When the Bears walked off the field at Houston’s Reliant Stadium last December 28th, following a disappointing season-ending loss that left them 9-7 and out of the playoffs, little did they know what the offseason had in store for them.
Despite their usual low-key approach to free agency, the Bears reeled in arguably the biggest catch with the acquisition of Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, a move that both shocked NFL insiders and delighted Bears fans. The bold trade, engineered by Jerry Angelo forced Chicago to part with coveted first round picks this year and next, along with this year’s third rounder and starting quarterback Kyle Orton.
While seemingly wearing out his welcome in Denver and with new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, Cutler brings immediate hope for offensive improvement and breathes new life into a position Chicago has struggled with since the franchises’ early glory days of the 1940’s.
Fresh from a Pro Bowl season where he threw for over 4,000 yards, Cutler’s arm strength, competitiveness, and penchant for big plays should complement the power running of Matt Forte and open up the passing attack. Forte put together an outstanding rookie campaign, contributing as both a runner and receiver. In fact, the former Tulane product amassed 37 percent of the Bears total offense in ’08.
Not content to stop there, Angelo signed former Pro Bowler Orlando Pace to anchor the offensive left tackle spot, following earlier attempts to bolster the line with the additions of Frank Omiyale and ex-Brown Kevin Schaffer. The signing of Pace will allow the Bears to shift last year’s top pick, Chris Williams, to the right offensive tackle spot vacated by the retirement of John Tait. Chicago hopes the shuffling will not only protect their franchise quarterback in Cutler, but also produce better results in short-yardage situations, which stymied several drives last season.
While the Bears have retooled the front line and quarterback position, major question marks still dot the receiving corps where the game breaking, but still unfinished, Devin Hester headlines an inexperienced group. Chicago hopes that Hester continues to make strides in improving his consistency and route running, yet also regains his form as a returner.
The other receiver positions are up for grabs between Earl Bennett, last year’s third-round choice who rarely saw the field, but clicked with Cutler at Vanderbilt, Rashied Davis, the former arena league player who struggled in ’08, and the unproven Brandon Rideau. Chicago added depth by grabbing three receivers in the draft, including third rounder Juaquin Iglesias of Oklahoma, fifth-round speedster Johnny Knox from Abilene Christian, and Pittsburgh’s Derek Kinder in the seventh round.
The Bears do boast a quality tandem at tight end however, with former first rounder Greg Olsen, an emerging talent, and solid veteran Desmond Clark.
Defensively, the big hope is that Chicago will regain the swagger from the Super Bowl season. Enter ex-Lions coach Rod Marinelli, who will try to motivate and increase the production from a veteran defensive line that seldom produced consistent pass rush pressure. Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye will once again anchor the defensive end spots, with Ogunleye especially needing an impressive bounce back campaign.
Versatile Israel Indonije and enigma Mark Anderson provide depth on the defensive side for the Bears. Anderson has all but disappeared after his double-digit sack total his rookie year. On the interior, all eyes focus on oft-injured Tommie Harris, who can dominate when healthy. Bears’ fans must hope that Harris is finally right, although his penchant for sitting out practices is not an encouraging sign.
Another injury risk, Dusty Dvorachek, may get his final chance to line up next to his former Oklahoma teammate. Dvorachek’s pro career has ended prematurely in each of his first three seasons. He’s a try-hard player who may not be gifted enough to be a full time starter.
Veteran Anthony Adams has been impressive in spot duty and always seems to earn playing time. Second year man Marcus Harrison flashes exciting potential, but must become more consistent.
The Bears’ selection of San Jose State’s Jarron Gilbert provides insurance up front. Gilbert demonstrates game-changing abilities, but some scouts question his work habits and dedication. The hope with this unit is that Chicago will once again be a difficult team to run upon.
The linebacking corps is solid, with the expected return to health of linebacker Brian Urlacher. Reports from Halas Hall this offseason indicate the former Pro Bowler is in outstanding shape and ready to regain form following last years’ uninspired performance. Another Pro Bowler, and arguably the team’s top defender, Lance Briggs, anchors the weak linerbacker spot.
Newcomer Pisa Tinoisamoa, the Rams’ leading tackler in four of his six seasons there, seems ticketed for strong linebacker, although he will need to hold off Nick Roach, who saw limited starting duty in ’08, and veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer, who may be fighting for his roster spot.
The Bears deep patrol is not nearly as set, with question marks at both the corner and safety positions. Veteran Charles Tillman struggled through an injury-plagued year, but remains Chicago’s best defensive back when healthy. He should handle one corner slot.
The other spot up for grabs is between a handful of contenders, including former starter Nathan Vasher, rookie fourth rounder D.J. Moore, and third-year man Truman McBride.
The safety position contains more question marks, especially with the decision not to resign the popular (but injury-prone) Mike Brown. Hard hitting Kevin Payne is assured one spot, while Danieal Manning, second year player Craig Steltz, converted corners Corey Graham and Zachary Bowman battle with free agent signees Josh Bullocks and Glenn Earl for the other safety position.
Manning may be better suited for the nickel spot. However, Graham and Bowman showed some promise in limited play at corner in ’08, while Steltz seemed over his skis, and Bullocks and Earl seek a chance to repair their playing reputations.
Chicago’s special teams appear set, with dependable veterans Brad Maynard and Robbie Gould handling the punting and kicking chores respectively. Maynard is quietly consistent and Gould has emerged as an excellent pressure kicker.
Danieal Manning has overtaken Hester as the Bears’ primary kickoff returner. Manning's 31-yard average led the league and his return style of hitting the crease hard and exploding upfield are better suited for the important battle of field position, rather than the high risk/reward with Hester. Hester though, will be given the task of returning punts, with hopefully, more upfield movement than lateral.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith has taken over the defensive play calling duties, and should, on paper, have his best team. How quickly the offense jells with Cutler at the helm, the play of the receivers, and the return to prominence of the Chicago defense will answer where the Bears stand as the calendar turns to January.