5 Mistakes the Bears Can't Afford to Make This Offseason
Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery has had his up and down moments in his two-plus seasons in charge.
In his first offseason, he drafted a player who appears to be a bust (Shea McClellin) in the first round, but he found a steal in the second round with Alshon Jeffery.
In his second offseason, he hired Marc Trestman as head coach and improved what was once one of the worst offensive lines in football, bringing in four new starters in 2013. Despite hitting on his first-round pick with Pro Bowler Kyle Long, the rest of his draft in 2013 struggled when forced into action last season.
The Bears now have an offense that is among the league's elite, but there are still plenty of holes on this team moving forward.
Here are five mistakes the Bears can't afford to make this offseason.
Not Fixing the Defensive Line
In 2013, the Bears' defensive line was one of the biggest disappointments on a defense that struggled all year long.
The defense ranked dead last against the run, allowing an average of 161.4 yards per game, nearly 30 yards more than the next-closest team. Injuries to Henry Melton and Nate Collins that ended both their seasons led to the team starting guys like Landon Cohen, Zach Minter and Christian Tupou.
Some relief came in the form of Jeremiah Ratliff, but it proved that the team needs to address the depth along the defensive line.
Emery will need to be creative in how he frees up money; the Bears currently have an estimated $6.3 million in cap space according to CBS Chicago's Dan Durkin.
He will need to find a way to free up money and find players who will fit into the scheme that defensive coordinator Mel Tucker wants to run in 2014.
The team will need at least one pass-rusher and a handful of defensive tackles who can provide depth and be productive when called upon. The Bears could bring back both Melton and Collins, but considering their health issues, they may be wise to find healthier options.
Disregard the Need for a Proven Safety
2013 was a dismal year for the Bears defense, but no one seemed to catch the blame more than the starting safety duo of Major Wright and Chris Conte.
Wright is set to be a free agent this offseason. It would be a surprise if he returns in 2014. Conte is still under contract for the upcoming season, but the team will be looking to find starters at the position via the draft and free agency.
Players like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama, Calvin Pryor from Louisville and Terrence Brooks from Florida State could all be options in the draft. Proven veterans Donte Whitner, T.J. Ward and Bernard Pollard are all set to become free agents later this spring.
Drafting a safety early in the draft combined with signing a veteran safety could immediately upgrade the Bears secondary.
The Bears have not had a dynamic playmaker at safety since the days of Mike Brown. They have searched far and wide through the draft to find one, but they have not looked early in the draft for those answers. The team has signed guys like Adam Archuleta and Brandon Meriweather through free agency, but both were well past their prime at the time of their signing.
If the Bears want to help improve their dismal defense, adding one or two playmaking safeties this offseason would be a great start.
Fail to Upgrade the Punter Position
In 2011, the Bears signed veteran punter Adam Podlesh to a five-year contract in 2011 worth $10 million. He struggled mightily at times in both 2012 and 2013, and the team was prompted to try out punters in October when Podlesh failed to improve, according to ESPN Chicago's Michael C. Wright.
Wright reported that an NFL source had told him at the time that Podlesh has "struggled all year," "has lost strength" and "can't hang the ball at all."
The Bears elected to keep him for the remainder of the season, but they signed Drew Butler and Tress Way to future/reserve contracts.
Podlesh's net average has declined since 2011, going from 40.4 to 37.9 yards per punt. According to Sportrac, he is set to have a cap hit of $1.825 million in 2014, and that may simply be too much for a guy who has been declining since his arrival in Chicago.
Way spent training camp with the team last season and could be the front-runner if the Bears part with Podlesh and move forward with a competition between him and Butler.
Regardless of who could be competing for the position in 2014, the Bears need to understand that the position needs to be upgraded.
Become Complacent on Offense
For years, the Chicago Bears were known for one thing: defense.
In 2013, under the tutelage of Marc Trestman, the Bears became one of the league's best offenses. They finished eighth in yards per game with 381.8 and finished second behind the Denver Broncos in scoring, averaging 27.8 points per game.
Despite Jay Cutler missing time with injury, Josh McCown filled in admirably and the offense never skipped a beat. Alshon Jeffery had a breakout season, finishing sixth in the league in receiving yards with 1,421, while Brandon Marshall was not far behind at No. 11, finishing with 1,295 yards.
Matt Forte quietly finished with the second-most rushing yards in the league with 1,339, and he, Marshall and Jeffery were all elected to this year's Pro Bowl.
Despite their tremendous season offensively, they should not become complacent this offseason and assume the old adage of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The offense will need to continue to evolve this offseason. Trestman and his staff need to find more ways to utilize Marshall's and Jeffery's talents, as well as getting the most out of Cutler.
Despite starting all 16 games at right tackle, they will need to see a better offseason from Jordan Mills so he can prove that he has progressed at the position. The team will also need to address the center position with Roberto Garza set to become a free agent.
Marc Trestman proved in Year 1 that he can revitalize an offense. He will need to prove in Year 2 that he can make them even better.
Not Drafting Players Who Can Contribute in 2014
In Phil Emery's tenure as the Bears GM, the one thing fans should know is to expect the unexpected.
He shocked some by taking Kyle Long in the first round of the 2013 draft, but Long started at right guard from Day 1 and was eventually named to the Pro Bowl. Jordan Mills was selected in the fifth round. He eventually beat out J'Marcus Webb and started all 16 games this past season.
While Long and Mills can be viewed as two picks that worked out in 2013, the rest of his 2013 draft class struggled when given opportunities.
Jonathan Bostic struggled when he was brought in to replace the injured D.J. Williams at middle linebacker, and Khaseem Greene struggled when forced to replace Lance Briggs at the weak-side linebacker position.
While the plan all along was not for either of them to get significant playing time in 2013, both failed to progress while on the field.
The 2014 draft will be very important for a team that is on the cusp of the playoffs and desperately needs young, capable depth.
If Emery can find someone in each round who has the potential to contribute in 2014 either as a starter or as a solid special teams player, then he will have succeeded. But if not, he will be putting the team in the same situation it was in last year.