Examining Chicago Bears' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles
Things could have gone better for the Chicago Bears last season, but a 10-6 record and a close encounter with a playoff berth is no reason to panic.
At least it shouldn’t have been.
Despite what many teams would consider a successful season in a tough division, The Bears weren’t willing to accept anything less than a playoff appearance from their head coach. On Dec. 31, Chicago decided to cut ties with Lovie Smith, later to bring aboard 2009 Canadian Football League Coach of the Year Marc Trestman (formerly with the Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals, among others) to fill Smith’s shoes.
The Trestman hiring drew the ire of many Bears fans who either wanted Smith to remain at the helm of the franchise or weren’t thrilled with hiring a CFL coach to replace him. Either way, it’s in the past. Now is a time to look forward.
Or at least it will be. For now, we’ll do a little more reflection.
Along with hiring Trestman to take the reins, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli saw his way out the door—another former Detroit Lions coach who, along with embattled offensive coordinator Mike Martz, didn’t make it in Chicago.
Tucker’s Jacksonville defenses didn’t exactly flourish, and it will be interesting to see how the 41-year-old adjusts to a much more talented unit in Chicago.
While defensive backs coach Jon Hoke and defensive line coach Mike Phair will return for the 2013 season, it was nearly a complete house cleaning of the Bears’ coaching staff. And the changes didn’t stop there.
In free agency, second-year general manager Phil Emery made several solid acquisitions, namely signing former New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod to a five-year, $39.9 million deal. He also added tight end Martellus Bennett on a four-year contract and a bevy of veteran defenders, including safety Tom Zbikowski and linebacker D.J. Williams.
Bushrod and Bennett were easily Emery’s two biggest signings of the offseason, but there were also some notable departures.
The face of the Bears franchise won’t be in Chicago next season after a tremendous 13-year career at the center of its defense. With Brian Urlacher’s contract having expired following the season, Emery made nothing more than a feeble attempt at bringing him back.
As Urlacher told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune, the Bears offered him a one-year contract worth $2 million (only half of it guaranteed) and wouldn’t be open to counter-offers:
It wasn't even an offer, it was an ultimatum. I feel like I'm a decent football player still. It was insulting, somewhat of a slap in the face. They came back with the offer and said, "This is what it is, take it or leave it." It was, "If you want to play for the Bears, you'll play for this. If not, then you're not playing for the Bears."
Regardless of the reasoning behind the acrimonious split, Urlacher won’t be around to lead Chicago’s defense in 2013, and someone has to step up to fill his shoes.
That someone could very well be Williams or 2013 second-round pick Jon Bostic, though it will take a preseason position battle to decide that.
Bostic was arguably the most intriguing selection of an otherwise bland draft class for the Bears. Emery filled some positional needs with his six selections, but his overall draft class was far from stunning.
But the Bears weren’t exactly in desperate need of a massive infusion of young talent. Apart from a shaky offensive line, Chicago already had a solid foundation in place for another 10-plus-win campaign in 2013.
That foundation includes Pro Bowl signal-caller Jay Cutler, six-time 1,000-yard receiver Brandon Marshall and versatile three-down running back Matt Forte—not too shabby for a unit that finished 28th in the league last season in total yards.
The biggest reason for Chicago’s underwhelming 2012 offense was an offensive line that needed some serious work this offseason. Ranked 24th in pass protection by Football Outsiders, it was painfully obvious Emery would need to focus on bolstering the Bears’ offensive line this offseason.
Emery did just that in both free agency and the draft, but it remains to be seen how quickly the infusion of fresh faces will turn things around for Chicago’s offense. For now, all we can do is speculate.
We’ll take a closer look at many of those offseason moves and also break down some key position battles to watch as the 2013 season approaches. Read on.
2013 NFL Draft
Round 1 (Pick 20): OL Kyle Long, Oregon
Round 2 (Pick 50): LB Jon Bostic, Florida
Round 4 (Pick 117): LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
Round 5 (Pick 163): OT Jordan Mills, Louisiana Tech
Round 6 (Pick 188): DE Cornelius Washington, Georgia
Round 7 (Pick 236): WR Marquess Wilson, Washington State
For what Phil Emery had to work with, it wasn’t a terrible draft for the Bears. But given the few positions the GM addressed and the lack of value he found in the early rounds, it’s hard to give him a better-than-average grade.
With offensive line issues piling up, the Bears had to focus on finding an impact blocker in the early rounds. While Oregon’s Kyle Long wasn’t the best value pick Emery could have made, he does fill a need, as does Louisiana Tech offensive tackle Jordan Mills, whom the Bears selected in the fifth round.
That Chicago selected two offensive linemen isn’t a big surprise, but adding three linebackers in six picks certainly was. While Urlacher’s departure leaves a hole at the middle linebacker position, the Bears could have easily addressed the position a little more heavily in free agency and freed up some options in the draft.
Florida’s Jon Bostic was an extremely underrated prospect entering the draft, and Chicago did well in locking him up when it felt necessary. With the speed, size and coverage abilities to play any of the three linebacker positions in Chicago’s defense, he won’t have a problem finding a fit in his formative years.
