Projecting Chicago Bears' Depth Chart After Peak of Free Agency
Following a disappointing 2014 season, the Chicago Bears decided to fire general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman this past January.
Shortly after Emery's departure, the team hired Ryan Pace to help turn around the organization. Just days after taking over as general manager, Pace hired John Fox to be the new head coach.
Since Pace's arrival in Chicago, the Bears have signed 10 new players, but Pace knows he cannot fix all of the team's problems solely in free agency, saying, according to Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com:
We have a lot of needs. The competitive part of you wants to fix it all right now and that can be dangerous because you can overspend at this point in free agency. I’ve got to remind ourselves that we still have the second wave and third wave of free agency. We have the draft, college free agency and preseason scouting. We can claim guys. We can trade for guys. There are a lot of other avenues that are still out in front of us to acquire players. It’s not just right now.
The peak of free agency has come and gone, but that does not mean the team will stop trying to bolster its roster via free agency and the draft.
Many new names will be added to the depth chart once the NFL draft comes and goes, but here is our current projection of the Chicago Bears depth chart after the peak of free agency.
Projected Starter: Jay Cutler
Current Backups: Jimmy Clausen and David Fales
In 15 starts last season, Jay Cutler threw for 3,812 yards with 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. While those numbers on the surface are not terrible, he struggled to protect the football, and Trestman's offense crumbled around him.
Chicago's new front office announced in early March it plans on moving forward with Cutler as the team's starting quarterback.
“We're moving forward with Jay Cutler as our starting quarterback,” Pace said, according to John Mullin of CSNChicago.com.
Even though Pace said Cutler is the starting quarterback moving forward, Fox said Cutler will need to win the job.
“It’s all an open competition,” Fox said at the NFL owners meeting about the quarterback position, according to Mullin. “Obviously, you’ve got to start somewhere and my experience in football, really in anything, it’s not where you start a competition; it’s where you finish it."
The Bears could look in the draft at guys like Marcus Mariota in the first round or someone like Brett Hundley in the second round to compete with Cutler, but if they stick with who they have on the roster, Jimmy Clausen appears to have a good shot because of his connection to Fox.
The team re-signed Clausen to a one-year extension prior to the start of free agency, and Fox raved about the former second-round pick's maturity.
“Well, I think I’ve seen maturity and growth,” Fox said in March about Clausen, according to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “I had him as a rookie. This league’s tough as a rookie, I don’t care what position and quarterback probably being more tough."
Even though it looks like Fox wants an open competition at the position this offseason, Cutler will have to struggle dramatically to not beat out Clausen, second-year man David Fales and/or a possible draft pick.
Projected Starter: Matt Forte
Current Backups: Jacquizz Rodgers, Ka'Deem Carey and Senorise Perry
Barring any sort of injury this offseason, Matt Forte will begin the 2015 season as Chicago's starting running back.
In 2014 he rushed for 1,038 yards on 266 carries and scored six touchdowns on the ground. He also registered 102 catches for 808 yards with four touchdowns through the air.
He has been one of the NFL's most consistent running backs since entering the league in 2008, but he was overused last season and would benefit from a reduced workload in 2015.
On Tuesday, the Bears signed veteran running back Jacquizz Rodgers to a one-year deal, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Atlanta selected Rodgers in the fifth round back in 2011, and he registered 1,116 rushing yards and hauled in 155 catches for 1,104 yards with 10 total touchdowns in four seasons with the Falcons. He will give the Bears an elusive runner out of the backfield.
Even with the addition of Rodgers, the Bears could look in this year's draft for someone who can eventually take over Forte's starting job once he moves on from Chicago.
Chicago used a fourth-round pick on Ka'Deem Carey last year, but he saw time sparingly during his rookie season. He finished last year with just 158 rushing yards on 36 carries.
If the Bears decide to address the position in the draft, they could take a look at guys like Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Boise State's Jay Ajayi and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon.
Senorise Perry spent part of last season as the team's kick returner and led the team in special teams tackles with 11, according to Pro Football Focus.
Both Forte and Carey are guaranteed to make the roster in 2015, but there is a good chance the team adds another running back in the draft.
Projected Starters: Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson
Current Backups: Joshua Bellamy, John Chiles, Rashad Lawrence and Marc Mariani
Pace did sign veteran Eddie Royal to a three-year deal at the start of free agency, but he will likely spend much of his time playing out of the slot.
Alshon Jeffery will be the team's new No. 1 receiver, but the Bears currently do not have anyone on the roster who has proved he can be Chicago's No. 2 receiver.
Marquess Wilson was expected to take a big step forward last season, but he was injured in training camp and only played in seven games. He finished the year with 17 catches for 140 yards with one touchdown.
He has good speed and size (6'4", 184 lbs), but he struggled last season to create separation and needs to improve his route running.
