight end position to focus on blocking. So what does the team do?
They trade one of Jay Cutler's favorite targets in Greg Olsen and unceremoniously dump him to the Carolina Panthers for a third-round pick. The team brought in Matt Spaeth to be a blocking tight end, a role he did not live up to.
A year removed from ditching one of the better pure pass-catching tight ends in the NFL, the Bears find themselves in need of one. Kellen Davis is a suitable NFL tight end, but no one is going to confuse him for Antonio Gates.
Now, Mike Tice is running the offense, and his offensive philosophies has the tight ends doing a lot more than blocking. Sadly, the Bears lack the personnel for this system.
With the Broncos deciding to go with Jacob Tamme as Peyton Manning's tight end of the future, I would love to see the Bears go after Dallas Clark, as I truly believe this position is currently the worst for the Bears.
Offensive Line: C
For all the abuse the offensive line takes from the media and fans, they weren't the eyesore people saw in 2010.
Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves and say this offensive line is emerging as one of the league's bests. There are still just as many questions are there are answers.
Let's look at some of the positives. While it was hard to say goodbye, the decision to have Roberto Garza replace Olin Kreutz at center was the right one. Forget his age and lack of blocking, it was becoming a problem to see Kreutz and whatever quarterback that was playing have so many issues at merely snapping the ball.
Despite his horrid stats in Seattle, Chris Spencer played very well. Lane Louis wasn't bad either, and until he got hurt, Chris Williams had finally found a home on this team at left guard.
Now the questions. Is J'Marcus Webb really a starting tackle? How will Gabe Carimi do with his knee?
The offensive line is improving, but if there is a good tackle available in the first round, I still expect this team to take him off the board.
Defensive Line: B
Let's get one thing clear. Julius Peppers is still one of the 10 best defensive ends in football. He still has the ability to take over a game by himself, often shedding double-team coverage in the process.
The problem for the Bears is, there is a good bit of uncertainty on the line, and there are still far too many uncertainties on the team.
Israel Idonije is a solid NFL player, but one has to question if he'd still be best served as a reserve. Henry Melton had an impressive seven sacks last year at defensive tackle, but we don't know yet who he is. Are the seven sacks something we can expect from him consistently? Did he overachieve? Underachieve?
When you get past these three, though, there are a lot more questions. Will Corey Wootton and Stephen Paea take the next steps? Will Amobi Okoye, currently a free agent, re-sign with the Bears?
The brilliance of Peppers brings the overall grade to a B, but as good as he is, they need to shore up this line. A 4-3 defense will not succeed if the line is not solid.
For that reason, this is another position the Bears may target in the first or second round if the right guy is available.
Not many teams in the NFL can boast they have two potential Hall-of-Famers on their roster. For years, Brian Urlacher has been the anchor in the Tampa-2 defense, and Lance Briggs has been with him for virtually every step of the way.
Those two would obviously get an A+ with the team. The problem is, the rest of their core probably would receive a D.
The team has Nick Roach, who is a capable starter in the NFL. After him, though, you have a bunch of absolute no-names at the position.
They signed Blake Costanzo from the San Francisco 49ers, but in his five-year career, he has 54 total tackles. The rest of their current core has eight years of combined experience with virtually no statistics to speak of.
Incredibly thin at this position, the Bears are an injury from their stars away from being crippled at linebacker.
With Briggs and Urlacher not getting any younger, it is imperative they bring in some established players or start to prepare for the future and address this need in the draft.
Charles Tillman has been a consummate professional as a Chicago Bear. He's been a solid player who, frankly, has deserved more publicity than he has received.
The problem is, Tillman is 31, and his bruising style of play and past injuries leaves doubt as to his long-term future as a No. 1 cornerback.
After him on the depth chart comes Tim Jennings, who had a solid season in 2011, but there are questions as to whether he overachieved.
After these two players there are a ton of questions. Zack Bowman and Corey Graham both signed with new teams. No one really knows if D.J. Moore can handle major playing time, and after him, the only current cornerback on the roster is Donovan Warren, who has not played a down in the league.
This is yet another position the Bears must address still in free agency and the draft.
What was once one of the worst positions on the Bears, the safeties on this team all of a sudden present a potential position of strength. Whether that's due to better talent there or other positions losing starters and role players is up for debate.
The Bears have three players capable of starting at safety: Chris Conte, Craig Steltz and Major Wright. The issue is, all three of them have problems staying healthy.
With overrated Brandon Meriweather signing with the Redskins, this is yet another defensive position that has little to no depth. Winston Venable and Anthony Walters have virtually no NFL experience providing a ton of uncertainty.
From what I hear from the Bears, they believe in Venable, which brings this grade up to a B-, as they could have four decent safeties. But with this unproven and oft-injured group, the Bears and their fans could only hope to find another Mike Brown.
Special Teams: A+
While the Bears have a lot of concerns, special teams is not one of them.
Adam Podlesh filled Brad Maynard's shoes admirably last season and appears to be a long-term solution at punter.
Robbie Gould? What more can you say about him? He could very well go down as one of the best kickers in modern NFL history by the time his career is done.
Likewise, Devin Hester continues to showcase his brilliance since his struggles of a few years ago. Eric Weems makes a good secondary option as a return man, and Johnny Knox as well as Earl Bennett can help out in these duties as well.
Overall, the Bears continue to have the best special teams in the NFL.
One of the best moves the Bears franchise could have done is fire Jerry Angelo. While he served a purpose for a time, the team suffered and will continue to suffer from his countless poor drafts and an overall inability to sign quality role players.
We have no idea how new general manager Phil Emery will do in the draft, but he has already done the kind of moves Angelo seemingly refused to do during his tenure. He brought in a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Brandon Marshall, signed a very capable back-up quarterback and also brought in a quality No. 2 running back.
What the ironic thing is, is the Bears, a franchise that has starved for a good offense, may now need to rely on it. Thanks to Angelo's horrible drafting, the defense has largely been ignored in terms of bringing in new and younger talent.
You can blame that for two reasons. First, Angelo had to over-compensate on trying to improve their offensive line and skill positions. Second, the defensive players he did bring in didn't pan out.
If the Bears can stay healthy on defense, they could still have a top-10 unit. However, any injury to a starter, and you have unproven players at almost every position.
While the Bears need to shore up their offensive line, they also must spend the next several drafts and prepare for the future of the defense. Urlacher, Briggs and Peppers can't continue to produce like they're 27 forever.
They also must sign some cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers to provide at least some sort of depth.
Overall, the team can have realistic Super Bowl aspirations if they could be fortunate enough to stay as healthy as they did in 2010. Unfortunately, though, they don't have the type of quality depth that can sustain major injuries, like you saw from the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who won a Super Bowl despite 15 players being on injured reserve.
In the end, if I were the Bears, I would focus the first and second-round picks on the defensive line and at cornerback. The middle rounds should be spent finding a depth player at offensive line and trying to find a tight end that could possibly start.
However, the Bears won't have the luxury like the Packers of the same year had, when they won a Super Bowl despite 15 players being on injured reserve.