6 Players the Chicago Bears Need to Step Up in 2013
The Chicago Bears upgraded several key positions this offseason, but they still have holes and will need returning players to improve their play if they're going to take the next step and make the playoffs.
With the NFL draft and the bulk of free agency over with, the Bears basically know what their roster is going to look like. Some of the holes they had last season remain with returning starters expected to step up their play.
Although some of the newcomers will fill big roles and may be asked to play at higher levels than they did with their former teams, they're not included in this list.
Also not included is J'Marcus Webb. Webb has moved from left tackle to right tackle. Should he be able to play at the same level this year as he did last year, he'll be a huge upgrade on the right side.
This list is focused mostly on players who are returning to the same positions they played—and struggled at—last year.
While the Bears are looking to have different starters at four of the five spots on the offensive line, the one returning needs to be better. They also need more receiving options for quarterback Jay Cutler and a few defensive players need to be better than they were last year.
The Bears enter the 2013-14 season full of potential. On paper, they're as talented of a team as there is in the division. They need some of their returning players to be better than they were last year, and in most cases, there's evidence that they can be.
Kelvin Hayden struggled in just about every role the Bears gave him last season. Without any upgrades arriving through the draft or free agency, the Bears are apparently relying on him to improve.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), opposing passers had a rating of 93.2 when throwing Hayden's way. He was responsible for four plays of over 25 yards and was credited with just five passes defensed by ESPN.
Hayden particularly struggled in the only two starts he had. He allowed Minnesota and Green Bay to complete 10 of the 14 passes they threw in his direction as both finished with ratings above 100, according to PFF (subscription required).
Charles Tillman is a year older, and nobody knows if Tim Jennings will be able to have the kind of success he had last year again. The Bears need Hayden to improve his play as the nickel corner and be able to start should either Tillman or Jennings suffer an injury.
Not only did the Bears not add any competition to the position, they let D.J. Moore go as a free agent. The nickel corner job is Hayden's to lose—for now, the Bears are just hoping for improvement.
Hayden has a lot of experience but has never been considered an ideal starter. It's hard to foresee a huge step up for the soon-to-be 30-year-old.
Outside of Hayden, Chris Conte was the secondary's other weak spot.
Unlike Hayden, Conte's weakness wasn't in coverage, but run defense. PFF (subscription required) credited him with a team-worst 10 missed tackles and just eight stops—which are defined as solo tackles that constitute an offensive failure. By comparison, Major Wright also missed 10 tackles but had 25 stops.
Still, as part of the last line of defense, he has to be more reliable in getting ball-carriers to the ground.
Conte is entering just his third season and has all the physical skills necessary to be a standout safety. It's easy to envision a breakout campaign for him this year.
The learning curve for Shea McClellin may have been a little steeper than general manager Phil Emery could have thought when he made him the 19th pick in the 2012 draft.
When McClellin was picked, many thought it was a reach. Others thought it was just a bad fit and that he should be an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He did little to disprove doubters in his rookie season.
He started strong with four tackles and one-and-a half sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the team's second game, but that was over half his sack total for the season. He picked up half a sack against St. Louis and another half a sack against Detroit, but he was shut out in the second half of the season.
It isn't as if he wasn't making an impact. PFF (subscription required) credited him with 22 hurries—the fourth-best total on the team—and his four quarterback hits were fifth on the team. Every player ahead of him in both categories played at least 200 more snaps.
Still, pass-rushers aren't drafted in the first round to hurry or hit the quarterback; they're supposed to get sacks.
The honeymoon is over for the former first-round pick. McClellin needs to beat out Corey Wootton for the starting job opposite Julius Peppers and make his impact felt.
Part of his problem was he didn't have the bulk to play every down. However, he has added five to seven pounds—according to the Chicago Tribune—which should help him get on the field more.
He has shown flashes. If McClellin can put it together this season, the Bears defensive line could be among the scariest in the league.
Many expected Evan Rodriguez to give the Bears' passing game a boost as a second tight end or H-back last season, but that never came to fruition.
He reportedly showed flashes of being a good player in training camp last season, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com, but when the regular season began he was relegated to a role as a blocking fullback.
Rodriguez performed reasonably well in that role, but the Bears didn't spend a fourth-round pick on him just to block for Matt Forte.
Emery was excited to get Rodriguez in the fourth round, but he caught just four of his eight targets last season for 21 yards.
Was this Rodriguez's fault, or the fault of unimaginative former offensive coordinator Mike Tice? We'll find out more this year.
One thing is that the Bears need more maturity out of the second-year player. After some off-the-field problems in college, he was arrested for resisting an officer without violence and disorderly intoxicated this offseason.
With only three experienced receivers and one tight end who has caught over five career receptions, the Bears may need more from Rodriguez this season.
At 34, Father Time may be catching up to Roberto Garza, but the Bears appear to be hoping for a good season from the veteran center.
Garza wasn't good last season, but he wasn't terrible. PFF (subscription required) graded him as the Bears second-best pass-blocking lineman. Stats Inc. credited Garza with just two sacks given up for a total of five yards last season.
However, Garza did not hold his ground in the running game. He graded out as the fourth-worst run-blocking center on PFF (subscription required).
Perhaps a change to a zone blocking scheme under Aaron Kromer will help. Garza got overpowered at times last year, but he has also never been known for his mobility.
It's also possible that more familiarity with playing center will help. Garza did experience a huge improvement from 2011 to 2012, going from a negative-18.7 rating to a negative-5.6 on PFF (subscription required).
The bottom line is the Bears need Garza to be better. He should have better players around him, and he needs to pick up the slack.
The Bears traded up in the second round of the 2012 draft in hopes of finding a complement for Brandon Marshall. Alshon Jeffery showed flashes of being that, but he offered little consistency.
Jeffery led the team with a 15.3 yard-per-catch average and was behind only Marshall with three touchdowns and six catches of over 20 yards. However, he caught just half of his 48 targets, according to ESPN. That rate was the second worst on the team amongst players with 40 or more targets, ahead of only Kellen Davis.
The Bears tried to make Jeffery into a deep threat, but it was a role he struggled in. Although he produced the occasional big play, he caught just five of his 19 passes that travelled beyond 20 yards, according to PFF (subscription required).
The Bears didn't add a deep threat in the offseason, so it looks like it will be Jeffery's job to fill that role again.
The team can help him out with better route designs and play calls, but it's going to be up to him to make sure he is on the same page as Cutler.
Like Rodriguez, Jeffery has been working out with Marshall this offseason, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Now the Bears need him to develop as the complement they envisioned when they drafted him.
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