4 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Chicago Bears
The 2014 NFL season is still a few months away, but it is never too early to look ahead to the upcoming season.
The Chicago Bears have been busy this offseason with their free-agent signings, their draft picks and the retooling of their porous defense from 2013.
The closer the season gets, the more predictions are made on what certain players are going to do in the upcoming season.
Some predictions can be viewed as a bit off-the-wall and bold, while others can be more mainstream and seem a little less bold.
Here are our four bold (and slightly less bold) predictions for the 2014 Chicago Bears.
Bold: Shea McClellin Will Make an Impact at Linebacker
After struggling as an undersized defensive end during his first two NFL seasons, the Bears opted to move Shea McClellin to linebacker this offseason.
The move to his more natural position of linebacker didn't come as that big of a surprise to McClellin this offseason, as he told the media after practice, via John Mullin of CSNChicago.com, he assumed he was going to make the switch to linebacker, saying:
I was excited for sure, anticipated that they would, too. My first two years weren’t the greatest but I think linebacker is a natural fit for me. I think it’s what I should be doing and I’m very excited about it.
McClellin showed the ability at Boise State to be effective as a stand-up rush linebacker along with being able to hold his own in pass coverage against tight ends.
He is at his best when he rushes the quarterback, and Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen pointed out how the team can use him as a pass-rushing linebacker from the strongside linebacker position in this tweet:
The play is designed to utilize McClellin's straight-line speed and allow him a free rush at the quarterback.
While the team will do its best to allow him to get after the quarterback, McClellin will still need to prove he can cover tight ends and maintain gap integrity against the run.
McClellin struggled with his gap integrity last season, and that will likely be the biggest area he will need to improve upon during training camp.
His biggest competition will come from second-year man Jon Bostic in training camp. But Bostic may be competing with D.J. Williams for the middle linebacker position, leaving McClellin open to claiming the strong-side linebacker position.
If the Bears can put McClellin into situations that best utilize his speed and athleticism, he may wind up being one of the biggest surprises on this year's defense.
Less Bold: Jared Allen Will Lead the Team in Sacks
The defensive line of the Chicago Bears in 2013 was one of the worst in the league. They had 31 sacks, tied for fewest in the NFL, and they gave up 2,583 rushing yards, most in the NFL.
Phil Emery knew that upgrades along the defensive line was the team's biggest need this offseason, and he struck quickly in free agency, signing Lamarr Houston and Willie Young to long-term deals.
While the additions of Houston and Young were welcomed additions, Emery made his biggest splash when he signed veteran Jared Allen to a four-year contract this past March.
Allen has been one of the league's most consistent pass-rushers for the past decade. Since 2007 he has registered 101 sacks and has not had a season with less than 11 sacks since 2006.
Despite turning 32 this past April, Allen still believes he has plenty left in the tank and has no lack of motivation, telling the media, via ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright:
My motivation to be the best at what I do is a self-motivation. It’s probably more of a fear of failing than it is necessarily thriving to be the best. I just want guys, when I leave this league, I want them to say, 'He did it the right way, he gave everything he had, and not one day he was stealing checks.' So that’s what motivates me. That’s what energizes me.
With all of the upgrades the team has made along the defensive line, Allen will likely have an opportunity to play less snaps, resulting in him being fresher when the team needs him most.
Between 2010 and 2013, Allen, on average, played 92.95 percent of the Minnesota Vikings' snaps on defense, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In comparison, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers played 81.8 percent of the team's snaps on defense during that time, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Despite the heavy workload, Allen was extremely productive in Minnesota, and that shouldn't change in 2014 with the Bears.
A greatly improved Bears' defensive line should be far more productive in 2014 and expect them to be led by Allen.
Bold: Jay Cutler Will Play All 16 Games
Quarterback Jay Cutler has all of the potential in the world, but he has struggled since he has arrived in Chicago to stay healthy for a full season.
Cutler started all 16 games in 2009, his first with the team, but he hasn't been able to replicate that feat since. He did miss just a start each in 2012 and 2010 but missed five starts last season and six in 2011.
Head coach Marc Trestman realizes just how important Cutler's health is for his team and noted how much work Cutler has put in this offseason.
In an interview on SiriusXM NFL radio earlier this month, via the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer, Trestman noted that Cutler has worked hard to improve his durability this offseason, saying:
Jay has really worked hard in the offseason, and he has always been a hard worker in his conditioning and his training, but he has really amped it up. He’s bigger, he’s stronger than a year ago, and he has really focused on staying physically well for the entire season.
