Kelvin Hayden is the incumbent nickelback in Chicago. Do the Bears need an upgrade at corner?
While those needs are few, it is surprising that Phil Emery left the Bears with any holes. His track record as general manager for the Bears has been far more purposeful than his predecessor, Jerry Angelo.
Emery had another eventful offseason with the Bears in 2013; he took care of the two biggest needs by both signing and drafting offensive linemen and linebackers.
Matt Slauson, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills are all first-year Bears in the trenches (along with hopeful undrafted rookie P.J. Lonergan). D.J. Williams, James Anderson, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene will try to replace Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach.
The Bears also addressed some minor needs.
Chicago added Washington State receiver Marquess Wilson in the seventh round and three undrafted free-agent receivers. The Bears only need one of them to stick in order to add depth behind Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett.
At defensive end, the Bears took promising prospect Cornelius Washington. He will compete for the fourth end spot behind Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin.
The following slides review the three primary positions of need remaining for Chicago.
Garza has struggled at center over the past two years.
Roberto Garza moved inside from guard to man the center spot after Olin Kreutz’s departure.
After playing well at guard, Garza was terrible at center. He was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2011 (via the Chicago Tribune) despite posting a minus-18.7 rating on the season (according to Pro Football Focus; subscription required).
Garza was better in 2012, but he still posted a minus-5.6 rating on Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He reduced the number of quarterback hurries he allowed from 15 in 2011 to eight last year, but he allowed five sacks.
Not only is he a liability on the line, but Garza is 34 years old.
Chicago needs a better option to anchor the line, and preferably a young one. The Bears have guard Edwin Williams as a potential convert to center, and they also signed rookie P.J. Lonergan out of LSU.
It’s a long shot for either of those players to become the next great center though. The Bears could have benefitted from drafting a quality prospect.
The Dallas Cowboys reached for top center Travis Frederick in the first round, but Brian Schwenke and Khaled Holmes lasted until the fourth round. Schwenke would have required a move, but Holmes was taken after the Bears’ pick.
Khaseem Greene was a steal in the fourth round, but the Bears missed out on a position of need. With the rest of the offensive line looking much stronger, Garza is an obvious weak link.
Expect Emery to make a move for a new center in the next calendar year.
Best option available now: Two-time Super Bowl champion Dan Koppen as a short-term fix.
Kellen Davis was signed by the Cleveland Browns after a Bears career that was unforgettable for the wrong reasons.
With Kellen Davis’s ignominious Bears career finally over, Chicago pursued former Cowboys and Giants tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency.
Bennett has only been a starter for one season; he was behind Jason Witten during some of Witten’s best years in Dallas.
Bennett was pretty productive in that lone season, posting 626 receiving yards with five touchdowns.
Limited starting experience makes the lover of Cap’n Crunch (you’re welcome for this YouTube link) a relatively unproven commodity, though, as his 2012 campaign could be a fluke.
It seems unlikely, but there’s always that chance in the NFL.
The most disconcerting part of Bennett’s game is that he doesn’t have top-quality hands. His catch percentage was alarmingly low last year—only 61.1 percent (55 receptions on 90 targets). Some of the best percentages posted by elite tight ends were 75.0 percent (Tony Gonzalez) and 73.3 percent (Jason Witten). Former Bears tight end Greg Olsen caught 66.3 percent of passes thrown his way.
Bennett is still a good tight end and an obvious upgrade over Davis, but there’s no guarantee that he will produce at a top-10 level for the position. Considering how much Jay Cutler leaned on Brandon Marshall last season, the Bears need diversity and production in the passing game more than ever.
It’s surprising that the Bears didn’t select a tight end in the draft to pair with Bennett. It’s possible that Bennett doesn’t produce at a high level, but there’s more than that. In today’s NFL, it’s wise to have two pass-catching tight ends.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez popularized the ultra-talented tight end duo. This year, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted top tight end Tyler Eifert to play with Jermaine Gresham. Rookie Zach Ertz will join Brent Celek as a Philadelphia Eagle.
The Bears would be smart to secure another big, talented tight end that can create match-up problems. Bennett was a good signing, but he could still underperform. Acquiring a contingency plan is advisable.
More importantly, imagine Bennett doesn’t underperform. Now imagine offensive sets with Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett, and another 6’5” tight end. That would open up countless new opportunities for Chicago.
The league is evolving yet again, and the Bears need to adjust to the new tight end paradigm.
Best option available now: Discounting restricted free agents, 6'6" Kevin Boss, who had some decent years for the New York Giants.
D.J. Moore had a good run at nickelback for the Bears before being benched in 2012. He was signed by the Carolina Panthers in the offseason.
One of the biggest needs for the Bears this offseason was cornerback. No new corners were brought in through free agency or the draft.
The Bears did re-sign nickelback Kelvin Hayden and sign undrafted rookies Demontre Hurst and C.J. Wilson.
It remains to be seen if any of those players could be an effective nickel cornerback for the Bears.
Kelvin Hayden was awful in coverage down the stretch, posting a minus-5 rating in pass coverage over the last five games in 2012 (via Pro Football Focus; subscription required). He missed six tackles during that stretch. The only game that Hayden played well in was against the Arizona Cardinals, whose passing attack was almost completely defunct.
Considering his propensity for missing tackles and getting burned in coverage, Hayden is not the answer at nickelback for Chicago. He’s only 29, yet the Bears signed him to only a one-year contract (according to ESPN).
Demontre Hurst was graded as a 57.0 overall by NFL.com, and he was described as having a “high motor” with the potential to play as a nickelback. He was a great addition as an undrafted free agent, but there’s no guarantee he will even make the roster.
C.J. Wilson, a longtime starter at NC State, is even more of a long shot to play for the Bears.
Grabbing a player with both a higher floor and ceiling in the draft would have pushed Hayden at nickelback, and maybe a rookie could have supplanted him.
Jordan Poyer was available in the seventh round, and Illinois corner Terry Hawthorne was around in the fifth. Getting one of those two players would have been a steal and really improved the weakest position on the defensive side of the ball.
Without drafting a corner, the Bears showed their willingness to roll the dice on Hayden for at least one year. Based on the conclusion of his 2012 season, that was not a wise move.
Phil Emery needs to bring another corner in as soon as possible, or Bears fans may have to watch more inept play behind Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.
Best option available now: The cornerback position is pretty bereft of free agents currently, but either Marcus Trufant or Rashean Mathis. Both are veteran starters who could reinvent themselves as nickelbacks if willing.
*All statistics provided by ESPN.com.