Chicago Bears 2014 Virtual Program: Depth-Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More

Bear Heiser@@BearHeiserFeatured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2014

Chicago Bears 2014 Virtual Program: Depth-Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More

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    Is this the year Jay Cutler is able to take the next step?
    Is this the year Jay Cutler is able to take the next step?Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    There aren't many teams that are entering the 2014 season with higher expectations than the Chicago Bears.

    After finishing 8-8 in 2013, behind arguably the most potent offense and least potent defense in team history, second-year head coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker need to find some middle ground in this new season.

    2013 stats: No. 8 in total offense; No. 30 in total defense.

    This offseason, general manager Phil Emery focused on fixing the issues on the defensive side of the ball. With many new faces on the defensive line and in the secondary, there more than likely will be some growing pains involved, as we have seen throughout the preseason.

    A lot is riding on this team in 2014. Quarterback Jay Cutler finally is getting the due he (kind of) deserves. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are now widely thought of as the top wide receiver duo in the league; and Matt Forte most definitely has evolved into a top-five running back, one who is a triple threatrunning, catching and blocking. And on defense, it's just a lot of new faces.

    The Bears missed out on the playoffs by only one game last season. Had they beat the Green Bay Packers in Week 17, Trestman and Co. would have been in the postseason. In order to get there this season, not much will have to change.

    The offense was brilliant and will continue to be brilliant. As for the defense, Tucker doesn't have to work miracles and turn this unit into one of the league’s best. He just needs to bring it somewhere in the 15-20 range.

    All in all, Bears fans have a lot to look forward toso many great storylines to follow.

Quarterback Depth Chart

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    No. 1 Jay Cutler

    Entering his ninth season in the league, Cutler is nearing the point where he either needs to put up or shut up. Emery handed Cutler a seven-year, $126.7 million contract during the offseason, which puts him right up there with the NFL’s elite.

    Cutler missed five games last season due to various injuries. While on the field, the Bears’ QB completed just above 63 percent of his passes, while throwing for 2,621 yards with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

    It's not great, but it's not horrible, either. If you total up Cutler’s numbers with what Josh McCown did in his eight appearances, you’ll find yourself with a quarterback who ranks in the top five in virtually every category that matters.

    Cutler undoubtedly has the weapons to put up a career season, but it’s still a question of whether or not he has enough discipline. He is a guy who doesn't care how difficult a given throw might be; he’ll make it and likely won’t apologize if it turns out badly.

    What the Bears need to see this season from Cutler is better footwork, for one; and he also needs to start making better decisions. That’s not too much to ask from a guy who just signed a $100 million-plus contract, right?

    We’ll see, won’t we.


    No. 2 Jimmy Clausen

    This is one heck of a story. Clausen wasn't even in the league last season after being released in the preseason by the Carolina Panthers. He was injured at the time, too; that is why he never caught on anywhere. Some might argue that it’s because he simply cannot play. Trestman wouldn't have named Clausen the backup, though, if that were the case.

    When minicamps started back in June, Clausen was the third or fourth quarterback on the depth chart, behind Jordan Palmer and tied with rookie David Fales.

    Few thought Clausen would see an NFL field again, but all it took was three better-than-average preseason appearances23-of-37 passing for 280 yards with two TDs and one INTto convince Trestman and Emery.

    If Cutler were to suffer an injury this season, the Bears’ season wouldn't necessarily be over.

Fullback Depth Chart

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Tony Fiammetta

    No surprise here: Fiammetta is loved by the Bears staff.

    Fiammetta is one of the better blocking fullbacks in the game. Last season, he carried the ball exactly zero times. So there’s no chance you’ll ever see him in a Mike Alstott-type role, but you might see Fiammetta flash in the passing game, likely when you least expect it. Four catches for 57 yards with a 14.3-yard average is pretty solid for a guy who only is expected to block.

    One thing to watch here is the hamstring injury Fiammetta has been battling. He's the only fullback on the roster, but the Bears did keep four running backs.

Running Back Depth Chart

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    No. 1 Matt Forte

    If there’s one player whom the Bears cannot afford to lose, it’s Matt Forte. The guy is a four-down back in every sense of the expression. He can run; he can catch; he can block. The options he presents to Trestman are endless.

