Reassessing Bears' Offseason Plan and Breaking Down What's Left to Address
While the Bears offense was one of the best in the league, the defense struggled with getting after the quarterback and stopping the run. General manager Phil Emery made it a point to improve both areas with his signings.
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, Ryan Mundy, 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 making all of those moves, there are still areas of this team that need to be addressed this offseason.
One position that struggled the most in 2013 was the safety position. Despite some new additions, the team needs to solidify the position and could look to the draft to not only bolster that position but also the rest of the team's depth. Offensively, Josh McCown proved last season how valuable a good backup quarterback can be. The team will need to address Jay Cutler's backup now that McCown has moved on and will need to determine if Marquess Wilson can take over the third wide receiver position.
Lastly, with all of the talk about how the defense struggled and the offense flourished in 2013, the special teams unit will need some upgrades.
Solidify the Safety Position
After adding safeties Mundy, Jennings, McCray and re-signing Steltz, it was expected for all of the safeties on the Bears roster to compete for a starting spot.
Despite an abysmal 2013 season for Chris Conte, he was expected to compete for the starting free safety spot. Now, his opportunity will be in jeopardy after the team announced, via Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com, that he will be out four to five months after undergoing shoulder surgery in late March.
"I know I'm going to have to compete for my position on this team," Conte told ChicagoBears.com. "I am prepared to do that and felt having this surgery was the best way to be 100 percent healthy and be the best player I can possibly be."
The Bears could look to the free-agent market to add another body with Conte's injury likely keeping him out of most of training camp, but the market has thinned out since free agency began March 11. Thomas DeCoud and Michael Huff are two of the better safeties left on the market, but neither would be major upgrades over what the team already has.
The draft may be the best way for the Bears to solidify the position and could have options when picking at No. 14.
Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is regarded as the top safety in this year's draft, and NFL.com's Bucky Brooks thinks he would be a good fit for the Bears. He wrote that Clinton-Dix "displays exceptional range, instincts and awareness while playing over the top, and he's also an aggressive hitter and playmaker between the hashes."
Another option in the first round is Louisville's Calvin Pryor, a hard-hitting safety who has the ability to come up in the box and make tackles as a strong safety but also possesses the athleticism and ball-hawking abilities of a free safety.
If the team is unwilling to use a first-round pick on a safety, Jimmie Ward, Deone Bucannon, Dion Bailey and Terrence Brooks could all be mid-round selections who can help shore up the team's safety position.
After a Down Year, Special Teams Will Need Improvement
In 2013, the Bears moved on from one of the best special teams coordinators in the league, Dave Toub, and hired former Dallas Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamillis.
DeCamillis' unit struggled at various times throughout the year, but kicker Robbie Gould remained one of the unit's most consistent performers. Gould hit 26 of 29 field-goal attempts in 2013 and now stands as the league's third-most accurate kicker in NFL history, making 86.029 percent of his career field goals, just slightly behind Mike Vanderjagt's 86.466 percent that makes him the most accurate of all time.
Gould was rewarded for his efforts by signing a four-year extension at the end of the 2013 season, according to the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer.
The Bears released punter Adam Podlesh, via ChicagoBears.com, at the end of the season after his net average declined from the 2011 season to the 2013 season, going from 40.4 to 37.9 yards per punt.
The team currently has Drew Butler and Tress Way at the punter position. Way spent training camp with the team last season and could be the front-runner if the Bears make it a competition between him and Butler.
One final area on special teams the Bears will need to address is the future of long snapper Patrick Mannelly.
‘‘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 Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times after the season. ‘‘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.
Drafting well will go a long when in upgrading their special teams in 2013, and after signing Senn and Hixon this offseason, they appear to be on the right track to be improved in 2014.
Bolster the Defense Through the Draft
Phil Emery and his staff have done a great job of adding playmakers and depth to his defense. He still needs to find more depth and youth for an aging unit, and per a report by Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times, Emery addressed that by saying, "Did we have enough depth to win football games? The answer is no. From a personnel perspective, I had not done enough to provide enough depth."
The best and most cost-effective way to add depth to a team is through the draft. Some of the best teams around the league (Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers) have done a tremendous job of developing their own players through the draft.
Considering all of the moves the team has made in an attempt to fix its problems from 2013, the selection at No. 14 in May's draft could go a variety of different ways.
According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, he has the Bears taking Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan in his latest mock draft. Over at CBSSports.com, Dane Brugler and Pete Prisco both have Jernigan going to the Bears, while Rob Rang and Will Brinson have the team selecting Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Pat Kirwan has the team selecting Alabama safety Clinton-Dix.
Judging by those six selections, many still believe that the team will be in the market for a defensive tackle when its turn in the first round comes. While choosing a guy like Jernigan or Donald is very much a possibility, the team has flexibility because of re-signing Nate Collins and Jeremiah Ratliff as well as adding the flexibility of guys like Houston and Idonije who can also play inside.
