Chicago Bears 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Positions of Need

Middle Linebacker

Linebacker was a big problem for the Bears last season, as no one played more than 696 snaps and only one player (Jon Bostic) played more than 461 snaps. Bostic was decent in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, after struggling in 2013 as a 2nd round rookie (51st out of 55 eligible middle linebackers). He’ll start at one of the two middle linebacker spots for the Bears, but they need someone else in there inside with him. Christian Jones, a 2014 undrafted free agent, who struggled on 443 snaps at outside linebacker as a rookie, is currently penciled in at that spot.

Defensive End

LaMarr Houston is expected to start at one defensive end spot in the Bears new 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. He tore his ACL week 8 in 2014, but he’s young enough with no real injury history that he should be fine for week 1. Jay Ratliff then seems like a natural fit at nose tackle, where he played in Dallas for many years. He’s an undersized nose tackle, but Fangio worked with undersized nose tackles in San Francisco, particularly Glenn Dorsey, who Ratliff compares favorably too. That just leaves them needing one more starter on the defensive line. Stephen Paea could be an option, but he’s a free agent and not a natural fit for a 3-4. Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson were 3rd and 2nd round picks respectively in 2014, but both struggled as rookies and neither is an ideal fit for a 3-4 either.

Offensive Tackle

The Bears signed Jermon Bushrod to a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, even though Drew Brees always made him look better than he was when he was protecting Brees’ blindside in New Orleans. He’s predictably graded out below average in each of the last two seasons and if he doesn’t turn it around, with a new regime in town, he could be gone next off-season, rather than receiving a non-guaranteed 6.4 million dollar salary in 2016. Meanwhile at right tackle, Jordan Mills was Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2013 as a 5th round rookie and he was only slightly better in 2014, grading out 66th out of 84 eligible. The old regime really liked him for some reason, but the new regime will have no allegiance. Michael Ola, their 6th offensive lineman, struggled last season and the Bears don’t have another good option at tackle on their roster so this is somewhere they should invest this off-season.

Center

Roberto Garza was limited to 12 games thanks to injuries in 2014 and graded out slightly below average when he was on the field. He’s going into his age 36 season in 2015 and Brian De La Puente, who played well in Garza’s absence, is a free agent this off-season. They need to add a center in the mid rounds so they’ll have a long-term starter at the position.

Cornerback

Kyle Fuller was the Bears 1st round pick in 2014. He played well to start the season, but dealt with nagging injuries all year, which proved to be too much for him as he tried to adjust to the NFL and he ended up grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback. Still, he has long-term potential and could easily bounce back in 2015 when he’s healthy. Opposite him, Tim Jennings is still playing well, but he’s going into his age 32 season. They also don’t really have that much depth at the position so this is a need for them this off-season.

Safety

The Bears need help at safety. Chris Conte, who has been there as a starter for the past 4 seasons, has never really been that good and now he’s a free agent. Brock Vereen, a 2014 4th round pick, was decent in limited action last season, but he’s still unproven. Meanwhile, Ryan Mundy was solid as the other starter, but he’s a veteran journeyman going into a contract year. This is somewhere they’ll have to add at some point this off-season.

Running Back

Matt Forte has been incredibly durable in his 7 year career at a positon where it’s really tough to do that, playing all 16 games 5 times and missing a combined 5 games in 7 seasons. However, he’s going into his age 30 season with 1817 career carries so it’s time to start thinking about a long-term successor. They really have no depth behind him as other Bear running backs combined for 36 carries last season. The Bears will run the ball more under John Fox so they’ll need to add depth. Ka’Deem Carey, a 2014 4th round pick, didn’t show much as a rookie.

Defensive Tackle

Assuming Jay Ratliff does play at nose tackle next season, the Bears will need a long-term successor. Ratliff looked done coming into this season, but he ended up grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2014. He’s going into his age 34 season so it’s hard to trust him going forward though and the Bears don’t have anyone else who fits that position.

Quarterback

Jay Cutler is coming off arguably his worst season in the NFL. His numbers didn’t look terrible, as he completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 6.80 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions and the Bears finished 15th in rate of moving the chains, moving them at a 73.17% rate. However, much of that was because of his offensive supporting cast (guys like Forte, Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett) and Marc Trestman’s system. Cutler actually finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible, after ranking 10th at his position in 2013 and 17th in 2012. Unfortunately, the Bears didn’t have anyone else other than Jimmy Clausen to turn to when they decided it was time to bench Cutler and that predictably didn’t work out. Cutler will be the Bears’ starter in 2015 and that’s the right move. They have no one of getting out of his contract and he’s shown in the past that he can be much better than he was last season, but they need someone better to turn to in case Cutler needs to be benched again.