With unproven players like Joshua Bellamy, John Chiles, Rashad Lawrence and Marc Mariani on the roster, the Bears will need to use the draft and free agency to help bolster a group that lacks proven depth behind Jeffery and Royal.
Projected Starter: Martellus Bennett
Current Backups: Zach Miller, Dante Rosario, Blake Annen and Jacob Maxwell
Following a productive first year in Chicago in 2013, tight end Martellus Bennett registered career highs in catches (90), receiving yards (916) and touchdowns (six) in 2014.
Bennett gives the team a reliable target in the middle of the field in the passing game, and he is willing to step up and block opposing defenders in the running game.
He finished last season with 449 yards after the catch, third-most among all tight ends.
Bennett will remain on top of the depth chart at tight end, but the No. 2 spot appears to be wide open.
Chicago re-signed both Zach Miller and Dante Rosario this offseason to one-year deals and also has Blake Annen and Jacob Maxwell on the roster.
Miller gives the Bears another target in the passing game, while Rosario is more of a blocker. Miller had a strong preseason last year, but he suffered a foot injury and was placed on injured reserve. He is a good route-runner and knows how to get himself open, but he has struggled with injuries throughout his career.
Rosario enjoyed some success early in his career with the Carolina Panthers and Fox, hauling in 82 catches for 924 yards with five touchdowns in four seasons, but he has been nothing more than a backup in the NFL since 2011. He is not flashy, but he is a solid run-blocker who also adds experience on special teams.
Projected Starters: Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills
Current Backups: Vladimir Ducasse, Michael Ola, Ryan Groy, Charles Leno, Conor Boffeli and Jason Weaver
Barring any major additions in free agency or the draft, the Bears could start the 2015 season with the same starting five offensive linemen for the third year in a row.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod, left guard Matt Slauson and right guard Kyle Long are all locks to be starters next season, but center Roberto Garza and right tackle Jordan Mills may have to earn their spots in 2015.
Garza signed a one-year contract extension in late December, but that deal was the last signing Emery made before he was fired at the end of the season. Garza has been a staple in the middle of Chicago's offensive line for the last decade, but his play has regressed over the last few seasons.
Mills was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft and beat out J'Marcus Webb that summer for the starting right tackle position. He struggled in pass protection his rookie season and did not show much improvement last year. He is an average run-blocker, so the team would benefit from an upgrade at the position.
The Bears do have solid depth along the line with Vladimir Ducasse, Michael Ola and Ryan Groy. All three have the ability to contribute as spot starters, and they are all under the age of 27.
Both the center and right tackle positions could be looked at in free agency or the draft this offseason, but if they are not, Chicago does have a couple of young players with good upside on the roster who could develop if given an opportunity.
Projected Starters: Ray McDonald, Jarvis Jenkins and Jeremiah Ratliff
Current Backups: Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton, Brandon Dunn, Jamil Merrell and Cornelius Washington
The Bears are moving to a 3-4 defense this season, and Pace added defensive ends Ray McDonald and Jarvis Jenkins in free agency last week to help bolster his new defensive line.
McDonald played in 14 games last seasons for the San Francisco 49ers before he was cut in December because he was being investigated for sexual assault.
"It's not a snap decision by any stretch," Fox said at the owners meetings about signing McDonald, according to Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. "I think Ray understands we have a standard, and he’s going to need to meet that standard moving forward."
Signing McDonald could end up being a risky move for the Bears considering his off-the-field history, but if he stays out of trouble, he gives the Bears a versatile defensive lineman who can set the edge against the run and can get after the quarterback.
Jenkins was a second-round pick of Washington back in 2011, but he failed to live up to expectations. In three seasons he registered 75 tackles and just two sacks. Despite his limited numbers, he adds experience to a defensive line that sorely needs it.
McDonald and Jenkins will likely be the starters at defensive end, which leaves veteran defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff to play the 0-technique nose tackle position.
Ratliff has the ability to move around between the 0-technique and 1-technique, and he could even be moved outside to the 5-technique. He will turn 34 later this year, but he has proved over the last season-and-a-half in Chicago he can still be a dominant force along the defensive line.
Ego Ferguson will likely be one of the first guys off the bench to spell Ratliff next season, but Will Sutton may be a man without a position.
He was drafted to play the 3-technique in a 4-3 defense, and he may need to move to defensive end in Chicago's new scheme.
Brandon Dunn, Cornelius Washington and Jamil Merrell will all need a strong offseason to nab a spot on the 53-man roster in 2015.
While the Bears have some interesting pieces in place along the defensive line, they will need to add more linemen via the draft and free agency.
