Overview of 2009 Expectations and the Bears Roster
Realistic expectations for the Chicago Bears in 2009 should be to the win the NFC North and compete for an NFC Championship. On paper the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles look to have deeper rosters, but after that the Bears belong in the conversation among top teams in the NFC.
In the NFC North, the Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Minnesota Vikings all have hopes for winning the division. With each team facing an easy schedule, it may be possible (though probably not likely) that all three teams make the playoffs in a much improved division.
However, the Bears should go into the season as favorites because of the acquisition of Jay Cutler and offensive line depth, along with a strong 2009 draft.
Consider that the Bears have only had one quarterback, Erik Kramer in 1995, finish in the top ten in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) in the last 20 years. Despite this dubious statistic, the Bears have finished with a winning record in three of the last four seasons, winning the NFC North in 2005 and 2006.
Meanwhile Cutler has finished in the top ten in DYAR the last two seasons (his first two full seasons as a starter), finishing fifth in 2008 behind just Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Kurt Warner.
Thanks to Cutler the Broncos won eight games last season despite having the second worst defense statistically in NFL history (only the 2008 Lions were worse) and a plethora of running backs (Michael Pittman, Peyton Hillis, Selvin Young, Ryan Torain) miss multiple games due to injury.
Combining Cutler and a Bears roster only lacking a top flight quarterback makes for a strong overall unit that compares very favorably to their division and conference rivals.
The addition of Cutler creates a dynamic element to the Bears offense that they sorely lacked last season with Kyle Orton under center. Cutler’s arm strength and ability to throw the deep ball meshes very well with top receiver Devin Hester’s skills and speed.
Numerous times last season Orton missed an open Hester deep downfield on plays that could have changed the game, plays that Cutler should capitalize on much more frequently.
Other major benefactors of Cutler’s acquisition should be running back Matt Forte and tight end Greg Olsen. Forte will see far fewer eight man fronts with the threat of Cutler to opposing defenses, making him a much more efficient runner that can consistently break long runs.
Olsen, who quietly had 50 catches and five touchdowns last year, could become an impact player and top threat in the passing game because of Cutler's ability to utilize tight ends (as seen by the strong connection he had with Tony Scheffler in Denver).
After Hester and Olsen (and Forte out of the backfield), the Bears lack pass catching options. Second year wide receiver Earl Bennett and rookie Juaquin Iglesias will get every chance to break into the line-up as Brandon Lloyd and Rashied Davis have shown to be mediocre at best NFL receivers.
Failing in an attempt to acquire Anquan Boldin on draft day, the Bears hope Bennett and Iglesias will play like seasoned veterans.
Although not a dominant unit, the Bears offensive line does look much improved thanks to signing Orlando Pace among others, rightly being a key area addressed this off-season. Even more important than the individual performers on the line is its collective depth, with seven guys capable of starting and playing at a respectable level.
This unit should adequately protect Cutler in the passing game and open up running lanes for Forte.
The defensive side of the ball may actually be the bigger question mark for the Bears in 2009. The 2008 defense had a relatively strong bounce back from an awful 2007, but the unit still did not resemble the elite defense it performed like in 2005 and much of 2006.
New defensive line coach Rod Marinelli hopes to spark an underachieving unit that registered just 27 sacks in 2008.
Veterans Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye (in a contract year) and Mark Anderson need to create more of a pass rush, with younger players like second year defensive tackle Marcus Harrison and versatile third round pick Jarron Gilbert pushing for playing time if the veterans ahead of them fail to produce.
Linebacker play remains the strength of the Bears defense, with perennial Pro Bowler Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher anchoring the strong group. Briggs has been the Bears best defensive player the past two seasons, playing at a level similar to his idol Derrick Brooks during Brooks’s heyday with Buccaneers.
Fifth-round pick Marcus Freeman (a great value selection) could compete for the starting strong side linebacker position as veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer has fallen out of favor after a sub par 2008.
Jamar Williams, a special teams ace who has the versatility to play all three linebacker spots, has been stuck behind Briggs, Urlacher, and Hillenmeyer on the depth chart in previous years but hopes to compete for the strong side opening in 2009.
The defensive line struggles also hurt a secondary beset by injuries in 2008. Charles Tillman remains perennially underrated and still had a solid 2008 fighting through a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery.
However, Nathan Vasher struggled mightily when healthy after receiving a new contract last offseason, replaced in the lineup at times by second-year cornerback Corey Graham.
The safety spots remain a huge question mark outside of emerging playmaker Kevin Payne (who had four interceptions in 2008), with Tillman or Vasher potentially transitioning there if young cornerbacks like Graham and fourth round pick D.J. Moore can earn spots in the starting lineup.