Key Free Agents

DT Stephen Paea

Paea, a 2011 2nd round pick, had the best season of his career in 2014 and at the perfect time, as he was in a contract year. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle this year. However, teams should be wary about giving him too much money as he’s still a one year wonder. Paea graded out below average in each of the first 3 seasons of his career from 2011-2013, before 2014. I don’t expect him back with the Bears as he wouldn’t be a great fit for the new 3-4 defense they will be implementing under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

OLB Lance Briggs

Briggs is a potential future Hall of Famer and he’s spent all 12 seasons of his career with the Bears, since they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2003, making 7 Pro-Bowls, 3 All-Pros, and starting 170 games. However, he could very easily be done with the Bears as he heads into free agency. Briggs is going into his age 35 season and has missed a combined 15 games with injuries over the past 2 seasons. He could retire this off-season. If he wants to keep playing, he’s played well enough when on the field to suggest that he still has something left in the tank, as he’s still graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons. He’ll probably have to settle for a 1-year deal though and have to wait a little bit into free agency.

C Brian De La Puente

De La Puente started 47 games for the Saints from 2011-2013 and graded out 13th, 4th, and 16th among centers in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. Still, despite that, he was forced to settle for a cheap one-year deal in free agency last off-season and didn’t have a guaranteed starting role. He ended up making 6 starts between center and left guard as injuries hit the Bears on the offensive line this year and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked center despite the limited action. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher among centers. Only going into his age 30 season, he deserves a starting job and a multi-year deal in free agency this off-season.

CB Charles Tillman

Like Briggs, Tillman has been with the Bears for 12 seasons since they drafted him in the 2nd round in that same 2003 draft (if it wasn’t for the fact that they drafted Rex Grossman and Michael Haynes in the first round that year, it would have been an outstanding draft). However, like Briggs, Tillman has missed significant time with injury over the past 2 season and probably won’t be back with the Bears in 2015. Tillman was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback in 2012, but he’s missed 22 of 32 games with injuries over the past 2 seasons, has graded out below average when on the field in each of the last 2 seasons, and is now going into his age 34 season. He’ll probably have to wait longer than Briggs for a deal if he wants to keep playing. A move to safety has been discussed in the past.

S Chris Conte

Conte was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and he made 52 starts in 4 seasons with the Bears, but he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst season coming in 2013, when he graded out 82nd out of 86 eligible safeties. He shouldn’t be looked at as a starter on the open market this off-season and will probably have to settle for backup work.

QB Jimmy Clausen

Jimmy Clausen was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in recent memory as a 2nd round rookie in 2010 with the Panthers, completing 52.5% of his passes for an average of 5.21 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions on 299 attempts. He understandably didn’t attempt another pass until in 2014 with the Bears, where he actually started week 16 in place of a benched Jay Cutler, before missing week 17 with a concussion. Clausen was facing a tough Detroit defense, but didn’t look good, completing 23 of 39 for 181 yards, 1 touchdown, and an interception.

MLB DJ Williams

DJ Williams graded out above average as a starter in 2010, but it’s been all downhill since then. He graded out 33rd out of 45 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in 2011 and played a combined 785 snaps in the last 3 seasons from 2012-2014. Now going into his age 33 season, Williams could be at the end of his run in the NFL.

Cap Casualty Candidates

DE LaMarr Houston

The Bears don’t have any real cap casualty candidates, but there’s a slight chance that they move on from Houston, who struggled by his standards early in 2014 before missing the final 8 games of the season with a torn ACL. He’s expected to be back by week 1, but there are no guarantees that he’ll be right away immediately and the Bears could save 6 million in cash and 3.03 million in cap space by cutting him. However, when healthy, he’s the kind of talented defensive player that the Bears are short on and he’d be an ideal fit as a defensive end in Fangio’s new 3-4 so I expect them to keep him.

G Matt Slauson

Slauson is also coming off a significant injury, missing 11 games with multiple injuries, including a season ending torn pectoral. The Bears can save 2.815 million in cash and 2.015 million on the cap by cutting him this off-season, but, when healthy he’s a very solid offensive lineman. He graded out above average in every season from 2010-2013, making all 64 starts, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 2013.

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