Projected Starters: Pernell McPhee, Lamarr Houston, Mason Foster and Jon Bostic
Current Backups: Christian Jones, Jared Allen, Willie Young, Shea McClellin, Khaseem Greene, Jonathan Brown, DeDe Lattimore and David Bass
The Bears acted quickly once free agency began and signed outside linebacker Pernell McPhee to a five-year deal on the second day of free agency.
McPhee has the ability to rush the quarterback from a variety of different areas on the field, and he should excel in Chicago's new defense.
In somewhat of a surprising move, the team announced earlier this year that Lamarr Houston will start the offseason at outside linebacker.
“He’s going to be an outside linebacker, that’s where he’ll start,” Fox said, via Jahns. “What he ends up being, until we hit the grass we can’t evaluate it. It’s really kind of too early to stay, but he’ll start as an outside linebacker.”
Houston played some outside linebacker when he was with the Oakland Raiders, but he was at his best setting the edge versus the run as a defensive end.
With McPhee and Houston as the starters in the base package on the outside, Mason Foster and third-year man Jon Bostic will likely be the starters at inside linebacker.
Both are athletic and can be hard hitters, but Foster is at his best when roaming sideline to sideline against the run, while Bostic has the quickness to match up with running backs and tight ends in the passing game.
As it currently stands, the Bears appear to have a lot of depth at the linebacker position.
In addition to Houston making the move to outside linebacker, veterans Jared Allen and Willie Young will also be transitioning to outside linebacker this offseason, according to Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune:
Fox on if DEs Allen & Young will be OLBs in 3-4: We'll line them up there. What they become will be up to them.— Rich Campbell (@Rich_Campbell) February 18, 2015
Neither Allen nor Young has played the position in the past, so this offseason will be a learning experience for both men.
Guys like Christian Jones, Shea McClellin, David Bass, Khaseem Greene and DeDe Lattimore will also get the opportunity to prove they belong in Chicago's new defense this offseason.
Even with all the depth they currently have at the position, the Bears could still look to the draft to add another pass-rushing outside linebacker.
Projected Starters: Kyle Fuller and Tim Jennings
Current Backups: Alan Ball, Demontre Hurst, Al Louis-Jean and Terrance Mitchell
Following a season-ending injury to Charles Tillman in Week 2 last season, rookie Kyle Fuller was thrust into a starting role for the remainder of the season. He struggled at times, particularly when asked to play off-coverage, but he finished the season with 64 tackles, three forced fumbles and four interceptions.
Fuller and veteran Tim Jennings will likely reclaim their starting roles at cornerback in 2015.
The team added depth to the position last week by signing veteran Alan Ball to a one-year deal, according to ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson.
In eight seasons in the league, Ball has registered 216 tackles, 34 pass deflections and six interceptions. He is not flashy, but he plays with good technique and should be an upgrade over Demontre Hurst and Al Louis-Jean.
Fuller, Jennings and Ball will likely get the majority of the snaps at the position over Hurst, Louis-Jean and Terrance Mitchell, but the team could be in the running for another young cornerback in this year's draft.
Projected Starters: Antrel Rolle and Ryan Mundy
Current Backups: Brock Vereen and Anthony Walters
In the early stages of free agency, Chicago signed veteran free safety Antrel Rolle to help solidify its secondary.
A three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, Rolle has regressed a bit over the years, but he is still one of the league's best safeties in coverage.
The Bears will likely look to upgrade the position in free agency and/or the draft, but if Pace fails to add more depth to the position, Ryan Mundy will likely return as the starter at strong safety. He finished last season with 103 tackles, one sack and four interceptions.
Chicago selected Brock Vereen in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, but he struggled in limited opportunities last season. He has the chance to develop into a hybrid cornerback/safety under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, but he will have to show better discipline and improve his technique.
Anthony Walters signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent back in 2011 and spent the next three seasons with the team. He signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals last offseason and eventually re-signed with the Bears in November after Arizona released him.
While adding Rolle is a step in the right direction, Chicago's safety corps still needs a lot of work. The Bears likely will not be in the running for a safety with the seventh overall pick, but they could address the position in the middle rounds of this year's draft.
Kicker: Robbie Gould
Punter: Pat O'Donnell
Long Snapper: Thomas Gafford
Kicker Robbie Gould missed four games last season due to an injury, and he only completed nine of his 12 field-goal attempts. Despite his drop in play last season, he is set to return to the organization in 2015.
The Bears took punter Pat O'Donnell in the sixth round of last year's draft, and he played in all 16 games last season. After struggling early in the season, he finished the year with a 43.8-yard average per punt.
The team decided to move on from long snapper Jeremy Cain and signed veteran Thomas Gafford earlier this offseason. He attended the University of Houston and went undrafted in 2005. After bouncing around the league for a couple of seasons, he signed with Kansas City in October 2008 and played 105 games between 2008 and 2014 for the Chiefs.
Matt Eurich is a Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.