Much of the focus is placed on who the team will select in the first round, but the remainder of the draft will go a long way in determining who this team performs not only in 2014 but in subsequent years.
Safeties like Northern Illinois' Ward or Washington State's Bucannon, defensive tackles like Arizona State's Will Sutton and Princeton's Caraun Reid, or linebackers like Wisconsin's Chris Borland or Florida State's Christian Jones all could be options for the Bears in the later rounds. They all could provide improved depth over what the team had in 2013.
Find Jay Cutler's Backup
Throughout Cutler's five seasons in Chicago, he has missed 13 of a possible 80 starts due to injures, including five games last season.
During those five games in which he missed last season, longtime backup quarterback McCown dazzled in his most significant amount of playing time since starting nine games for the Oakland Raiders in 2007. During those five games, as well as playing in three others, he finished with a career high in touchdowns (13), quarterback rating (109.0) and completion percentage (66.5).
McCown was able to parlay his terrific season into a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
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
Now that McCown is out of the picture, the Bears will need to determine if they already have their No. 2 quarterback currently on their roster with Jordan Palmer, or if they need to look at free agency and/or the draft to upgrade the position.
Palmer appears to have the inside track as head coach Marc Trestman told the media at the NFL owner's meetings down in Florida last month, via Brad Biggs of 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.
Despite praise from Trestman, the team may look for a veteran who has been around the league and possesses similar qualities to McCown on and off the field.
The list of free-agent quarterbacks who are still available are all guys who have had their struggles in the past but could find value in Trestman's system.
Former Philadelphia Eagles and most recently Buffalo Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb may be able to resurrect his career under Trestman if given the opportunity. Kolb's career numbers are similar to McCown's, as he has never been a consistent starter but showed flashes at times. Kolb has familiarity with the West Coast system during his time with the Eagles and Andy Reid, but his injury history may scare the Bears off.
The team could always look to the draft to find a quarterback in the later rounds and could find a steal if a guy like Georgia's Aaron Murray is still on the board.
Murray tore his ACL against Kentucky last season, and it has hampered his ability to show teams his full potential. He did attend the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, throwing footballs on the side and participating in player weigh-ins, but his biggest opportunity to show how he has healed will be at Georgia's pro day on April 16.
He is an accurate passer in the short to intermediate passing game, which makes him a great fit for the West Coast offense. If he is available later in the draft, the team can continue with a guy like Palmer or another free agent as its No. 2 and hope that Murray develops into the team's backup in 2015.
Determine If Marquess Wilson Is the No. 3 Wide Receiver
After decades of being known as a defense-first team, the Chicago Bears evolved into one of the league's most potent offenses in 2013, finishing second in scoring behind only the Denver Broncos.
Much of the team's success was based off of the breakout year from wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who finished sixth in receiving yards with 1,421, and yet another stellar season from Brandon Marshall, who finished 11th in the league with 1,295 yards. Both were named to the Pro Bowl.
The bulk of the passing game went through Jeffery, Marshall, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett in 2013, but the team will be looking to see if second-year receiver Marquess Wilson can take the next step.
Last month, the team released veteran Earl Bennett, via ChicagoBears.com, opening up the door for Wilson to become the team's third receiver. Last offseason, Jeffery spent his offseason training with Marshall in Florida, and Wilson has followed their lead.
I think he showed that we can work with him and develop him. He’s got the football intelligence that we’re looking for and the ability to be flexible within the offense. He was consistent. So we’ll see how it goes. We’re not anointing people at this point in time. He’s going to have a chance to compete and be a part of what we do after Alshon and Brandon (Marshall). We’ll see how it goes. We’ve got a long way to go but we like (Wilson) and we’re excited about him to develop him and work him.
While Wilson seems like the logical choice, the Bears are not going to just give him that spot, and he will have to compete with Hixon, who the team signed to a one-year deal this offseason, via ChicagoBears.com.
After catching 43 passes for 596 yards and two touchdowns in 2009 for the New York Giants, Hixon suffered back-to-back ACL injuries in 2010 and 2011. He bounced back in 2012 to catch 39 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns for the Giants but finished last season with just seven receptions for 55 yards and one touchdown for the Carolina Panthers.
Two sleeper candidates who are currently on the roster are Terrence Toliver and Chris Williams.
Toliver has bounced around since going undrafted in 2011 but spent training camp with the team last year and parts of the 2013 season on the team's practice squad. He is fast for someone of his size (6'3") but still struggles to create separation.
Williams may be one of the more intriguing names on the roster.
At 5'8" and 175 pounds, he is one of the smaller players in the league but has failed to stick in the NFL after stints with the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints. His most productive time came in 2012 in the CFL while playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In that season, he had 83 catches for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns, in addition to 78 punt returns for 1,117 yards and five touchdowns.
Considering the options currently on the Bears roster, it appears to be a given that Wilson will wind up being the team's third wide receiver in 2014, but he is going to have to earn it.