Chicago Bears Offseason State of the Union
Free agency, the draft and minicamps are all now in the rearview mirror for the Chicago Bears.
In about a month's time, the Bears will make the trek down to Kankakee county and settle in on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL to begin training camp.
General manager Phil Emery has been one of the league's busiest GMs this offseason, making well over 30 different moves since January to improve a team that finished last season 8-8.
In order to get a firm grasp on what the team is going to look like once camp opens on July 25, we have taken a look where the Bears currently stand.
Here is our Chicago Bears' offseason state of the union.
Bears Expect a Much Different Defense on the Field in 2014
Much like a broken record, the struggles of the 2013 Chicago Bears defense continued to repeat week in and week out last season.
Last season the team was unable to sustain any sort of pressure up front on the opposing quarterback, defensive lineman were dropping like flies due to injuries and the safety duo of Chris Conte and Major Wright struggled to stop the plays that were happening in front of them.
In order to fix their troubles from last season, general manager Phil Emery made a point to emphasize improving the defense this offseason.
Emery added veteran defensive lineman Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young through free agency and drafted Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in this past May's draft.
He improved his secondary by drafting cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Brock Vereen and added competition at safety via free agency with the signings of Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and recently with Adrian Wilson, who signed this past Monday with the team, via ChicagoBears.com.
The coaching staff has worked hard to improve this defense, and that has not gone unnoticed by new defensive lineman Jared Allen.
"There's an energy with this defense," Allen told the media after practice last week, via Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. "Honestly, they're already getting more out of me than I ever anticipated. I haven't done this much in OTAs and minicamp in years."
While injuries played a major role in last year's collapse on defense, head coach Marc Trestman also believes the team lacked toughness.
Trestman on making 'toughness' a point of emphasis this season: "We weren't the tough team (last year) we wanted to be."— Rich Campbell (@Rich_Campbell) June 18, 2014
With all of the new faces and a new emphasis on getting tougher, the Bears defense in 2014 should be a vast improvement over a defense that struggled mightily in 2013.
New Faces on Special Teams Will Be Expected to Carry the Load
Throughout much of the 2000s, the Chicago Bears were known for two things: defense and special teams.
While Phil Emery has done a nice job of improving a defensive unit that struggled in 2013, there are many question marks that remain on special teams.
One of the most dynamic return men to ever play the game, Devin Hester, has moved onto the Atlanta Falcons after a couple of disappointing seasons, punter Adam Podlesh was shown the door this offseason and 16-year veteran longsnapper Patrick Mannelly announced his retirement late last week.
LM: Long-snapper Patrick Mannelly is retiring from #Bears after playing team-record 16 seasons & 245 games.— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) June 20, 2014
In order to try and replace Hester this offseason, Eric Weems, Chris Williams, Michael Ford, Micheal Spurlock and Armanti Edwards all appear to be the likely candidates to compete to become the team's new return man.
Williams appears to be the front-runner because of his success in the CFL, and special teams coordinator Joe Decamillis has praised Williams' vision this offseason.
Bears ST coach Joe DeCamillis on KR Chris Williams "He had really good vision (in the CFL)…the guys in New Orleans didn't want to lose him."— Bears Insider (@bears_insider) May 17, 2014
Williams, Weems and Ford all appear to have strong shots of making the roster this season while Spurlock and Edwards will both need a very strong training camp and preseason to claim a spot on the roster.
After releasing Podlesh earlier this offseason, the Bears drafted Pat O'Donnell in the sixth round to compete with second-year man Tress Way for the team's open punter position.
Way had a solid camp in 2013 with the team, but it appears likely that O'Donnell will grab the spot before the season begins.
With Mannelly out of the picture after spending 16 seasons with the organization as a longsnapper, Brandon Hartson and Chad Rempel will compete to be his replacement.
It is hard to handicap which player has the best odds of winning the competition, but it is one that fans should still keep an eye on this offseason.
Rookie Class Appears Poised to Make an Impact This Season
Every general manager's wish is that all of his draft picks can make some sort of contribution to their team during their rookie season.
Phil Emery has had his fair share of hits and misses in the NFL draft during his first two seasons with the team, but his 2014 rookie class appears to be heading in the right direction.
The team shocked a few when they took Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller with the 14th overall selection in the past May's draft. While it does not appear that he will be taking over a starting role just yet, he is expected to see plenty of playing time this season.
During the team's first full-team minicamp, Fuller saw time at the left cornerback spot when the team went into their nickel package, prompting starter Tim Jennings to move inside to defend the slot.
Tim Jennings was at nickel today with Kyle Fuller and Charles Tillman at CB. Jennings talking now, seems to like it. #Bears— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) May 27, 2014
While he will not be listed as a starter, Fuller is expected to get plenty of playing time with so many offenses around the league going to more three- and-four wide receiver sets.
Much of the hype this offseason in regards to rookies has been centered on Fuller but the two guys picked in the second and third rounds, Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, both have an opportunity to be major contributors this season.
Ferguson is expected to compete for playing time at the nose tackle and 2-technique position while Sutton is expected to push for playing time at the 3-technique.
Ferguson has the ability to line up at nose tackle and create pressure, but will need to work on his leverage and ability to create space for the linebackers behind him to make the tackle in the running game.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has been impressed by Ferguson so far this offseason, telling Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune:
[Ferguson] is light on his feet. He has a strong punch and a good anchor, really good balance and body control. He has some juice. He can explode and close in a short area. There's tremendous upside. With good coaching, determination and grit and persistence on his part, he can reach his full potential here.
