Chicago Bears 2014 Off-Season Preview

2013 Recap

Die hard Bears fans probably didn’t recognize the team at all last season. Their offense was as good as it’s been in years, a big change for a franchise that is not usually good offensively. However, their defense was as bad as it’s been in years and potentially one of the worst defenses in franchise history, considering how good their defense has almost always been. They moved the chains at a 75.68% rate, 4th best in the NFL, but they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 76.92% rate, 2nd worst in the NFL. As a result, they missed the playoffs once again.

What happened to their defense? Well, it was a combination of age, injuries, and departed coaches. The Bears came into 2013 with 4 defensive starters over 30 and all 4 had down seasons. Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman both missed significant time with injury and were shells of their former selves when on the field. Julius Peppers also struggled by his standards and even Tim Jennings, the youngest of the bunch, wasn’t as good as he’s been in the past. Also, in addition to the injuries suffered by Briggs and Tillman, they were dealt a significant blow when Henry Melton, their best young player, tore his ACL early in the season. Their run defense never recovered.

They also really missed Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli, their long-time head coach and his trusted defensive coordinator. Their absences were probably just as much why some of their players declined as age. Even under 30 players like Chris Conte and Major Wright struggled by their standards this season, while James Anderson struggled mightily as a free agent addition and youngsters Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin did not develop. The downgrade from Marinelli to Mel Tucker was significant.

Firing Lovie Smith wasn’t all bad though. Lovie Smith’s biggest issue was that he continually hired incompetent coordinators to run his offense, guys like Ron Turner, Mike Martz, and Mike Tice. New head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer are both great offensive minds that were able to turn this into one of the best offenses in the NFL.

Alshon Jeffery broke out as a legitimate outside receiving threat opposite Brandon Marshall and the addition of Martellus Bennett in free agency gave them a significant upgrade at tight end over the overmatched Kellen Davis. They stopped messing around with the offensive line and brought in 4 new starters, two in free agency, Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson, and two in the draft, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills. Those 4 and center Roberto Garza each made all 16 starts this season on a much improved offensive line. It didn’t even matter if Jay Cutler was out there or not because they were able to coach journeyman backup Josh McCown into strong play for a short period of time, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception.

All that being said, I don’t really believe the Bears are in a better position now than where they were a year ago. They fired Lovie Smith despite an 81-63 record in 9 seasons and a Super Bowl appearance in 2005 because he had made the playoffs just once in the past 6 seasons. He and Rod Marinelli were strong defensive minds, but they never had a strong offensive mind. Now, Trestman and Kromer are strong offensive minds, but they don’t have a strong defensive mind. Trestman’s willingness to stick with Mel Tucker at defensive coordinator despite such an awful defensive season last year is very much Lovie Smith-like. The Bears are no less stuck in the mud than they were a year ago.

Positional Needs

Defensive End

Corey Wootton is a free agent this off-season, while Julius Peppers is as close to being a sure thing cap casualty as you can be. The Bears drafted Shea McClellin in the first round in 2012, but he’s been a bust thus far. He played just 368 snaps as a rookie and then struggled mightily in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst 4-3 defensive end. He’s being moved to outside linebacker for 2014 so the Bears really have nothing at the defensive end position right now. They’ll need at least one, if not two new starters at the defensive end position this off-season.

Defensive Tackle

The Bears run defense was terrible this season as they couldn’t handle the loss of Henry Melton, who tore his ACL early in the season. They couldn’t really replace him. Stephen Paea was alright, but Landon Cohen struggled mightily went counted upon. Things were so bad that they signed Jay Ratliff off the streets. He’s not a long-term option, going into his age 33 season after struggling through injuries over the past couple of seasons.

Safety

Major Wright and Chris Conte both struggled mightily this season at safety, grading out as Pro Football Focus worst ranked and 4th worst ranked safeties respectively this season. They’ve both been better in the past, but Wright is a free agent this off-season and unlikely to be retained, while Conte will be a free agent next off-season. It’s a position they’ll need to address this off-season.

