The 2016 NFL season begins now, with 32 teams scheming to knock off the reigning champion Denver Broncos. The NFL Draft is just around the corner, but the first step in any offseason plan is to assess a team’s needs. Here we look at what the Chicago Bears team needs are.
These reports were compiled with the help of Inside The Pylon’s writers and editors, as well as the outstanding offseason primers at OverTheCap.com, which are invaluable for understanding the salary cap and contractual obligations of each team. In addition, the depth chart data is courtesy RosterResource.com – thanks for all your support!
From Papa Bear George Halas’ championship pre-Super-Bowl teams to the “46 Defense” schemed by Buddy Ryan in the mid-’80s, the Chicago Bears have been synonymous with smashmouth defensive football. Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 schemes of the last decade yielded the franchise’s most recent conference championship, and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI. The D has fallen on hard times in the Windy City, however. During head coach Marc Trestman’s brief tenure, the Bears finished in the bottom three in both points and yards in each season. The McCaskey ownership group is famously patient – no coach had had a term shorter than five years since the early 1980s – but they pulled the plug on Trestman after two seasons. The hope was that defensive-minded hire John Fox, along with new general manager Ryan Pace, would restore the glory days of the “Monsters of the Midway.”
Fox inherited a roster that had run a 4-3 defense for years under Smith, and as a 3-4 devotee he oversaw a season of transition in 2015. The team dealt veteran edge rusher Jared Allen to the Carolina Panthers and added do-it-all defensive piece Pernell McPhee from the Baltimore Ravens, another 3-4 team. They moved on from Cover 2 cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings and safeties Ryan Mundy and favorite punching bag Chris Conte. Early returns showed modest improvement, as the 2015 Bears allowed 45 fewer points and 506 fewer yards than in 2014.
However, the improvement will need to accelerate. Chicago only added a game to their win column, again finishing in the cellar of the competitive NFC North. The team has now failed to make the playoffs for five consecutive seasons. The offense has endured as much turnover as the defense, with top receiver Brandon Marshall dealt before the 2015 season and running back Matt Forte, tight end Martellus Bennett, left tackle Jermon Bushrod, and offensive coordinator Adam Gase all departing earlier this offseason. The team has finished 23rd in points two seasons running, and it will need some surprise performances to reach even that ranking in 2016.
The Bears are about halfway through a difficult transition. On offense, they have moved on from older, expensive veterans, building a younger, cheaper core. Time will tell if the youngsters can match the star veterans. On defense, Chicago has shifted from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and revamped the secondary, but there are still holes and positions where the team lacks youth. For the “Monsters of the Midway” to return, the team needs youngsters on both sides of the ball, and they must find contributors in the 2016 draft.
Bennett is the latest skill player to find his way out of Chicago, traded to the New England Patriots for a mid-round pick. He dipped from 919 yards and six touchdowns in 2014 to 439 yards and three touchdowns in 2015, and with a contract year looming the Bears elected to move in a different direction. That leaves veteran Zach Miller, who, at the age of 31, nabbed 34 catches for 439 yards and five touchdowns last season, all career highs. Backups Rob Housler and Khari Lee provide athleticism, but the team could use a long-term solution at the position. The 2016 draft is considered weak at the position, but top options Hunter Henry from Arkansas or Austin Hooper from Stanford would fit in nicely.
McPhee and Lamarr Houston combined for 14 sacks rushing off the edge and from the interior. At 6’2” 274 pounds and 6’3” 302 pounds, respectively, they have uncommon size for outside linebackers and can rush from the interior at times. Complementing them are Willie Young and Sam Acho, more conventional edge rushers. This is a solid group of players, but an older group: Acho is the youngest, and he turns 28 in September. They need an injection of youth via the draft, but the 2016 class is fairly shallow at the position. Clemson’s Shaq Lawson and Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence are options with the 11th pick.
Rookie fifth-rounder Adrian Amos led the team in defensive snaps. He was joined in the secondary by elder statesman Antrel Rolle, veteran Chris Prosinski, and undrafted rookie Harold Jones-Quartey. All return for 2016, but the 33-year-old Rolle missed nine games with ankle and groin injuries. The team needs another viable starter to flank Amos, who looks like a keeper. A versatile defender like Boise State’s Darian Thompson, Ohio State’s Vonn Bell, or William & Mary’s DeAndre Houston-Carson would fit the bill.
