Chicago Bears' Top Remaining Offseason Priorities
The 2014 offseason has been a busy one for the Chicago Bears and general manager Phil Emery.
Since the start of free agency, Chicago bolstered its defense by signing defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Israel Idonije; linebacker D.J. Williams; cornerback Charles Tillman; safeties M.D. Jennings, RyanMundy, Danny McCray and Craig Steltz; wide receiver/kick returner Domenik Hixon and special teamer/linebacker Jordan Senn. The team also released defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Earl Bennett, via ChicagoBears.com.
Despite all of the changes to the roster in the past month, there are still some areas that need to be addressed this offseason. The team will likely still be scouring the free agent list to help this team as well as focusing their attention on the NFL Draft which is just a month away.
Here are the Chicago Bears' top remaining offseason priorities.
Extend Brandon Marshall's Contract
While 2013 was a breakout year for Alshon Jeffery as he finished the season sixth in the league with 1,421 yards receiving en route to his first career Pro Bowl. Not to be forgotten, Brandon Marshall finished with 1,295 yards receiving and made his fifth career Pro Bowl but consider that to be a "down" year in his book.
Marshall told the "Around The League Podcast" that he struggled through a "down year" last season and that, "I'm really going to revamp my whole game and come back a totally different player, something you guys never seen before."
Marshall has just one year remaining on his deal, but he does not seem concerned about returning to the team beyond 2014, telling WMVP-AM of Chicago, via ESPNChicago.com, "If it happens, it happens, if it doesn't, I'm glad to be a Bear for another year and I'm going to force them to sign me after next year. One way or another, they're going to get the deal done."
While it does not seem to concern Marshall right now, the Bears may be able to get him slightly cheaper now than possibly in 2015 if he indeed bounces back from his so-called "down year."
A restructure would have made even more sense when the Bears were trying to create cap space for free agency but there is no longer a sense of urgency, considering the team has already made their big splashes.
If nothing else, getting a deal done sooner rather than later will help assure not only Bears fans, but the locker room that the team will reward players who make consistent contributions each year.
Find Matt Forte's Backup at Running Back
In recent years the Chicago Bears have gone out and paid high-end money for backup running backs like Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Michael Bush, only to see them struggle when they get on the field.
As it currently stands, the team has Matt Forte as the obvious starter but only have 2013 undrafted free agent Michael Ford as Forte's current backup. Ford showed some promise during the 2013 preseason but did not contribute much during the regular season.
The free agent running back class has seen most of the big names already get signed, leaving guys like Andre Brown, Justin Forsett, Bernard Scott and La'Rod Stephens-Howling as the best available options left.
The likely best option for finding a suitable backup will be through this year's draft. In my recent mock draft I pegged Wisconsin's James White to the Bears in the sixth round. White finished his career with 4,015 yards and ended up third all-time with 45 touchdowns—all despite spending much of his career splitting time with Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon.
CBS Chicago's Adam Hoge has Central Florida's Storm Johnson going to the Bears in the sixth round in his latest mock draft, writing:
Johnson doesn’t have the lateral quickness to project as an immediate No. 1 running back in the NFL, but he does possess sneaky speed and the ability to catch passes out of the backfield, which makes him an intriguing target as a possible backup to Matt Forte in Marc Trestman’s offense.
The 2014 draft likely does not have any first-round graded running backs but there are plenty of talented running backs that could be available for the Bears throughout the later stages of the draft.
Forte has been extremely durable during his six year career having missed just five games but the team would benefit from finding someone that can spell him at times and someone that can be effective in goal line situations.
Find Another Pass-Catching Tight End
Since the departure of Greg Olsen, the Bears have been searching for a top receiving tight end and finally found one in Martellus Bennett.
Bennett had a career year in 2013, notching career highs in catches (65), yards (759) and tying his career high in touchdowns with five.
His productivity led to little or no playing time for the backup tight ends. Steve Maneri started the season as the No. 2 behind Bennett but was released in October and his position was then occupied by Dante Rosario.
Rosario played just 186 snaps on offense and had one reception for 13 yards. The Bears mainly used Rosario as a blocking tight end in 2013 and signed him to a one-year deal this offseason, via ChicagoBears.com.