For the Bears to exceed expectations and possibly represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, they will need Iglesias and/or Bennett to emerge as trusted possession receivers, the offensive line play to remain strong, and the defense to return to the top form they exhibited in previous years.
Iglesias comes to the Bears with a reputation as being one of the most polished receivers in this draft class, someone that could become a consistent 70-80 catch per season receiver during his career.
Hope in Iglesias also comes from the success Cutler had with Broncos rookie receiver Eddie Royal in 2008, with Royal catching 91 passes in his first NFL season.
Bennett drew comparisons to Hines Ward during the 2008 draft and had a good rapport with Cutler while teammates at Vanderbilt in 2006.
Fifth round draft pick Johnny Knox could team with Hester as downfield threats because of his great speed, though he probably needs a few seasons to develop after just playing two seasons at Abilene Christian following a stint at Tyler Junior College in Texas.
Real reason for optimism comes from an improved offensive line. The additions of future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Pace, experienced starting offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer, and versatile young tackle/guard Frank Omiyale instantly improve the quality and depth from a 2008 unit that overachieved despite allowing 29 sacks.
Also, 2008 Bears first round pick, offensive tackle Chris Williams, should return to the field healthy and start with Pace at one of the tackle spots (likely on the right side).
All three 2008 interior linemen starters, center Olin Kreutz and guards Roberto Garza and Josh Beekman, return with Kreutz the only guaranteed 2009 starter of the group. Garza and Beekman will be competing with Omiyale for the starting guard spots, with the two top performers in camp and the preseason the probable opening night starters.
Making the improvements needed at the tackle spots and adding quality depth along the line protects and enhances talented skill position players like Cutler and Forte, a wise move considering the Bears investment and reliance upon them.
Hope for improvement on the defensive side of the ball comes from a strong looking group of young players acquired in the past two drafts and the free agent acquisition of safety Josh Bullocks.
Gilbert, Moore, Freeman and Harrison have good chances to earn starting spots at some point (possibly as soon as this year) and a youthful infusion of energy could aid a Bears defense that needs more speed on the field.
Bullocks, drafted by the Saints in the second round in 2005, failed to live up to expectations in New Orleans and became a YouTube legend for giving up big plays in the passing game.
That being said, getting away from an awful secondary could revitalize his career, especially with the opportunity to start at free safety if Bullocks has a strong camp and preseason.
Even if the young defensive players do not grab starting spots, the competition could motivate a group of veterans that played like they received new money the past two offseasons. As with the offensive line, improved depth makes this unit less vulnerable to injury and underachieving.
For a team expected to do big things in 2009, the Bears lack elite players outside of Cutler, Briggs, and an emerging Forte. The Patriots blueprint relies on depth more than outstanding individual performances (with the exception of Tom Brady), but you see the best teams having multiple Pro Bowl players for a reason.
Urlacher and Harris qualified as elite players at one time, but injuries have hindered both players and most NFL people believe both to be on the downside of their careers. At just age 26, Harris has time to prove doubters wrong, but his dominant play in 2005-2006 looks to be a thing of the past.
Pace played a full slate of games in 2008 but missed key chunks of the previous two seasons to injury. The Bears moving left tackle prospect Williams to the right side could backfire if Pace cannot stay healthy and cause an awkward midseason position shift.
Added depth could cure the problems on the defensive line and in the secondary, but the talented young players remain unproven and may not pan out like people expect. The secondary in particular remains unsettled outside of Payne and Tillman, and that unit may be vulnerable to speedy receivers that create big plays.
Finally, relying on young receivers like Iglesias and Bennett could prove to be dangerous. Iglesias comes to the Bears with high expectations, but Bennett came in with similar fanfare last year and struggled to break into the lineup in 2008 (often inactive on gameday) and failed to register a single catch.
Both of them need to prove to be viable options so that defenses cannot totally key on Hester, Olsen, and Forte.
The importance of the addition of Cutler cannot be overstated, especially on a team that won nine games last season with uneven quarterback play and a defense that struggled against the pass.
With a much stronger group of supporting players than last year’s Broncos, Cutler should not have force so many throws (partly due to coming back late in games) and in turn the ball over as much (though 18 INT’s in 616 attempts is not a bad ratio).
Emerging young stars on offense like Forte, Olsen, and Hester (who caught 51 passes in his first full year at receiver) give Cutler a trio of quality weapons that could breakout playing with a top quarterback.
The improved offensive line and defensive depth give those units the chance to play at the high level they did in 2005 and 2006. All in all, the best off-season of general manager Jerry Angelo’s career has left the Bears in good position to compete at a very high level in 2009.
12-4 Record, NFC North Champions, Lose in NFC Conference Championship Game