Jay Cutler takes a lot of criticism, but he’s actually graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons. He got a massive 7-year, 126.7 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago and promptly had the worst season of his career in 2014, finishing 32nd among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, which obviously got him a lot of criticism. However, Cutler quietly bounced back in 2015, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.58 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and finishing 14th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. His bounce back season helped get offensive coordinator Adam Gase the head coaching job in Miami. The Bears’ offense will miss Gase, plus Cutler is going into his age 33 season, so he could be getting close to the end, but you can still do a lot worse than Jay Cutler at quarterback.
Surprisingly, the Bears did not draft a quarterback in this draft. Considering Cutler’s age and the fact that he’s owed 15 million non-guaranteed in 2017, this could be Cutler’s final year in Chicago, but the Bears don’t have an obvious replacement for him. Instead, the Bears brought in veteran Brian Hoyer to be Cutler’s backup. Hoyer is not a bad addition, even though he’s going into his age 31 season. He struggled across 22 starts over the past 2 seasons, finishing 35th (out of 39 eligible) and 31st (out of 38 eligible) respectively among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus over the past 2 seasons, but he’s a solid veteran backup, something the Bears really needed last year.
In two games where Jay Cutler was injured last season, the Bears moved the chains at a pathetic 56.25% rate, as opposed to 72.17% in their other 14 games. Hoyer should be able to ensure that this offense can still be somewhat capable if Cutler gets hurt again. Unfortunately, if history is any indicator, Cutler is likely to get hurt again. He hasn’t suffered a lot of major injuries, but he hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2009. Hoyer should see some playing time this season. He’s just not the long-term starting option they need.
While losing Gase could hurt Cutler in 2016, he should be helped by having significantly better health in the receiving corps. The Bears had the most adjusted games lost by wide receivers in the NFL (and the 5th most adjusted games lost overall). Alshon Jeffery, Kevin White, Eddie Royal, and Marquess Wilson were the Bears top-4 wide receivers going into last season, but they were limited to 9, 0, 9, and 11 games respectively injuries. In addition to that, tight end Martellus Bennett missed 5 games with injury. Bennett was traded to New England, but the other 4 remain and should be healthier this season.
Jeffery was fantastic when he was on the field last season, catching 54 passes for 807 yards and 4 touchdowns in 9 games, a 96/1435/7 slash line over 16 games. He also finished the season 3rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. That’s in line with how he played in 2013 and 2014, when he finished 9th and 28th among wide receivers respectively and caught 174 passes for 2554 yards and 17 touchdowns in 32 games. He couldn’t shake lower body injuries last season, but has otherwise been healthy in his career. Even coming off an injury plagued season, the Bears couldn’t let him go this off-season, giving him the franchise tag. He didn’t get an extension this off-season, but, if he can stay healthy and play like he can in 2016, he’s going to get a monster deal from someone next off-season.
Even missing 7 games, Jeffery still led the team in receiving yards by a wide margin, as no one else had more than 464 yards. Wilson, who finished with 28 catches for 464 yards and a touchdown, actually led the team in snaps played by a wide receiver, despite missing 5 games with injury himself. He didn’t play well though, grading out below average and averaging just 42.2 yards per game. He’ll be no better than the #4 receiver this year with Jeffery, White, and Royal coming back healthy. White could be a huge addition, as the 2015 7th overall pick missed his entire rookie year with a broken leg. He’s obviously still unproven and inexperienced, but there is plenty of upside with him.
Eddie Royal will be the 3rd receiver and slot specialist. There’s plenty of bounce back potential here, after injuries limited him to 37 catches for 238 yards and a touchdown in 9 games last season. In his previous two seasons, Royal caught a combined 109 passes for 1409 yards and 15 touchdowns in 31 games, grading out above average in both seasons. Going into his age 30 season, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but, if he can stay healthy, he should be an asset to this team on the slot.
With so many receivers dealing with injury, it was tight end Zach Miller surprisingly leading this receiving corps down the stretch last season. Miller shockingly finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end on 579 snaps and caught 34 passes for 439 yards and 5 touchdowns, including a 29/381/4 slash line in the Bears’ final 8 games (58/762/8 over 16 games) That’s shocking, as Miller had been essentially out of the league for years, sitting out all of 2012-2014 thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness and playing 5 total games since 2011.
He was so good that the Bears re-signed him to a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal and traded incumbent starting tight end Martellus Bennett to New England this off-season. It’s a lot of faith to have in a player who is already going into his age 32 season and who has this extensive of an injury history. The Bears did not even bring in another tight end this off-season, leaving 2015 undrafted free agent Khari Lee to likely be the #2 tight end. He played just 130 nondescript snaps as a rookie. It’s obviously an overall very improved receiving corps though.