    Forte had the best season of his career under Trestman in 2013. He carried the ball 289 times for 1,339 yards with nine touchdowns. He also caught 74 passes for 594 yards with three touchdowns. Until last season, the Tulane product hadn't really had an offensive-minded coach who knew how to run a balanced offense.

    Forte accounted for 71 percent of the Bears’ total carries in 2013 and 73 percent of the team’s total yards on the ground. His numbers went up when the Bears found themselves in the red zone, as Forte received almost 77 percent of the carries and was targeted 11 times in the passing game.

    Now in year two of Trestman's system, it’s hard to envision Forte playing a lesser role in the offense this season.

    The 28-year-old back still has plenty left in the tank, too.


    No. 2 Shaun Draughn

    The battle for the backup running back position was very hotly contested throughout training camp and the preseason, even though Forte will see 70-plus percent of the carries.

    Draughn won the job by a very slim margin over rookie Ka’Deem Carey; we’ll get to Carey in a moment.

    As for Draughn, the fourth-year back out of North Carolina offers the most versatility to coach Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. In the Bears’ four preseason games, Draughn carried the ball 18 times for 64 yards for a 3.5-yard average, along with six catches for 36 yards. It's nothing to write home about; that’s for sure.


    No. 3 Ka’Deem Carey

    The Bears spent a fourth-round pick on Carey, with the expectation that he would back up Forte this season. Well, after a slow start to training camp, here we are. Carey lost the job to a journeyman back. In a recap of the Bears’ final 53, Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune wondered if Carey even would be active on game days.

    The good thing here is that Carey improved throughout camp and in preseason action. The 5'10", 207- pound back has average speed with better-than-average quickness. Field vision is one thing that is holding him back, recognizing holes before they close. Another thing is his work in pass protection.

    The coaching staff will be waiting for this kid to step up his game. When that happens, there’s no doubt the Bears will usher him up the depth chart, as he’s a much better counter to what Forte has to offer.


    No. 4 Senorise Perry

    Seeing his name on the final 53-man roster was somewhat of a surprise. The undrafted free-agent rookie out of Louisville was thought to be a practice-squad player when camp began. He quietly played himself into the forefront of an area the Bears desperately need help in—special teams.

Offensive Line Depth Chart

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    Can 2013 Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long improve on his rookie season?
    Can 2013 Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long improve on his rookie season?Associated Press

    Starters: LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Matt Slauson, C Roberto Garza, RG Kyle Long, RT Jordan Mills

    This unit started all 16 games in 2013 for the Bears. There was only one game where not all of the players were able to finish it. Mills broke his foot in the Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packersthe same loss that kept the Bears from the postseason.

    This almost was an entirely new unit in 2013, with Garza being the only holdover from the porous 2012 squad. The Bears were tied for fourth in sacks allowed (30) last season; that’s 14 less than the team gave up the previous season. The days of Cutler seeing ghosts are over.

    In the preseason, the line looked about as good as a line’s going to look in games that don’t matter. The only question right now is if Mills’ foot injury will keep him out for the start of the regular season. He saw limited action in training camp and missed two preseason games.


    The Rest: Michael Ola, Brian de la Puente, Charles Leno Jr.

    Ola started at right tackle in the two preseason games Mills missed. That’s enough to tell us who will be in there if Mills can’t play Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills. De la Puenta offers the most versatility on the line, as he can back up Garza at center and at either guard position.

Wide Receiver Depth Chart

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    No. 1 Brandon Marshall

    Cutler’s best friend on the team received a large contract extension during the offseason, four years, $39.3 million with $22.3 million guaranteed. Now the Bears need to hope that Marshall’s fat pockets don’t weigh him down. He will get this, though; that’s just part of being Cutty’s best bud.

    Marshall caught 100 passes last season on 163 targets, leading to 1,295 yards and a career-high 12 touchdowns. A journeyman in life, Marshall has become one of the most likeable guys in the game. One thing that could knock him down a pedestal could the new gig he has on Showtime’s Inside the NFL, which films Tuesdays in New York City.