That’s No. 1 — we’ve got to keep him standing, keep him safe. And we see the improvements he’s made in working on different issues in his mechanics, and I think he’s feeling very comfortable back there in Year 2.
Cutler struggled in the past with poor offensive line play in front of him, but his line play was vastly improved in 2013, and that should continue into 2014.
As long as the offensive line continues to provide solid protection and Cutler's offseason plan truly has made him bigger and stronger, he could start all 16 games in an NFL season for the first time since 2009.
Less Bold: The Same Five Will Start All 16 Games Along the Offensive Line
After being a thorn in Cutler's side since his arrival in Chicago, in 2013, the Bears' offensive line was a vast improvement over the spotty offensive-line play he had endured since 2009.
The team solidified the left side of the line via free agency, signing Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson that spring and drafting Kyle Long and Jordan Mills to help shore up the right side of the line.
The combination of Bushrod, Slauson, Roberto Garza, Long and Mills started all 16 games last season.
Slauson and Garza both received new deals this offseason to stay with the team in 2014, and they will likely rejoin Bushrod, Long and Mills as the team's starters this upcoming season.
The team opted to re-sign veteran guard/tackle Eben Britton and brought in veteran center/guard Brian de la Puente, but they seem willing to stick with what worked last season.
Garza struggled a bit in 2012 but appeared to bounce back in 2013. De la Puente may be viewed as a better option at center, but according to Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com, De la Puente was signed "to serve as a backup behind Roberto Garza at center as well as both guard positions."
For the first time during his tenure in Chicago, quarterback Jay Cutler will be heading into a training camp with the same starting five offensive lineman he had the year before.
There is a chance that Britton could push Mills at right tackle, or De la Puente could push Garza at center for a starting job, but regardless of who sprints out on the field during Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, expect all five to hold down their starting roles for all 16 games this season.
Bold: Kyle Fuller Will Lead the Team in Interceptions
Much of the buzz during the team's first couple of weeks of OTAs has been around the revelation that rookie Kyle Fuller will be playing on the outside in the team's nickel package, while veteran Tim Jennings moves inside to defend the slot.
Interesting development today was Tim Jennings playing nickel when Kyle Fuller came in. Jennings was still No. 2 CB in base D. #Bears— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) May 27, 2014
General manager Phil Emery gushed about Fuller's abilities after drafting him 14th overall in last month's draft.
"What makes Kyle unique," Emery said in his press conference, "is his combination of length and athleticism and versatility and smarts and toughness. It's hard to find all those qualities in a corner along with somebody who has been really productive."
Fuller was a physical presence on the field for the Virginia Tech Hokies during his four-year career, but he only hauled in six interceptions for his career.
Despite his lack of interceptions, Fuller has above-average hands and will likely have a lot of balls thrown his way, with Charles Tillman lined up opposite of him at right cornerback, and Jennings covering the slot, giving him more opportunities to make plays.
While he will likely be limited to playing just in the team's nickel package, he should still see plenty of playing time, considering how often teams around the league like to utilize three- and four-wide receiver sets.
Tillman and Jennings have both proven that they have the ability to create turnovers and force interceptions, but 2014 may be Fuller's year to shine if he can continue to develop on a week-to-week basis in the NFL and trust his own instincts on the field.
Less Bold: Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery Will Both Have 1,000-Yard Seasons
After years of having one of the league's most stagnant offenses, the Bears offense burst onto the scene in 2013 led by the wide receiver duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
When asked by the Mully and Hanley Show earlier this year, via CBS Chicago, who the best receiving duo in the league was, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, “Oh my goodness. I would say they’re the best duo in the game. Alshon and (Marshall), those guys are playing so well. Just to see how far Alshon's come in a short period of time, and obviously Brandon’s still playing at an elite level."
While the two root for each other to succeed, their friendly competitiveness helps push them on the field.
"It's straight competitiveness," Jeffery said to the media, via Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. "Why settle for second when you can be No. 1? Who wants to be remembered as No. 2?"
Marshall finished 2013 with a team-best 100 catches with 12 touchdowns, but Jeffery finished with more yards (1,421 to 1,295) and had 89 grabs and seven touchdowns.
Despite their terrific 2013 season, Jeffery understands that last year is over, and it is on to 2014.