Who is Jay Cutler? Is he the gunslinger with as much physical talent as anyone in the league? Or the apathetic diva made the butt of a prevalent internet meme? The reality is somewhere in the middle. Cutler has never been a superstar – he’s never even finished in the top 10 in passer rating – but in a league where Brock Osweiler is getting huge money after half a season of games, avoiding the merry-go-round of terrible quarterback play has real value. Cutler has high highs and low lows, but at the end of the day, he’s a roughly average player. The 32-year-old is signed at a reasonable price through 2020, and the team can realistically move on as soon as the 2017 offseason. They’ll want to add depth behind Smokin’ Jay, as veteran Jimmy Clausen signed with the Ravens and backups David Fales and Matt Blanchard have zero NFL passes between them.
Chicago’s trade of Marshall to the Jets created a hole that the team was never entirely able to fill. Injuries hurt, as 2014 leading receiver Alshon Jeffery and offseason acquisition Eddie Royal each missed seven games with injuries. Worst of all, seventh-overall pick Kevin White never got on the field, suffering a shin injury in camp that required surgery. Marquess Wilson, still just 23 years old, showed flashes with 464 yards in the air. The team may stand pat with what they have and hope for improved health. If do they use a high pick on a wide receiver, it could indicate that negotiations for a long-term deal with Jeffery are going poorly, as he will play out the 2016 season on the franchise tag.
Veteran left tackle Bushrod missed time with a concussion and a shoulder injury, which thrust 2014 seventh-round pick Charles Leno, Jr., into the blind side protector role. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and Duke Manyweather ranked Leno the 32nd-best LT in football, but the Bears seem to be content with his play. That wasn’t true at the other tackle spot. Kyle Long, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, had acquitted himself well at guard in his first two seasons, but he struggled at right tackle in 2015. Chicago inked the underrated Bobby Massie to fill that role in 2016, kicking Long back to guard. They will likely look to add additional depth in the draft – maybe even someone to push Leno.
The Bears have made restocking the defensive line a priority over Fox’s tenure, adding Eddie Goldman with the 39th pick in 2015 to complement 2014 draftees Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton and former Bronco Mitch Unrein. They lost Jarvis Jenkins in free agency but added Akiem Hicks, who impressed with the Patriots. Versatile edge players McPhee and Houston rotate into the DL at times, too. It’s not a top-flight unit, but there’s enough youth and talent to hope for improvement in 2016. With the 2016 draft deep at DL, they have plenty of options if they elect to add to their stable.
Kyle Fuller, the 14th overall pick in 2014, and free agent addition Tracy Porter formed a decent cornerback tandem in 2015. The nickelback position was a revolving door, however, with veteran Sherrick McManus, stiff-hipped Alan Ball, and undrafted rookie Bryce Callahan taking turns as the third corner. Callahan, who played collegiately at Rice, was effective in the slot, but he missed time with a quad injury. Ball is a free agent, and the team could use additional depth.
Set, For Better Or Worse
Forte was a fixture in Chicago for nearly a decade, compiling 12,718 yards from scrimmage in 120 career games. The 30-year-old showed some signs of decline in 2015, however, as his 898 yards on the ground represented a career low. When the veteran missed three games with a knee injury, that opened the door to rookie fourth-rounder Jeremy Langford, who tallied 170 yards on the ground and another 196 through the air in his starts. That was enough for the team to let Forte leave via free agency. Behind Langford are scatback Jacquizz Rodgers, third-year back Ka’Deem Carey, and special teamer Senorise Perry.
Interior Offensive Line
The Bears should be set at guard, with veteran Matt Slauson at left guard and Long kicking back inside to replace the perennially-disappointing Vlad Ducasse at right guard. Hroniss Grasu, a 2015 third-round pick, started eight games as a rookie. He’ll compete for the role of backup guard with free agent additions Manny Ramirez and Ted Larsen, journeymen with experience at both guard and center.
The Bears have had problems at linebacker since four-time All-Pro Brian Urlacher retired following the 2012 season. Fox and Pace have evidently decided that enough is enough, luring free agents Jerrell Freeman from the Colts and Danny Trevathan from Fox’s old Broncos team. Former first-rounder Shea McClellin, who never quite found his fit in either the 4-3 or 3-4, has departed in free agency. Christian Jones and Jonathan Anderson, two 24-year-olds, provide depth and special teams contributions.
Robbie Gould returns for a twelfth season in the Windy City; he remains one of the game’s best kickers. Punter Pat O’Donnell doesn’t have the strongest leg but he rarely boots the ball into the end zone for touchbacks. The team brought in Omar Bolden, another of Fox’s former Broncos players, to help with return duties. In 2015, returns were largely handled by veteran Marc Mariani, who re-signed earlier in the offseason.