    Basically, Marshall will be flying to New York on the Bears’ off dayTuesday. How that will affect his on-the-field play, who really knows. But the additional travel certainly will take its toll at some point, right?

    Marshall says it’s not going to be a problem, and the Bears somewhat surprisingly don’t seem too concerned.

    As long as Marshall comes to play, expect the same numbers as or better numbers than he put up last season.


    No. 2 Alshon Jeffery

    This kid is the bee’s knees...the cat’s meow...the cream of the crop. Someone stop me.

    Entering his third season in the league, Jeffery has shown to have it all. He’s big, tall, fast and strong. You name it; Jeffery has it.

    As we saw last season, Jeffery has what former Bear receiver Tom Waddle calls “snatchability.” He’s clearly referring to Jeffery’s ability to go up and over defensive backs for the ball, and that requires a great leaping ability and strong hands. Few players in the league have Jeffery's big-play ability. See it here

    Jeffery caught 89 passes on 150 targets for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013, his first full season after missing six games to injury in 2012.

    It’s hard to envision his numbers getting any bigger in this offense as long as Marshall is still around and playing at such a high level. But Jeffery is playing for a new contract, as he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season. Both Jeffery and the Bears will want to get something done sooner rather than later.

    Paired with Marshall, this duo is the best the NFL has to offer at this position. And for Cutler to have what most people expect to be the best season of his career, Jeffery will once again need to have the best season of his (short) career.


    No. 3 Santonio Holmes

    The Bears’ decision to sign Holmes has been very underrated. Holmes signed a one-year deal worth $855,000 with no guaranteed money. It was a no-risk proposition for Emery and Co. Well, clearly it worked out, because Holmes will be filling the hole left by Marquess Wilson, who broke his collarbone in training camp.

    Holmes missed 17 games while with the New York Jets during the past two seasons, mainly due to a Grade 4 Lisfranc fracturethe worst kind of grade for this type of injury.

    As a result, Holmes played as a shell of himself, only catching 23 passes in 11 games last season. Those are not exactly the numbers you’d expect from the guy who sat atop the depth chart.

    In his two weeks with the Bears, Holmes seemingly has revitalized his career after battling from the painful injury. He saw limited action in the Bears’ third preseason game, which was only played a few days after he signed with the team.

    It wasn’t until the fourth and final game that Holmes turned on the Jets. The former Super Bowl MVP caught one pass for 32 yards and a touchdown. He looked like the Holmes of old. On top of that contribution, he flashed on a punt return of 30 yards.

    The signs are there that this move could be rather brilliant when it’s all said and done.


    The Rest: Marquess Wilson, Josh Morgan, Michael Spurlock

    The Bears have been high on Wilson since last season when the kid entered the league. Wilson is a big target (6-4) for Cutler. This is the kid who quit the Washington State University football team after a spat with head coach Mike Leach. This is what led to Wilson being drafted in the seventh round in 2013.

    Wilson likely will miss somewhere in the range of 7-9 games. The Bears will be champing at the bit to get him back, too.

Tight End Depth Chart

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    No. 1 Martellus Bennett

    Let’s go back to 2012, when then-head coach Lovie Smith tried to pawn off on us the idea that Kellen Davis was worthy of being a starter. I think the proper response to that is “ha-ha.”

    Bennett is now entering his second season with the Bears, and he’s become one of the most consistent targets for Cutler. In 2013, Bennett set career highs in catches (65), targets (96), yards (759) and touchdowns (5). The Bears finally had a tight end to be proud of.

    After Mike Ditka, you could make an argument for Bennett being the second-best tight end in team history. Expect Bennett’s targets and catches to drop this season, with the addition of a solid third receiver, be it Holmes or Wilson.

    The Rest: Matthew Mulligan, Dante Rosario

    Keep moving along; there's nothing to see here. That is unless you love guys who only block. If that's the case, then stay, by all means.

    For those who stayed, all you need to know is that these guys likely will see the bulk of their action in blocking situations and on special teams.

    The Bears wanted to be more two-TE heavy this season, but Zach Miller, the guy who was to be the second TE behind Bennett, was lost for the season after suffering a foot injury. Miller had been one of the most surprising players in Bears training camp.