The Bears entered the off-season with among the most cap space in the NFL, but also with a bunch of different needs, including two new offensive tackles. Left tackle Charles Leno was horrible last season, finishing 55th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles. Riight tackle Kyle Long was better, finishing 37th, but that was a steep drop off from his 2014 season at right guard, when he finished 12th at the position. The Bears only ended up getting one though, signing Bobby Massie to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Making matters worse, they overpaid for him. Massie has made 46 starts in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s only a right tackle and has graded out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL. He’ll allow Long to move back to his more natural position at right guard, but he’ll be a liability at right tackle.
Leno, meanwhile, remains a liability at left tackle. The Bears like him and think he can take a step forward this season, but so far I haven’t seen any evidence that he can. He fell to the 7th round in 2014, struggled in limited action as a rookie, and then struggled mightily as a starter last year. The Bears used a 2nd round pick on Kansas State left tackle Cody Whitehair, but ended up moving him inside to left guard and cutting incumbent starter Matt Slauson after the draft. Whitehair was a great value in the middle of the 2nd and is probably a better fit at left guard than left tackle in the NFL, but Slauson played very well last season (finishing 8th among guards on Pro Football Focus) and the position wasn’t a need. Cutting Slauson, only owed 3 million in his age 30 season in 2016, didn’t make any sense.
At the very least, they could have slid Slauson inside to center. San Diego, who snatched up Slauson quickly and cheaply, moved Slauson inside to center. Meanwhile in Chicago, 2015 3rd round pick Hronnis Grasu was supposed to be the starting center in his 2nd year in the league in 2016, but tore his ACL, leaving the job to veteran Ted Larsen. Larsen is plenty experienced, with 57 career starts in 6 years in the NFL at left guard, right guard, and center, but has graded out below average in all 6 seasons, including 72nd out of 81 eligible guards in 2015. Along with left tackle and right tackle, center is a position of weakness for the Bears upfront.
The only reliable starter the Bears have upfront is 2012 1st round pick Kyle Long. Long wasn’t horrible at right tackle last season, but it’s obvious he’s more comfortable and more value at right guard, where he finished 43rd and 12th respectively among guards in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2013 and 2014. Still only going into his age 28 season, Long has made 47 of 48 starts in 3 seasons in the league and could easily have a big year back at his natural position. The Bears seem confident in him long-term, giving him a 4-year, 40 million dollar extension this off-season, with 2 years left on his rookie deal. Overall though, it’s an offensive line that figures to be a liability for the Bears this season.
Along with Slauson, the Bears also lost running back Matt Forte this off-season, a big loss. Not only did he have a strong 8-year tenure in Chicago, rushing for 8602 yards and 45 touchdowns on 2035 carries in 120 games, while adding 487 catches for 4116 yards and another 19 touchdowns, but he also was very good for the Bears last year. He finished 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, caught 44 passes, 3rd most on the team, and averaged 4.12 yards per carry on 218 carries. The rest of the team rushed for 3.80 yards per carry on 251 carries.
With Forte gone, the Bears will use three different running backs. Jeremy Langford, who took on a larger role down the stretch as a 4th round rookie in 2015, will likely be the lead back. Langford caught 22 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown, but struggled on the ground, rushing for just 537 yards and 6 touchdowns on 148 carries, an average of 3.63 yards per carry. He finished 46th out of 69 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus. Ka’Deem Carey and Jordan Howard will also be in the mix. The former is a 2014 4th round pick who has rushed for 317 yards and 2 touchdowns on 79 carries (4.01 YPC) in 2 years in the league, while the latter is a 5th round rookie. It’s an underwhelming group and, with a weak offensive line as well, the Bears should struggle to run the ball this season.
As I mentioned, the Bears had among the most cap space in the NFL coming into the off-season. In addition to spending that cap space franchise tagging Alshon Jeffery, bringing in Bobby Massie, and re-signing Zach Miller, the Bears also added 3 new starters on defense and re-signed cornerback Tracy Porter. One of those new defensive starters is defensive end Akiem Hicks, who comes over from New England on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal. He’ll likely start at defensive end on the Bears’ 3-man defensive line.
Hicks replaces Jarvis Jenkins, who led this defensive line in snaps played with 636 in 2015, and has a very good chance to lead the defensive line in snaps himself in 2016. Hicks is plenty experienced, with 33 career starts in 61 games in 4 years since getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2012 by the Saints. While he’s not a spectacular player, he has graded out slightly above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. He was a smart, inexpensive signing and will be an upgrade over the departed Jenkins.