"What we did last year is last year," Jeffery said. "Every year is a new year."
Marshall acknowledged that having Jeffery around will help push him as a player and even extend his career, via Wiederer:
He's going to extend my career. I'm not going to let this young kid beat me. I want to beat him in every single sprint. I want to beat him to the facility in the morning. We challenge each other. We push each other. So that relationship alone, there's going to be a trickle-down effect.
As long as Marshall and Jeffery can still continue to push each other this season, it seems very likely that the two will once again finish with over 1,000 yards receiving and be in contention for the league's most productive wide receiver duo.
Bold: Chris Conte Will Start at Free Safety
Few players around the league received more criticism from their own fanbase than Bears free safety Chris Conte did in 2013.
He struggled in pass coverage and against the run throughout much of last season and was viewed by many as the reason the team lost to the Green Bay Packers in Week 17 last season.
Conte never received the proper audible call on the field with the team needing one more stop on 4th-and-8 with 46 seconds left. The team audibled into an all-out blitz, but he remained in zone coverage, leaving Randall Cobb wide-open for the eventual game-winning touchdown.
Despite struggles at both safety positions throughout much of last season, general manager Phil Emery decided not to spend top dollar to upgrade the position. According to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, it will be an open competition this offseason.
LM: #Bears DC Mel Tucker on battle for jobs: "Safety will be wide open. You can put that all in caps."— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) May 16, 2014
The Bears did sign veteran Ryan Mundy, and he will likely be the team's starting strong safety, leaving the free safety position up for grabs.
The team signed veteran M.D. Jennings and drafted Brock Vereen to compete at free safety, but head coach Marc Trestman still appears high on Conte, telling the media at the NFL owner's meeting earlier this offseason, via the Chicago Sun-Times:
I like Chris because I know he loves football and I know he wants to work to be a good player. I know he's a good teammate. I watched him during the season. We're going to do everything we can to help him get back on his feet, so to speak, and move forward.
Players have done it before. He's going to be in a position to compete for a position as safety on our football team. We're going to give him the opportunity to do that.
Conte's return to the field this offseason is still unknown following offseason shoulder surgery, but Emery said, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "But in terms of that first preseason game, we expect him to be [ready]."
Despite all of his struggles in 2013, he is still the most athletic safety on the Bears roster. Some would argue that Jennings has played worse than Conte over the course of the past few seasons, while Vereen has yet to take a snap in the NFL.
Conte has sounded like a player this offseason who has a chip on his shoulder and is ready to move on to the 2014 season.
“I’m always going to remember [last season], but it’s just something to grow from,” Conte said, speaking the media after the Bears' first day of organized team activities, via Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “You’ve got to move on. You can’t worry about [stuff] for the rest of your life.”
As long as Conte can prove he is healthy and can get on the field sometime during training camp, the chip on his shoulder from his bad 2013 season may be enough motivation for him to grab the starting free-safety job for 2014.
Less Bold: Matt Forte Will Lead the League in All-Purpose Yards
Even when the Bears offense was struggling to gain yards through the air before Trestman's arrival last offseason, Matt Forte was becoming one of the league's most well-rounded running backs.
Forte had one of his most productive seasons in 2013, finishing second in the league in rushing yards with 1,339. He also had nine rushing touchdowns to go along with his 74 catches for 594 yards and three touchdowns en route to his second career Pro Bowl.
Former NFL running back Terrell Davis believes that Forte is the most underrated running back in the league, saying on NFL Network's NFL AM, via Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com:
[Forte] can catch the ball extremely well, runs the ball well, can block; he can do it all. But for some reason he just doesn’t get the recognition like these other backs. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t do a whole lot of promoting.
He’s very quiet. But he’s a workhorse. He goes to work and the guy just continues to have excellent seasons every year. He stays relatively injury-free and he plays well.
Forte has been relatively healthy throughout much of his NFL career and has been proactive this offseason in trying to maintain his health, meeting with a physical therapist twice a week.
“Most people wait until they have something wrong before they see someone,” Forte said to the media, via John Mullin of CSNChicago.com. “I think it makes more sense to be working on things before they become problems and keeping them from becoming problems.”
Because of his desire to stay healthy, and what he showed in the Bears offense in just one year under Trestman, Forte has a chance to lead the league in all-purpose yards in 2014.
Matt Eurich is an NFL/Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.