Defensive Line Depth Chart

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Starters: LDE Lamarr Houston, NT Stephen Paea, DT Jeremiah Ratliff, RDE Jared Allen

    First things first: It’s going to be very difficult for the Bears’ defensive line to be worse than it was last season. The Bears gave up a league-high 161.4 yards per game in 201325.6 yards more than the second-place Atlanta FalconsOn top of that, Mel Tucker's defense tied the Jacksonville Jaguars for the league lead in fewest sacks (31) last season. But it was a key injuries that derailed this unit.

    Paea and Ratliff are returning, while Houston and Allen both were big offseason acquisitions. Houston recorded six sacks last season as a member of the Oakland Raiders. He’s shown a keen ability to play both inside and outside. Expect the defensive coordinator to move Houston around, too.

    Allen recorded 11.5 sacks last season in Minnesota. The keyword there is "Minnesota," where Allen played his home games indoors on turn. Now he has to battle the terrible grass at Soldier Field. While he’s no longer an every-down lineman, he definitely still can help the Bears’ pass rush.

    But it’s a new day. The future looks bright. However, if the preseason is any sign of what’s to come, this unit needs to display more gap discipline and not get washed up in the fray. Too many times the line did not seal the edge, instead overpursuing. If that keeps up, it’s going to be a very long season for the linebacking crew.


    Depth: DE Willie Young, DE David Bass, DE Trevor Scott, DE Cornelius Washington, T Will Sutton, T Ego Ferguson

    While Young only brought down the quarterback three times last season as a member of the Detroit Lions, he finished 15th in the league with 60 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription needed). That's not bad for a guy who can come in off the bench and play either side of the line.

    Sutton and Ferguson have the talent to be great in this league. Both worked extremely hard in training camp, and both saw their opportunities increase along the way.

    Expect them to be pushed hard as the season beings. The Bears need to be more prepared than they were last season when injuries hit.

Linebacker Depth Chart

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Starters: WLB Lance Briggs, MLB D.J. Williams, SLB Shea McClellin

    This group did not look good in the preseason. Briggs looked a bit puffy; Williams at his best is just OK, and McClellin, a 2012 first-round pick, is still adjusting to the switch from defensive end.

    Briggs, in particular, didn't play well in the warm-up games. He was slow in coverage and even missed a few tackles. But he’s in the final year of his contract and has said that he’d like to retire a Bear. Given the way the Bears’ front office handled Brian Urlacher’s departure, Briggs best have a career resurgence if he wants to stick around, or, else, the team will move on without allowing emotion to get involved.

    Williams just needs to stay healthy. He’s steady, if that counts for anything. He doesn't cost all that much, either, a base of $955,000, with roster incentives that could get him up to the $1.3 million range. Still, it's a good deal if he can stay healthy.

    As for McClellin, it’s hard to see him getting another chance with the Bears if this experiment doesn’t work out. The 2012 first-round draft pick has been borderline worthless to the organization since entering the league.

    Good thing, though, McClellin didn't look all that terrible during the preseason. The only times he really struggled really is when his teammates would lose their assignments, leaving Shea to get caught up in the fray and not where he should have been. If the line can hold up to its end of the bargain, Shea could be in line for a decent season. But that’s one very large “IF.”


    The Rest: Jonathan Bostic, Khaseem Greene, Christian Jones

    Bostic is the only one of the three who will see regular action on defense. He’ll likely be at Briggs’ side in nickel. Greene and Jones both looked good in the preseason, which is why they were able to stick. Most of their action will be on special teams, for now, at least.

Cornerback Depth Chart

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    Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

    Starters: LCB Tim Jennings, RCB Charles Tillman

    Jennings and Tillman have the capability to be one of the league’s best pairings. The only caveat there is health. Tillman missed eight games last season after he started every game for the previous three seasons.

    He’s one of the best cover corners around and could end up being the best corner in team history when it’s all said and done. He had a chance to leave the Bears after the season, but he elected to sign a one-year deal to give it another go.

