While 2009 wasn't exactly what most thought it'd be for the Bears, they ended it on a positive note, winning the final two chapters of a long roller-coaster story. Over the course of that season, many young and new players proved themselves worthy of being considered up-and-coming stars and break out season candidates.
So read on, young reader, as we profile nine Chicago Bears who have a chance to become household names come next January.
Devin Aromashodu, or DA as his teammates call him, was one of the stars of the Bears promising finish to 2009. His 24 catches for 298 yards were only good enough for sixth on the team, but his stats over the final quarter of the season were unmatched by other Bears receivers.
His rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler isn't one that can be denied. Cutler lobbied for the 6'2" receiver, too.
Although Johnny Knox and Devin Hester are expected to start at wide receiver, Mike Martz's offensive system, Martz's pass-heavy offense often uses three- and four-wide receiver sets, meaning Aromashodu will see plenty of time.
The largest pass-catchers for the Bears last year were 6'3" Desmond Clark and 6'5" Greg Olsen. The two combined for 10 touchdown catches, eight of them caught by Cutler favorite Olsen. Aromashodu is also a larger receiver who already has the respect of Cutler. Expect Aromashodu to get plenty of looks, especially in the red zone.
Chris Williams was drafted in 2008 to solidify the left tackle position for the next fifteen years. The athletic big man out of Vanderbilt didn't see the field much because of injury his rookie year, but started, and struggled, at right tackle.
But once Williams was moved to Jay Cutler's blind side, something clicked. He helped pave the way for Matt Forte, who started running much better when Williams was in the lineup. He also gave Jay Cutler much more time and helped him conclude his disastrous season on the highest note possible.
His most notable performance was by far in the Bears best game of the season, a 36-30 overtime thriller that took home-field advantage away from the rival Vikings. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jared Allen was shut down in that game. While he did receive help, Williams more then held his own against the sack artist.
So what does the future hold for Williams? In his first training camp running as the first-team left tackle, he'll get an even better hold on playing the position at the NFL level. In his third season, he faces vicious pass-rushers such as DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews, Brian Orakpo, Justin Tuck, and Jared Allen. If he can carry his momentum from the end of the season into next year, the Bears offense will be significantly better.
For the longest time, the Bears had used Charles Tillman to match up with the opposing team's top receiver. Tillman proved his mettle shutting down receivers like Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson. However, because of injuries and age in general, Tillman isn't the cornerback he used to be.
But luckily for Tillman, the Bears finally have someone to take the reins from number 33 (more on him later). The Bears now have put Tillman against the opposing number two receiver, and they look to have success against them.
The Bears schedule is loaded with teams that have uncertain or lacking secondary receiver options (teams like the Lions, Panthers, Seahawks, Redskins, and Bills). Tillman looks to be set up for a big year on a different side of the field.
It feels strange to see the player we all thought would explode in his sophomore season on a potential breakout list now, but after an injury-plagued sophomore season in which injuries during the offseason kept him from preparing in training camp like he could have along with a terrible offensive line that couldn't open a hole to save their lives, Forte has room to improve.
However, once Chris Williams was ushered into the Bears left tackle position, Matt Forte started to run well again. Forte improved his yards per carry from 2.92 yards to 4.15 yards.
Considering 11 of the Bears games this year are against teams who finished in the top half of the league or better against the run this year, Matt Forte will have to step up his game with Williams manning the blind side.
Hester get's a lot of unwelcome hate from the media. While he's not a stellar receiver, through the 12 weeks last season before he got injured, Hester was on pace to be the Bears first 1,000 yards receiver since Marty Booker in 2002. He no longer seems to play with the blinding speed he used to, but his hands are reliable and he still is pretty fast.
As far as learning Martz's system, a quote came out about Hester finally learning how to adjust his routes on the fly. Really Ron Turner? You've been a coach in the NFL for over 10 years, yet you don't teach your receivers to play the game every other team plays it?
Under a real coach in Martz, Hester should break the 1,000 yard barrier and after breaking a return against the Browns that was called back by a bogus holding call on Rashied Davis, he could potentially make an impact in the punt return game as well.
While we're not even sure Wright will start at free safety in the Windy City, he's got as good a chance as anybody. The athletic center fielder from Gainesville was the Bears first pick in last April's draft, in the third round.
Much in the vein of Mike Brown, he's got the hitting ability of a linebacker in a free safety's body. If Wright can beat out incumbent Danieal Manning for the starting free safety spot, he could solidify a position the Bears have had in flux since Mike Brown was moved to strong safety.
Any reader who is not a hardcore Bears fan (and even handfuls of Bears fans themselves) have probably never heard of Tim Shaw. With that being true, I'll start with a story about a former Bear. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbedejo made three straight Pro Bowls from 2006 to 2008 despite never seeing extensive time on defense. Why? Special teams.
Ayanbedejo became known as the best special teamer in the league. He helped keep teams out of the end zone and helped pave the way for Devin Hester's record-breaking returning years. Once Ayanbedejo left for the Ravens in free agency however, the Bears lacked a standout on special teams.
Enter 2009. Brian Urlacher get's injured in Week One, and the Bears wanted to add depth at linebacker. That's where Tim Shaw comes in; he was signed after the Urlacher injury and in his short time with the team became a force on special teams. He had 30 special teams tackles, the most on the team.
With Tim Shaw now a crucial element on special teams, he could find himself going to the Pro Bowl as a special teamer. With a special teams stud, the Bears also could see more kick and punt returns for touchdowns this season.
Out of a pretty stellar group of cornerbacks in the 2008 NFL Draft, a few stand out. The Cardinals' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Buccaneer's Aqib Talib, and the Chiefs' Brandon Flowers namely. Those three are 75 percent of the cornerbacks who in their first two seasons have snatched seven or more interceptions. Fittingly, they were all drafted in the first and second round, except one.
Fifth round pick Zack Bowman is a play-making machine. After ranking fifth overall in the NFL in picks last year with six, Bowman continued to impress in offseason workouts and has now moved his way into the starting cornerback position over long time starter Charles Tillman.
The ultimate sign of Bowman's improvement over the entirety of the 2009 season were the bookends against the Detroit Lions. After struggling in the first half of the first game against Calvin Johnson, he had to be switched onto the Lions second receiver Bryant Johnson. However, with Tillman out in the final game of the season last year, Bowman held his own against Johnson.
As one of the young up-and-coming stars on the Bears defense, Bowman's size, nose for the ball and athleticism could vault him into the elite category of cornerbacks in the NFL.
Who else but Cutler? The marquee quarterback's wedding in Chicago wasn't exactly what Chicago fans expected. However, the expectations for the honeymoon have been lowered, luckily for Cutler. Without the otherworldly expectations, Cutler will be able to play much more freely and with confidence he just couldn't get in check last season.
While Cutler has quite the reputation as a punk and a crybaby, he's the undisputed leader of the offense and is ridiculously tough, both mentally and physically. After sustaining so many big hits and negative media, he played through the season without injury or making headlines with his mouth.
Under Martz, Cutler will be playing in a wide open system much closer to what he achieved Pro Bowl nods in while with the Broncos. Cutler will also carry confidence from the immense praise he's received and his fantastic finish to 2009, with eight touchdowns and one interception over the 2-0 finish for Chicago.
If Cutler indeed breaks out in the Windy City, 2010 could be the year of the Bears.