The Bears are hoping Ego Ferguson can start at the other defensive end spot. Ferguson’s status is very much in doubt though, as he tore his patellar tendon in October. That type of injury is nearly impossible to come back from, especially in less than 11 months, so my guess is he will not be available for week 1. The 2014 2nd round pick also had yet to show much before the injury, playing 318 nondescript snaps as a rookie and then missing all but 4 games with injury last season. Instead, it could be 3rd round rookie Jonathan Bullard starting opposite Hicks. A borderline first round talent, Bullard was a steal in the middle of the 3rd and could have an immediate impact.
Also in the mix for snaps are Will Sutton and Mitch Unrein. Sutton has 12 starts in 2 years in the league, since going in the 3rd round in 2014, and took over as the starter down the stretch last season after Ferguson and departed veteran Jay Ratliff got hurt, but he’s struggled mightily in both seasons he’s been in the NFL. He graded out 70th among 81 eligible defensive tackles on 465 snaps in 2014 and then 114th out of 123 eligible interior defenders on 419 snaps in 2015. Unrein, meanwhile, is a veteran journeyman with just 7 starts in 70 career games. He was underwhelming on 388 snaps in 2015 in his first year in Chicago. Neither is a particularly good option.
Nose tackle Eddie Goldman might be their best defensive lineman, though he only plays about half the snaps (515 in 2015) as a pure base package run stuffer. The 2015 2nd round pick finished 36th among interior defenders as a rookie and could be even better in his 2nd year in the league. He actually wasn’t bad as a pass rusher as a rookie either and could see more playing time in sub packages in 2016 as a result. He and Hicks are both solid players, but it’s an overall underwhelming defensive line. Ferguson is dealing with a major injury, Bullard is just a rookie, and none of their other depth options are reliable.
The Bears used their first round pick on Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, moving up from 11 to 9 to grab him ahead of the Giants, who had the 10th pick and were known to be interested. Floyd played in a 3-4 at the University of Georgia and will play the same position on the edge in Chicago’s defense. It was a bit of surprising pick and didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Not only was Floyd somewhat of a reach that high (he’s still undersized at 6-6 244), but he doesn’t fill an obvious need for the Bears, as Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, LaMarr Houston, and Sam Acho, their top-4 outside linebackers last season, all return. The Bears could have addressed much bigger needs at that pick. Cornerback Eli Apple, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, defensive end Sheldon Rankins, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil went 10-13 respectively and all four would have filled bigger needs for the Bears.
Acho is on a one-year deal, while Houston could be a cap casualty next off-season, owed 6 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2017, so Floyd could get a bigger role in 2017, but there isn’t an obvious path to playing time for the 9th overall pick as a rookie. McPhee and Young finished #1 and #2 in snaps played among Chicago outside linebackers with 594 and 524 respectively and both played at a high level, grading out 3rd and 13th respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers.
McPhee was a great signing on a 5-year, 38.75 million dollar deal last off-season. As good as he was last season, he played through a bad knee. He only missed 2 games, but was limited in many others. In 2014, when he was healthy, he also finished 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers. The 2011 5th round pick and graded out above average in all 5 seasons in the NFL, including three seasons in which he’s finished in the top-3 at his position (he was #3 among defensive tackles in 2011 too). Versatile enough to play anywhere from outside linebacker to defensive end to defensive tackle, the 6-3 275 pounder is Chicago’s defensive MVP. However, it seems like he’s still not past his knee issues and could miss time to begin the season, which would obviously a huge loss for this defense. That would open up some playing time early in the year for Floyd.
Young is not as high profile of a player, but he’s quietly an above average starter who has now proven himself in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense. Young has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league between Chicago and Detroit. He was also 13th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He was briefly benched and actually at one point a healthy scratch early in the season, as he struggled to learn the new system, but he figured it out by season’s end for sure. He requested a trade mid-season last year, but signed a 2-year, 11.05 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been a contract year in 2016. Even in his age 31 season, Young should have a solid year or better in 2016. It’s not clear how Floyd fits in long-term behind both McPhee and Young.
Like McPhee, LaMarr Houston is also a versatile player capable of playing anywhere from outside linebacker to defensive tackle at 6-3 270. Houston, a 2010 2nd round pick, graded out in the top-20 among 4-3 defensive ends in every season from 2011 to 2013, earning him a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal from the Bears two off-seasons ago. However, he tore his ACL early in 2014 and wasn’t the same player in a new position in 2015, finishing slightly below average. With Floyd coming in, Houston could see even fewer snaps than the 417 he saw last season and is likely going to be a cap casualty next off-season, owed 6 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2017.