    Jennings has gone to the Pro Bowl in back-to-back years. He had four interceptions last season, returning two for touchdowns, and nine picks in 2012. Jennings is a great complement to Tillman, in the sense that Jennings, himself, is a great man-to-man defender who happens to have more speed and lateral quickness, which allows Tucker to move him to the nickel when needed.


    The Rest: Kyle Fuller, Demontre Hurst, Sherrick McManis

    Despite playing alongside two Pro Bowl corners, Fuller saw quite a bit of training camp and preseason action with the first-team defense, while Jennings missed time due to a quad injury.

    When the season begins, though, Fuller will be the primary nickel corner to start the season, so you should expect to see him on the field more often than not.

    Here’s a quick little nugget on the increase of the nickel defense, per Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar:

    In 2011, NFL teams lined up with three or more receivers 49 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders' charting metrics. In 2012, that number climbed up to 51 percent, and last season, it rose to 56 percent. A future in which the three-receiver set is the norm has arrived.

    Correspondingly, defenses have upped their usage of nickel defenses, the set in which five defensive backs patrol the field (generally at the expense of a formerly indispensable linebacker).

    Teams ran base (with four defensive backs) 48 percent of the time in 2011, 45 percent in '12 and 40 percent in '13. Nickel sets increased from 40 to 44 to 49 percent over that same three-year span. Nickel is the new base defense, a changing of the guard that was an inevitable offshoot of an uptick in offensive creativity.

    Fuller has the required speed, quickness, physicality and confidence required to be a top-tier corner in this league. His time with the first team, playing against receivers like Marshall and Jeffery, should be apparent come Week 1.

    Hurst also saw some action in the slot while Jennings was out. So he figures to be valuable insurance should anyone have to be shifted around. McManis will see the bulk of his action on special teams, where he arguably is the ace of the squad.

Safety Depth Chart

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    Stacy Thacker/Associated Press

    Starters: SS Ryan Mundy, FS Danny McCray   

    The Rest: Brock Vereen, Chris Conte 

    This is a rather interesting position right now for the Bears. Conte and Mundy both won the starting jobs, but both are injured. Conte suffered yet another concussion, while Mundy has a laceration on his head which has made it tough to put on a helmet.

    Conte was downright awful last season, though, but so was just about everyone else on the defensive unit. However, Conte looked bad at some very opportune times; the most memorable coming in Week 17 against Green Bay. Conte blew his assignment on the game-winning touchdown. It was the same touchdown that kept the Bears out of the playoffs.

    McCray quite possibly is the most shocking part to all of this, as he was signed by the Bears to be a big special teams contributor. Now he might be starting. Wow.

Special Teams Depth Chart

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Starters: K Robbie Gould, P Pat O’Donnell, LS Brandon Hartson

    Gould returns to the Bears for another season, after the kicker signed a four-year contract extension during the offseason. The most accurate kicker in team history didn’t look all that great in the preseason, but it’s only the preseason. So maybe we could give him a break.

    The Bears used a sixth-round selection on the big-legged O’Donnell. It’s no surprise he made the team.

    With the best long snapper in NFL history, Pat Mannelly, now retired, the Bears needed to find some fresh hands. Those hands belong to no one other than Mr. Hartson.

Schedule Breakdown

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    Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

    Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Buffalo, WIN (1-0)

    Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at San FranciscoLOSS (1-1)

    Week 3: Monday, Sept. 22, at N.Y. Jets, WIN (2-1)

    Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Green Bay, LOSS (2-2)

    Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Carolina, WIN (3-2)

    Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Atlanta, WIN (4-2)

    Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, Miami, WIN (5-2)

    Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at New England, LOSS (5-3)

    Week 9: BYE

    Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Green Bay, LOSS (5-4)

    Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Minnesota, WIN (6-4)

    Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Tampa Bay, WIN (7-4)

    Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 27, at Detroit, LOSS (7-5)

    Week 14: Thursday, Dec. 4, Dallas, WIN (8-5)

    Week 15: Monday, Dec. 15, New Orleans, WIN (9-5)

    Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Detroit, WIN (10-5)

    Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Minnesota, LOSS (10-6)

    The Bears finish the regular season second in the NFC North but make the playoffs as a wild card. Trestman's bunch will bow out in the second round of the postseason.