Last season, the Chicago Bears showed promise with a 7-3 record. Then injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte sent them into a downward spiral that resulted in them missing the playoffs, the team's offensive coordinator retiring and the general manager being fired.
The Bears are now looking forward. They will face difficult competition with the powerhouse Green Bay Packers and upstart Detroit Lions. Chicago will have to come together as a team in order to make a strong playoff push.
Team play will be important, but the Bears are going to have to rely on a handful of guys to have big seasons next year. These are the five players most responsible for the Bears' success in 2012.
The Bears did not address the offensive tackle position in free agency or the draft. The writing is on the wall: Chris Williams will go back to left tackle next season.
The former first-round pick has been a disappointment in his career thus far due to injuries and lack of consistency. Williams now has the faith of Phil Emery and Mike Tice to transition back to the left side of the line. J'Marcus Webb is the only other option, and Bears fans know how much of a disaster that can be.
The Bears are going to need Williams to be solid on Jay Cutler's blind side. Cutler has already proven that when he has the time he can make plays, and with the new weapons on offense, the big plays could be more abundant. Cutler not running for his life could prove to be a recipe for success on the lakefront this year.
Since the deterioration and subsequent release of former All-Pro Tommy Harris, the Bears have not had a reliable 3-technique defensive tackle. The emergence of Henry Melton last year might have put an end to that.
The 3-technique tackle in a Cover 2 scheme is vital. He is relied upon to not only put pressure on the quarterback but also absorb blockers to allow playmaking linebackers like Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher to roam free.
Melton came on last year with seven sacks and 24 tackles. At only 25 years old, he has a very high ceiling and could be in line to have an even bigger breakout year in 2012. It is important for Melton to be the rock on the inner part of the defensive line. Rotating next to him will be Stephen Paea and Matt Toeaina.
The Bears' defense could see itself back to a dominant level if a guy like Melton has a big year. His ability to make big plays could take a ton of pressure off of the other players on defense.
The Bears did not go out and spend a ton of money on defense in the offseason. One of the bigger needs on the team was a pass-rusher opposite Julius Peppers, yet they didn't seek one out in the free-agent pool. Many felt the team would address the need in the first round of the draft, and it did.
Shea McClellin is stepping into a pretty big spotlight. Not only will he be looked upon as the guy to help Peppers on the other side, but he also has to prove the naysayers wrong who thought he was drafted too high.
Time will only tell the quality of Phil Emery's first-ever pick as Bears GM. McClellin does figure to have a large role on the team's defense this year. He will be looked upon early to make plays against the run and knock the quarterback down.
Whenever you are a first-round pick, you are expected to be an impact player right away, and McClellin is no exception.
The Bears have a ton of new toys on offense. For the first time in years, they have a multitude of weapons including an elite receiver, big-bodied rookie target, goal-line running back and a rookie flex tight end. Even still, the offense will only be as successful as Matt Forte allows it to be.
The ongoing contract issues between the Bears and Forte have been well-documented. On the table now is the franchise tender the All-Pro running back has yet to sign. Both parties know if the Bears are to have a successful year on offense it will be because Forte had another big year.
Injuries and contract issues could prevent Forte from having a big year. The Bears can not afford any of that. He is the heart and soul of the team's offense, and their offensive success will be placed largely on his shoulders.
Quarterback might be the most important position in all of sports. Now more than ever a team's success is based on having an elite quarterback. When Jay Cutler went down last year with a thumb injury, the wheels seemed to fall off for the Bears.
The offense has been re-tooled from the coaching staff down to the players, all designed around Cutler's strengths. In the previous slide, Matt Forte was identified as the heart and soul of the Bears' offense, but Cutler is still the driver, trigger man and unquestioned leader.
The beauty of the Bears' new offense is Cutler does not have to do too much. Too often in a fantasy football society we associate an elite quarterback with big statistical numbers. Cutler does not have to do that this year. He does not have to match Matthew Stafford or Aaron Rodgers in numbers, just play within the confines of the offense and be the great leader he is maturing into. Him doing so could very well result in a very long run for the Bears.