Acho, meanwhile, will likely be the 5th outside linebacker, if he even makes the team. He was the only one of the bunch who struggled last season, finishing 83rd out of 110 eligible edge defenders. Acho has plenty of experience, with 39 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, but has graded out below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. It’s overall a ton of depth at the outside linebacker position, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they have big holes at other positions. Both McPhee and Houston can rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, and they likely will pretty often, given the Bears’ lack of defensive line depth, but it’s still hard to see everyone being able to play as much as they should.
Middle linebacker is the position where the Bears improved the most this off-season, as the other two starters they added in free agency were middle linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Trevathan signed a 4-year, 24.5 million dollar deal, coming over Denver, where he used to play for head coach John Fox, who is now the head coach in Chicago, while Freeman signed for 12 million over 3 years, coming from the Colts. Trevathan finished 11th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 and 10th among linebackers in 2015 (with a season lost to injury in between). Injuries have otherwise never been a concern, as he’s missed just one other game due to injury in his career. He was a steal for 24.5 million over 4 years.
Freeman was actually better than Trevathan last year, finishing 4th among linebackers. He’s never been anywhere near that good in any of his other seasons, even finishing 39th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers in 2014, and he’s highly unlikely to match the best season of his career in his age 30 season in 2016, but he was also a steal on that 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. Christian Jones, who led all Bear linebackers with 745 snaps played in 2015, returns as a backup to both Freeman and Trevathan and actually wasn’t terrible last season, finishing 38th out of 97 eligible linebackers in the first significant action of his career, since going undrafted in 2014. It’s a deep and talented linebacking corps across the board.
The Bears used their first round in 2014 on Kyle Fuller, a cornerback out of Virginia Tech. Fuller played all 16 games as a rookie (making 14 starts), but was hobbled by an ankle injury for most of the year and finished 107th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus as a result. He was a lot better in his 2nd year in the league though, finishing 37th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. A talented, high-upside player who is only going into his age 24 season, his future is bright and he could easily take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2016. The one concern here is he had off-season knee surgery which puts his status for week 1 into question.
The Bears desperately need Fuller to stay healthy, given their lack of cornerback talent after him on the depth chart. I mentioned earlier the Bears re-signed cornerback Tracy Porter, but they overpaid him on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. Porter has plenty of experience with 73 career starts, but has graded out below average in 6 straight seasons, including 78th out of 111 eligible in 2015. Going into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to be better going forward. He’s also missed 46 games with injury in 8 years in the NFL. Making matters even worse, the Bears have no depth at the position or better starting options.
That’s the reason Vernon Hargreaves or Eli Apple would have made a lot of sense in the first round instead of Leonard Floyd. Instead, the Bears did not take a cornerback until the 4th round, when they grabbed Deiondre Hall. He’s probably not ready for action as a rookie, but he may have to be at some point this season. For now, 2015 undrafted free agent Bryce Callahan is the favorite for the #3 cornerback job, covering the slot in sub packages. Callahan was okay on 329 snaps as a rookie, finishing 60th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. Undersized at 5-9 187, playing on the slot masks a lot of his flaws, but he’s still tough to rely on it that role and also isn’t a serious candidate to start outside.
At safety, the Bears struck gold in the 5th round last year with Penn State’s Adrian Amos. Amos made 16 starts as a rookie and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked safety. He’s an obvious starter in 2016 and a nice young building block for this team. The Bears will have to hope they struck gold again in the mid rounds, as Deon Bush, a 4th round safety out of Miami, is in the mix to start at the other safety spot, following the release of the declining Antrel Rolle, ahead of his age 34 season.
Bush’s primary competition will be Chris Prosinski, a 2011 4th round pick who has never been much more other than a special teamer and reserve in his career. He struggled on 342 snaps last season. 6th round rookie DeAndre Houston-Carson could be the mix and there are some that feel Deiondre Hall, given his size at 6-2 199, is going to end up at safety long-term. The fact that so many mid-round rookies are in the mix for that starting job should tell you all you need to know. They’re unlikely to strike gold again, as they did with Amos last season. It’s a secondary with a lot of problems.
Jay Cutler gets a lot of weapons in the passing game back healthy, including #1 wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, but he loses offensive coordinator Adam Gase and doesn’t figure to get much help from his offensive line or his running game. The Bears failed to upgrade the offensive line position this off-season and also let talented left guard Matt Slauson go, rather than moving him inside to center where they needed him. Along with Slauson, Matt Forte is gone and leaves behind a weak backfield. Both of those players were aging veterans, but the Bears still don’t have the talent to replace them. Outside of Jeffery and Kyle Long, it’s not a talented offense. Defensively, their front 7 is much improved and could mask a lot of the secondary’s problems, but this roster doesn’t seem talented enough to make the playoffs.
Prediction: 6-10 4th in NFC North