Khaseem Greene and Cornelius Washington may not have the same luck, though. Both could have come off the board a round earlier than they did, but neither have the defining characteristics of an immediate impact player. Both are likely to remain on the sidelines in 2013.
The Bears get points for addressing need in the draft, but they overdid it at the linebacker positions. In all, it was a fairly unspectacular draft from Emery in his second season at the helm.
Rebuilding the Offensive Engine
When a team has so much talent at the offensive skill positions, getting to the bottom of offensive inefficiency isn’t difficult.
The Bears’ offensive line was one of the worst units in the league last season, and it’s really not even debatable. Allowing 44 sacks (8.1 percent adjusted sack rate) and leaving Jay Cutler without much breathing room all season, Chicago’s offense sputtered to some atrocious numbers.
Despite fielding the fifth-best defense in the league, the Bears couldn’t keep pace with the NFC North with the No. 28 offense in the NFL. Part of that had to do with injuries to Matt Forte, but the final figures can’t be ignored. Chicago was one of just four teams not to eclipse the 3,000-yard passing mark, and Cutler isn’t the only player to blame.
To address the team’s offensive line issues, Emery signed Jermon Bushrod to an inflated contract—usually the going rate on a free-agent market dictated by need. In also adding Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, the Bears will at least have some extra depth to work with this season.
But as quoted by Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer doesn’t have a set lineup in mind for his offensive line. Instead, he plans to try some things out in hopes of finding the most effective unit he can field:
"But I told them [Tuesday] we’re going to shuffle this thing until we get the right five playing and the right three backing them up. We’re going to find the best players and put them in the best position to be successful."
Still, Kromer has to have something in mind for the unit, and there’s a good chance it looks something like this:
Bushrod probably won’t have to fight for the starting left tackle job given his experience at the position and Chicago’s relative length of strength protecting Cutler’s blind side. And at nearly $40 million to acquire him, there’s almost no chance he ends up somewhere else on the line.
With the biggest piece of the puzzle in place, Kromer can focus on fit rather than expectations—namely with 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi.
Carimi will be transitioning to guard this season after the experiment to play him at tackle failed miserably. The Wisconsin product should fare much better on the inside, primarily as a run-blocker at right guard, but much of that scenario requires J’Marcus Webb to make a smooth transition from left tackle to right tackle.
If Kyle Long isn’t needed at right tackle (assuming Webb earns his keep), the Oregon product is likely to start the season at left guard next to Bushrod. Widely expected to transition to guard at the NFL level anyway, it’s not a bad fit for Long. The Bears need help anywhere they can get it.
There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Chicago’s offensive line this season, but things can’t get much worse in 2013. With a veteran left tackle (who is familiar with Kromer’s scheme, having played for him in New Orleans) and a couple young talents finding what will likely be their best fit at the NFL level, the Bears should be in much better shape this season—provided everyone stays healthy.
Continuity is critical for NFL offensive lines to be successful. Hopefully Chicago can establish some in 2013.
Top Targets, Little Depth
With Johnny Knox's retirement, the Bears’ receiving corps got a little thinner this offseason.
Not that his departure was a huge loss to Chicago’s offense, but it remains to be seen who will fill his spot on the depth chart. While he didn’t play in 2012, Chicago terminating his contract means the team will move forward with the 26-year-old in the picture.
With Brandon Marshall in the fold, the Bears’ passing attack ran directly through the six-time 1,000-yard receiver. In 2012, Marshall hauled in 118 catches for 1,508 yards—both new Bears records—providing more than half of the team’s receiving yards.
Marshall’s talent is undeniable, and with his off-field issues in check, there’s no reason he can’t put up similar numbers this season.
But beyond Marshall, things get a little murkier.
Second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery is in line for a much bigger role this season as the team’s No. 2 option. Jeffery saw action in 10 games last year, tallying 24 receptions for 367 yards and three touchdowns.
With Knox no longer around, it will be up to Jeffery (and Martellus Bennett) to replace his potential production and give Jay Cutler another legitimate downfield target. If Marshall is to avoid double coverage on every snap, Jeffery is going to have to take some heat off the No. 1.
Jeffery shouldn’t be expected to put up numbers anywhere close to Marshall’s (having missed six games last year and still developing at the NFL level), but there was a reason he found his way into the second round in 2012.
Earl Bennett will be in line to push Jeffery at the position, however. The 26-year-old was Chicago’s second-leading receiver last season (29 catches, 375 yards, two touchdowns) and has always displayed solid hands at the NFL level. He’s struggled with injury issues in the past, but when healthy, he’s a terrific No. 3 option who—provided he doesn’t uproot Jeffery on the outside—will likely hold down the team’s slot receiver role.
But beyond Bennett, there’s little experience to speak of. The No. 4 spot on the depth chart is up for grabs.
Seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson has a good shot of locking down that role this season, despite tempered expectations. With only Joe Anderson and Eric Weems pushing him, there’s little competition for the spot. Of the three, Wilson is most likely to earn more than special teams consideration.