As well as Bennett played in 2013, the Bears offense could become even more dynamic with the addition of another pass-catching tight end.
The team is not going to spend top dollar for a back up tight end, but could be interested in a guy like Tony Scheffler who has ties to Jay Cutler from Denver.
Both Cutler and Scheffler were selected by the Broncos in the 2006 draft and he had two of his most productive seasons in the NFL with Cutler throwing him the football in 2007 and 2008.
The team could always look to draft a tight end this May and in my latest mock draft I had the team selecting Oregon's Colt Lyerla in the sixth round.
Lyerla has a questionable past but he showed his versatility at Oregon, being used both as an in-line tight end as well as lining up in the backfield. Hehas all of the potential to be a playmaker in the NFL.
Decide on Long Snapper Patrick Mannelly's Future
In this day and age, the only time an NFL long snapper is ever really heard about is if he makes a terrible mistake in a major situation.
Throughout Patrick Mannelly's 16-year career with the Chicago Bears, he has been widely viewed as one of the best at one of the league's most unsung positions and no player has played more games in a Bears uniform than him.
Back in 2006, then special teams coach Dave Toub told ChicagoBears.com, “In my opinion, (Mannelly is) the best long-snapper in the league. I might be biased, but I’ve been around a few good ones and he’s by far the best. He’s a good blocker, he’s got great feet and he’s a good cover guy.”
Despite being one of the most consistent long snappers in the league, at age 38 it is unknown if Mannelly even wants to return.
‘‘I’m going to take some time off and kind of clear my head and figure out if I want to continue doing this,’’ Mannelly told the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘This is something I love. And then I want to just find out how much I do love it. Get away from it and kind of re-engage physically and everything and see where I go from there.’’
The Bears are prepared if Mannelly does not return having second-year man Brandon Hartson on their roster but he has never appeared in an NFL game.
There has been little said about his potential return this offseason but according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, rumors suggest that if he wants to return in 2014 he will be able to but only time will tell.
Solidify the Backup Quarterback Position
In 2013, Josh McCown was able to transform himself from an average at best veteran backup in the NFL to earning himself a big contract for a guy set to turn 35 this July.
The #Bucs deal for Josh McCown: It’s two years for $10M. He gets $4.75M this year, $5.25M next year.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 12, 2014
The Bears signed Jay Cutler to a long-term deal this offseason and because of being pressed up against the cap, re-signing McCown for that amount of money was just no feasible.
The team re-signed veteran Jordan Palmer to a one-year deal earlier this offseason, via CSNChicago.com, and currently have second-year man Jerrod Johnson on their roster but they could still be in the market for a free-agent backup.
At the NFL owner's meetings down in Florida last month, head coach Marc Trestman praised Palmer, telling the media, via the Chicago Tribune:
We give Jordan a lot of credit. He literally learned the offense on his own because we didn’t have time to work daily with him. He worked. He worked overtime and he learned the offense and came in and played admirably in the preseason. He moved the football team and was very sufficient.
Palmer has appeared in just four games in his career, all with the Cincinnati Bengals, going 10-of-15 for 59 yards and throwing two interceptions.
He has to be extremely good in the meeting room, because that meeting room is the most important office in that building. Everything is controlled by the energy in that room and the camaraderie in that room and the karma in that room. So he has to be that guy. That’s really the most important thing. And if he’s doing that, he’s certainly going to be good in the locker room. The guys in that meeting room, in my opinion, have to be locker room guys. They have to be leaders. So that’s what we’re looking for.
The team could still look to the veteran free agent market to find a quarterback that can compete with Palmer for the No. 2 spot but the list of available free agents is less than stellar. Jimmy Clausen, Rex Grossman, Kevin Kolb and Colt McCoy are just a few of the quarterbacks available and while they may not instill confidence, Trestman proved in one year he could make McCown a more than serviceable backup.
If the team feels Palmer is a perfect fit and more than capable as their backup, the draft is full of talented quarterbacks, such as Georgia's Aaron Murray and Wyoming's Brett Smith, who could be available in the later rounds of the draft.