4 Chicago Bears Players Who Should See Their Roles Expand in 2014
The Chicago Bears' focus is currently on free agency and the draft, but they have some talented players returning to their roster who are capable of much more in 2014.
Outside of Alshon Jeffery, the Bears really haven't gotten much from their last two draft classes. It's hard to say how much that is going to change, but there are some talented players who appear capable of doing more than they have.
The team has also added a few free agents over the last few years who have never really had a shot to show what they can do.
The roster turnover will likely continue up until the season begins, but here are a few returning Bears players who could have much larger roles in 2014.
Fendi Onobun, TE
In Fendi Onobun's case, an expanded role would really mean just being on the active roster.
There's no doubt that the Bears have an exceptional athlete in Onobun. He was thought to have the inside track to be their second tight end for most of training camp last year, but he struggled in the preseason games.
Onobun has long been a project for several teams, but the Bears seem to be putting forth more work than the other teams.
At 6'5" and over 250 pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds, to go with a vertical of over 37 inches and a broad jump over 11 feet. That is all very freakish, but it has never translated onto the football field.
He looked the part in camp last season but had a hard time holding onto the ball during the preseason games.
After the final preseason game, head coach Marc Trestman told the Chicago Sun-Times, "When that light switch goes on, he’s got a chance to be a very good player."
Onobun didn't make the Bears' active roster out of camp, but they kept him on the practice squad all season.
Like last season, he'll be a player to watch during minicamps and then training camp. If he shows the ability to hold onto the ball during preseason, he's got a very good chance at making the team this year and being another weapon for quarterback Jay Cutler.
Nate Collins, DT
Due to injury, Nate Collins was well on his way to having an expanded role in 2013, but an injury of his own changed that.
Collins had taken over as the Bears' starting defensive tackle when Henry Melton tore his ACL. It lasted just two games as Collins tore his ACL in his second start against the Saints.
The Bears defense struggled before he was injured, but it dropped off to an unacceptable level as soon as he left the fold. The interior defensive line put up no resistance in the run game and got no pressure on passing plays.
In five games, Collins had 14 tackles and a sack last year, despite playing limited snaps. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he played under 42 percent of the team's snaps in its first two games, rotating with Melton and Stephen Paea.
In all, he played 59.1 percent of Chicago's snaps in five games. He was never really given a shot to be a starter. This season, he figures to be in the mix as the Bears desperately need improved play inside.
With Stephen Paea having a hard time staying available and effective due to various injuries throughout his career, and both Jeremiah Ratliff and Israel Idonije on the wrong side of 30, Collins has a chance to become one of the team's starting defensive tackle.
What the Bears decide to do in the draft could very much depend on what they think they have in Collins. Considering his injury history and that of the other players on the roster, they're likely going to add to the position early in the draft. Free-agent addition Lamarr Houston will also probably play inside on passing downs. Collins has a chance to be the guy Houston lines up next to in those situations.
Michael Ford, RB
The Bears let go of two veterans with both moves creating opportunity for Michael Ford.
The release of backup running back Michael Bush opens up a competition behind starter Matt Forte that Ford should be involved in. The Bears' decision to let kick returner Devin Hester leave as a free agent also opens that job up for the second-year man out of LSU.
Although he had a strong showing at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine and averaged over 5.5 yards per carry during his career at LSU, Ford went undrafted and signed with the Bears.
Ford was seen as a bit of a project because he wasn't used much between the tackles at LSU. He ran hard for the Bears in preseason last year, although it was clear he was still a work in progress.
He led the team with 149 rushing yards and added eight catches for 65 yards in preseason. His 3.8 yards per carry weren't anything to brag about, but that had a lot to do with the third- and fourth-string offensive lines he was running behind.
The fact that the Bears didn't bother adding a veteran to the mix at running back is a pretty good indication that they feel good about Ford's ability. It's widely expected that they'll add competition to the mix at some point, but it could end up being a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent.
Ford's greatest value to the team could come as a kick returner, where he figures to battle for the starting gig. He had a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown last preseason, averaging over 33 yards per return. Even if you took his longest return out of the equation, he averaged 26.8 yards per kick return.
Even if he doesn't win the job as the starting kick returner, there's a good chance he'll contribute elsewhere on special teams.
It has become clear the Bears are going to give Ford every chance to have more of an impact in 2014.
Marquess Wilson, WR
Marquess Wilson seems to have some members of the Bears as well as quite a few fans excited.
Wilson was a seventh-round pick in last year's draft but not because of a lack of talent. During his last season at Washington State, there were issues with head coach Mike Leach that led to Wilson leaving the team. Seen as a quitter by some, Wilson dropped to the Bears in the final round of the draft.
He showed the ability to make big plays in preseason a year ago, leading the team with 96 receiving yards and an average of over 19 yards per catch. Although he didn't add much to special teams, Wilson was active for 10 games and caught two passes for 13 yards during the regular season last year.
Wilson came into the league at just 20 years old and wasn't ready to contribute to the team physically or mentally last season. He has spent some time working with Pro Bowl wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery this offseason and appears ready to contribute.
It was that same training program that helped Jeffery increase his production by 65 catches and 1,054 yards. Marshall recently told ESPN 1000's Waddle & Silvy Show that he sees the same kind of potential in Wilson. Marshall also noted that Wilson looks like a "stud."
With the release of veteran Earl Bennett, Wilson appears to have the inside track at the Bears' third wide receiver job. In college, he showed the ability to play in the slot and outside. He can make plays after the catch and bring down jump balls.
There is no question that Wilson has talent, and he could become a breakout player for the Bears in 2014.