Cornerback

The Bears re-signed Tim Jennings to a 4-year deal this off-season, but they still have 4 free agents at the cornerback position this off-season, including Charles Tillman, a long-time starter who is unlikely to be retained, coming off of a rough season in which he missed significant time with injury and going into his age 33 season. They’ll need a new starter opposite Jennings this off-season. Jennings is also going into his age 31 season and probably won’t make it through all 4 seasons of his contract.

Outside Linebacker

James Anderson was awful this season at outside linebacker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker this past season. Lance Briggs was better opposite him, but he wasn’t his best and missed 7 games with injury. That’s to be expected as he’s going into his age 34 season and he won’t be able to be counted on for much longer. Shea McClellin will be converting to outside linebacker and they have 2013 4th round pick Khaseem Greene in the mix as well, but they can’t count on either of them as long-term starters at the position either. They should try to add someone else to the mix this off-season.

Middle Linebacker

Jon Bostic took over as a starter as a 2nd round rookie, but finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked middle linebacker. There shouldn’t be a ton of concern right now as he was only a rookie, but there’s already been some talk of moving him to outside linebacker, where he would be a better fit and potentially help solve another problem. They could add a cheap veteran or a late round pick to the mix at this position this off-season.

Wide Receiver

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are among the top wide receiver duos in the NFL, but the Bears’ depth behind them is pretty limited, especially if they cut marginal slot receiver Earl Bennett. They could add a mid-round or late-round pick on a depth receiver.

Offensive Tackle

Every single one of the Bears’ starting offensive linemen played at least 1022 snaps and no one missed more than 48 snaps. There’s something to be said for continuity, but right tackle Jordan Mills actually really struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked offensive tackle last season, allowing a league worst 62 quarterback hurries. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, but he was just a 5th round pick. They should consider some competition at the position.

Center

The Bears might not be able to keep all 5 starters on their offensive line because center Roberto Garza is a free agent. He’s going into his age 35 season in 2014 and has been very inconsistent in the past. If they don’t bring him back, they’ll have to replace him because they don’t have an internal replacement.

Punter

Adam Podlesh struggled as the Bears’ punter this season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst punter as the Bears ranked dead last in the NFL in punting average and 4th worst in net punting average. They can easily cut him this off-season and replace him with at least a league average punter.

Key Free Agents

DT Henry Melton

Henry Melton emerged as one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL in 2011 and 2012, grading out 16th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011 and 7th in 2012, earning himself the franchise tag for the 2013 season. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL early in the 2013 season so now his future is in limbo. He’s talented and young so someone may still want to commit to him on a multi-year deal, but he may have to settle for a one year prove it deal, even if it is a lucrative one in the range of 5-6 million. That would probably be his best option considering he could get a very lucrative deal next off-season if healthy.

DE Corey Wootton

An inside/outside defensive lineman who plays defensive end in base packages and moves inside to defensive tackle in sub packages. The 6-6 270 pounder has played in that prominent role for 2 seasons and has graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, but just barely. He’s a decent starter and versatile. He’s sadly one of the Bears’ best defensive players, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea for them to bring him back on a multi-year deal that pays him like a starter somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 million per year.

QB Josh McCown

Going into this season, Josh McCown was an aging journeyman backup quarterback. He was in his age 34 season and hadn’t posted a QB rating of 70 or higher since 2006. Out of nowhere, he completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception. There was even some talk that the Bears should continue starting him even after Jay Cutler was healthy and/or that the Bears should let Jay Cutler leave as a free agent, in favor of keeping McCown as the starter. The Bears instead kept Cutler, which was the right move. McCown probably isn’t the quarterback his numbers showed him to be last season and he’s also going into his age 35 season, but there’s no denying he’s great in Trestman’s system. They would be wise to bring him back as a backup for the increasingly injury prone Jay Cutler.