The Bears hope he can reach that full potential and he has an opportunity to push Stephen Paea for the starting nose tackle job.
Much like Ferguson, Sutton has shown flashes in the past but will have to prove his worth to the team this offseason.
In 2012 at Arizona State, Sutton registered 63 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, five pass deflections and three forced fumbles, but his weight jumped from 290 pounds to over 300 pounds in 2013. He was still productive in 2013, registering 48 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three pass deflections, but he clearly did not have the same type of impact as he did when he played around 290 pounds.
Emery made it clear this offseason that he wants Sutton to play between 285-295 pounds this season.
Sutton addressed his weight "issues" with the media last week, saying, via Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com, "My weight isn't a problem. I put on the weight [last year] because I was told to. It's not a problem. It's not that I'm lazy and don't work out."
If he plays like he did in 2012, the Bears may have found a real steal in Sutton. He likely won't grab a starting spot in training camp or the preseason, but he should be a key part of the team's defensive tackle rotation.
Fourth rounders Ka'Deem Carey and Brock Vereen both have opportunities to contribute in 2014 with Vereen having a real shot to become a starter at free safety.
He worked with the first team in minicamp and OTAs and despite being thrust into an unfamiliar situation, Vereen has settled into the role well.
"Sometimes when you go in there with the ones, it gets a little big," defensive backs coach Jon Hoke said of Vereen to Matt Bowen of the Chicago Tribune. "He has handled it well. He's a very disciplined, very serious player, very intense on the field."
Vereen's toughest competition may come from Chris Conte if he can return from offseason shoulder surgery, but as it stands, he appears to be the front runner for the free safety position heading into training camp.
Carey, sixth-round punter Pat O'Donnell and undrafted free agent Christian Jones all have the ability to be contributors in their rookie season.
Carey is expected to be the team's primary backup to Matt Forte, O'Donnell is expected to beat out Tress Way for the team's punter position and Jones has all of the tools to make this team as a special teams contributor.
Despite seeing guys like Alshon Jeffery and Kyle Long flourish, Emery's draft classes have struggled, but the 2014 class appears to be on the right track heading into training camp.
Offense Looks to Build off Strong 2013 Campaign
After being one of the league's most inconsistent offenses for over a decade, the Chicago Bears became one of the league's best in 2013.
The team finished last season with 445 point, second best in the NFL, and set franchise records with 6,109 total yards, 4,450 passing yards, 32 passing touchdowns, a 96.9 passer rating and 344 first downs.
"Talent-wise it’s hard to top our o-line and some of the guys we have on the outside and Matt Forte, who is hugely underrated. Talent-wise and being in the system two years and the way the guys work, all that adds up. Hopefully we can stay healthy and see where this thing goes.”
Other than the injuries to Cutler last season, the offense stayed relatively healthy. Cutler has worked hard this season to improve his durability and head coach Marc Trestman has taken notice.
In an interview on SiriusXM NFL radio earlier this month, according to the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer, Trestman said:
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.
Much of the focus will be centered on Cutler's ability to stay healthy in 2014, but the team is bringing back all 11 starters from last season, including one of the league's best wide receiver duos in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
If the team can get production out of receiver Marquess Wilson, coupled with the success that Martellus Bennett had at the tight end position last season, the Bears offense has a real shot to be even better than it was in 2013.
Safety Position Remains the Team's Biggest Question Mark
While the Bears made big splashes in free agency to improve their defensive line with the additions of guys like Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, Phil Emery took a more subdued approach to improving the safety position.
The team did sign veterans Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray while also drafting Brock Vereen in the fourth round this past May to compete for both starting safety jobs, but none are viewed as true game changers.
With 2013 starter Chris Conte recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Mundy and Vereen have been getting the majority of reps with first team throughout OTAs and minicamp.
Looked like Ryan Mundy and rookie 4th rd pick Brock Vereen running exclusively with the starters at safety today. Vereen at FS.— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) June 11, 2014
Despite the team appearing to be high on Mundy and Vereen, the Bears signed veteran Adrian Wilson to a one-year deal earlier this week.
#Bears add 34-year-old SS Adrian Wilson to the mix. We'll see how he moves come training camp after Achilles tear last August.— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) June 23, 2014
Wilson is a five-time Pro Bowl strong safety, but an Achilles injury last offseason kept him sidelined all of 2013.
When he was healthy, Wilson was one of the best safeties in the game. He was above average in coverage but excelled playing up in the box against the run. He showed a willingness and ability to get after the quarterback and is one of 13 players in NFL history to intercept 20 or more passes and record 20 or more sacks since the league began tracking sacks in 1982.
While Wilson certainly has the resume, he turns 35 later this year and his health coming off of the Achilles injury is still a question mark.
He will get the opportunity to square off with Mundy for the starting strong safety spot, but it appears that Mundy has a firm hold on the position.
Mundy does have the flexibility to play the free safety position and a strong training camp from Wilson could push him there, but he is best suited playing up in the box and against the run and it seems unlikely that they will change his position.
The addition of Wilson this week makes a safety position with a lot of question marks even more wide open. If Chris Conte can recover from his shoulder surgery and return during training camp, there is a chance that he, Mundy, Wilson and Vereen will all be competing for the two starting safety jobs.