Wilson is a big target with strong hands and some range, and given the lack of depth at the position, he may parlay that late-round selection into considerable playing time as the season progresses, especially if Jeffery or Bennett spends any time on the injury report.
Big Shoes to Fill
One of the biggest questions facing the Bears this season is what they plan to do about the glaring hole at middle linebacker.
Urlacher’s departure is a big loss for a team that relied on his veteran leadership to hold everything together, and while he may have been on the decline from a physical perspective, his emotional leadership won’t be easily replaced.
At least for this season, D.J. Williams can help fill that void. The former Denver Broncos linebacker tallied 10.5 combined sacks in 2010 and 2011, but found himself in line for a couple suspensions last season and only saw seven games of action.
But Chicago needs a long-term solution at the position, and Jon Bostic is likely to be that player.
The Florida product has all the tools to excel at the middle linebacker position in Chicago, or at least enough to catch the eye of Emery and warrant a second-round selection. As quoted by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, the GM expects Bostic to be a future star:
"Felt it was very important that if we were going to take a linebacker in the second round that we get somebody who can immediately fill in at all three spots. We see him as a future starter. A very dynamic player."
Emery is right about Bostic’s versatility, and in his formative years, he may have a chance to prove it.
Lance Briggs has the weak-side linebacker position locked down, but the strong-side position is still very much up for grabs. Free-agent acquisition James Anderson and fourth-round selection Khaseem Greene will battle for the spot, but there’s a chance Bostic ultimately sees some time there after spending much of rookie camp at middle linebacker.
The Florida product will still need some time to develop at the NFL level, and both he and the Bears would likely be better off allowing Williams to tie down the middle linebacker position while Bostic gets some NFL experience. That’s not to say he can’t make the transition at some point this season, but it would make sense to ease him into the transition.
In either case, expect Williams and Bostic to secure the two open linebacker positions with Anderson, Greene and J.T. Thomas holding down backup roles in the linebacking corps.
Depth Needed, Inquire Within
Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings comprised one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL last season, and while both will be back in the fold in 2013, depth could be a bit of an issue behind them.
Chicago brought back both Kelvin Hayden and Zack Bowman to retain their backup roles behind the pair, but it came as somewhat of a surprise. The general consensus was that Phil Emery would look to get younger at the position in drafting a least one cornerback in April.
But with just six selections in the draft (which Emery obviously had other plans for), re-signing the pair was needed. Who plays behind Hayden and Bowman remains to be seen, however.
D.J. Moore left in free agency to sign with the Carolina Panthers, and there really isn’t anyone else on the roster with much NFL experience. Provided the Bears don’t make any more additions this offseason, they’ll enter the 2013 campaign with four veteran corners and some additional question marks.
Hayden is most likely to fill the nickel corner role in 2013 with Bowman playing in a sub-package and dime capacity, but in the modern NFL, it takes at least four healthy corners to field a solid pass defense. If injuries start to pile up during the season, Chicago could be in hot water in a division that features a bevy of tremendous wide receivers.
Look for special teamer Sherrick McManis to take on a bigger role this season in a backup capacity behind the four veterans. McManis didn’t see any action on defense in 2012, but the Bears are short on options, and this may be a good time to see what he can bring to the table.
When the status quo remains unchanged, there’s not much reason to expect different results.
The Bears made some progress this offseason—namely in bolstering their offensive line—but there really weren’t many big additions to speak of. Apart from a new coaching staff and some young talent with an added year of experience, there’s not much to go on when projecting Chicago’s success this season.
New coaching will be the biggest question mark, but there’s reason for optimism. While Lovie Smith enjoyed a successful tenure in Chicago, there was certainly room for improvement.
The Bears defense shouldn’t look a whole lot different in 2013 as long as Brian Urlacher’s veteran leadership isn’t sorely missed. Fielding a top-five unit last season was a tall order considering the offensive firepower in the NFC North, and Chicago still has the pieces in place to repeat that feat.
What will ultimately take the Bears over the top this season is a rejuvenated offensive line. If Jay Cutler can stay on his feet and Matt Forte avoids taking a beating that will land him on the injury report, the Bears offense will have an exponentially higher chance of building on a putrid 2012 campaign.
But as is the case every season, strength of schedule trumps all other factors. The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings got even better this offseason, and the Detroit Lions aren’t far behind. For Chicago to make a splash in the NFC North, it has to find a way to win some big divisional contests in 2013.
Prediction: 9-7, third in NFC North
This prediction isn’t an indictment of Chicago’s talent. Simply put, there are still too many question marks on both the offensive side of the ball and with a new coaching staff.
In addition, the Bears’ 2013 schedule is absolutely brutal from top to bottom, including non-divisional contests with the AFC North and NFC East. Apart from matchups with the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams, there aren’t any games in which the Bears should be heavily favored.
Chicago has the potential to make a big leap and prove me wrong, but right now, erring on the side of caution seems like the best idea. Look for the Bears to post nine or 10 wins and find themselves in a battle for the final wild-card spot when the season comes to a close.