C Roberto Garza

Garza has had some rough seasons in the past, grading out below average at both guard and center in every season from 2010-2012, including a 2011 season in which he ranked 2nd worst among centers on Pro Football Focus. However, he played pretty well in 2013 in a new system with a new offensive line coach. Unfortunately, he’s going into his age 35 season so he won’t command a long-term deal. He’ll probably sign a one-year deal somewhere, probably back in Chicago.

CB Zachary Bowman

A 2008 5th round pick, Bowman is already going into his age 30 season and his 7th season in the league. He’s played sparingly in every season but two, 2009 and 2013. In both of those seasons, he didn’t play that well, although he wasn’t awful this last season. He’ll probably be looking at one year deals as a depth cornerback this off-season.

S Major Wright

A 2010 3rd round pick, Major Wright has been a starter for 3 seasons. He was alright in 2011 and 2012, but he struggled mightily in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety in 2013. He’ll probably have to settle for a one-year prove it deal this off-season. Anyone who gives him a long-term deal that pays him like a starter is making the wrong move and could be falling into a trap.

WR Devin Hester

He’s not a receiver anymore, which is a good thing, but, as good of a kick returner as he’s been in his career, he’s going into his age 32 season and the lifespan of kick returners isn’t that long, even really good ones. He has 18 special teams touchdowns all-time, a record, but just one in the last 2 seasons. He could be overpaid by someone off of name value.

OLB James Anderson

James Anderson had a great 2010 season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2010. However, he struggled in both 2011 and 2012 and was cut by the Panthers. He was snatched up by the Bears and given a three-down role, leading the team in snaps played by linebackers. However, he struggled mightily, overmatched in his role, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. He shouldn’t be given a three-down role going forward.

CB Kelvin Hayden

A well-travelled, veteran slot cornerback, Hayden missed the entire 2013 season with a torn hamstring. Now going into his age 31 season, Hayden might have to wait a while for the phone to ring.

DT Landon Cohen

Cohen didn’t play a single snap in 2012 and played a combined 104 snaps from 2010-2012, but he was thrust into a bigger role in 2013 when Henry Melton went down with injury, playing 386 snaps. He struggled mightily, a huge part of the reason why the Bears sucked against the run this season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked defensive tackle out of 69 eligible despite the limited playing time. He should have to wait a very long time for the phone to ring.

DT Jay Ratliff

An aging, injury prone player, Ratliff was once a great player, but he played just 269 snaps in 2012 and was on the street in 2013 after the Cowboys cut him, rather than activating him from the physically unable to perform list. The Bears were so desperate for defensive tackle help that they signed him off the streets, but he predictably struggled on 210 snaps. Going into his age 33 season, he’s going to have to wait a while for the phone to ring, if it ever does.

DT Nate Collins

A talented reserve in 2012, the 2010 undrafted free agent had a chance to shine in a larger role this season with Henry Melton’s injury, but Collins suffered one of his own, tearing his ACL in October. He’ll have a hard time finding work this off-season, but he’s a worthwhile reserve when healthy.

Cap Casualty Candidates

DE Julius Peppers

Julius Peppers is as close to being a sure cap casualty as anyone in the NFL. He’ll count for an absurd 18.18 million on the Bears’ cap next season and the Bears would save 9.82 million on the cap by cutting him. Given that he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus and is a shell of his former self going into his age 34 season, that’s a no brainer.

RB Michael Bush

The Bears can save 1.85 million on the cap by cutting Michael Bush going into his age 30 season, which seems like a reasonable move considering he’s an aging below average backup running back. He averaged 3.13 yards per carry last season and has averaged just 3.66 yards per carry over the past 3 seasons.

WR Earl Bennett

The Bears can save 2.45 million on the cap by cutting Earl Bennett this off-season. Considering he’s caught just 85 passes for 999 yards and 7 touchdowns in the past 3 years combined, he’s definitely expendable. They can find a cheaper, better slot receiver fairly easily.

P Adam Podlesh

Adam Podlesh struggled as the Bears’ punter this season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst punter as the Bears ranked dead last in the NFL in punting average and 4th worst in net punting average. They can easily cut him this off-season and replace him with at least a league average punter.

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