STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Bears entered the 2005 season with low expectations but with a sense of optimism as the pieces were in place for future success. It was supposed to be the year Rex Grossman finally was healthy and could develop a rapport with new Bear Muhsin Muhammad. It was supposed to be the year Cedric Benson went through the usual rookie growing pains while breaking in as an NFL running back. And it was supposed to be the year the defense continued to slowly mesh in coach Lovie Smith's attacking system. Suffice to say, things did not go as planned.
First, a holdout caused Benson to miss training camp, setting him back weeks in learning the offense and forcing him to start the year watching Thomas Jones from the bench. Then disaster struck when Grossman suffered a fractured ankle in a preseason game that kept him out four months. With the Bears failing to secure a veteran backup quarterback, they were forced to throw rookie fourth-rounder Kyle Orton into the fire as their starter. It looked like it was going to be a dreadfully long year in Chicago.
To no one's surprise, the Bears lost three of four to start the season and fans were already calling for the head of Orton. Then, a miracle: the Bears started winning ... a lot. Thanks to a defense that revived memories of the 1985 Monsters of the Midway and a running back in Jones who blossomed into one of the league's best, Chicago overcame the inexperience of its young QB and won eight in a row, going on to finish 11-5 and capturing the NFC North.
Although the Bears' astonishing run ended with a divisional playoff loss to Carolina, Chicago learned two valuable lessons in that game: one, Grossman, who returned for the season's final month but struggled mightily against the Panthers, might not be the immediate answer at QB, and two, the secondary, which allowed Steve Smith to run wild that day for 218 yards on 12 catches, needed some shoring up.
To fix their quarterback problem, the Bears signed the reliable Brian Griese, who will begin this year as Grossman's backup but could see action if injury once again befalls the fragile incumbent. General manager Jerry Angelo addressed the team's secondary issues by bringing in the Carolina cornerback duo of Ricky Manning, Jr. and Dante Wesley to help shut down the pass. Chicago also added some defensive depth in the draft, surrounding leader Brian Urlacher with even more talent.
With a tougher schedule awaiting in 2006, the Bears will be hard pressed to match last year's No. 2 conference seed and playoff bye. However, they should be considered the favorites in a lackluster NFC North.
Round, Overall, Player
2. (42) Danieal Manning, S, Abilene Christian
Two-time Division II All-American can stop the pass and run; will back up at safety and contribute on special teams.
2. (57) Devin Hester, CB/WR, Miami
Speedy, dynamic athlete should provide immediate value as return man. Does he have a true position?
3. (73) Dusty Dvoracek, DT, Oklahoma
Polished as both run stopper and pass rusher with a great motor. Off-field issues a concern.
4. (120) Jamar Williams, LB, Arizona State
Strong and fast, can avoid blocks and hit hard, but undersized to cover tight ends.
5. (159) Mark Anderson, DE, Alabama
Potential steal has great speed to pursue quarterbacks.
6. (195) J.D. Runnels, FB, Oklahoma
Technically sound blocker who can also catch.
6. (200) - Tyler Reed, OG, Penn State
Provides offensive line depth.
1. Brian Griese, QB (Buccaneers)
Trusty veteran QB the Bears have needed for years. Will begin as backup but could start if Grossman struggles or goes down.
2. Ricky Manning, Jr., CB (Panthers)
Never missed a game in three years with Carolina. Likely the primary nickel corner.
3. Dante Wesley, CB (Panthers)
Adds depth and experience to a secondary that lacked both.
1. Jerry Azumah, CB retired
Forced to call it quits due to an arthritic hip condition.
2. Mike Green, S (Seahawks)
Always seemed to be in the doghouse in Chicago.
1. Working in Benson
The Bears didn't draft Cedric Benson fourth overall last year to keep him on the bench. After a disappointing rookie campaign filled with inconsistency and injury, Benson will see an increased role in 2006, but by how much? While management likely will lobby for the young back to play, the coaching staff will have a hard time justifying sitting Thomas Jones, who is coming off a career year in which he rushed for 1,335 yards and nine touchdowns. Jones incurred the ire of coach Lovie Smith by leaving voluntary workouts in late April. As a result, Benson ran with the first-team during the team's June minicamp. This is a sticky situation that still needs to play out, but for now expect a time-share, with Benson possibly emerging as the team's preferred choice around the goal line.
2. Grossman's Leash
For the third consecutive year, Rex Grossman will enter Week 1 as the Bears' starting quarterback. However, unlike the previous two seasons, the team finally has a competent backup in Brian Griese. Knowing they have a squad built to win now, how quickly will the Bears pull the trigger if Grossman (assuming he stays healthy, which is no given) starts to struggle? Griese has proven he can run an offense and may in fact give Chicago a better chance to succeed in 2006.
3. Jockeying for Position at WR
The lone certainty on the Bears' receiving depth chart is that Muhsin Muhammad is the No. 1. After that, it's more or less a crapshoot. Since none of the team's hodgepodge of wideouts has done anything to separate from the pack, it is unclear as to how playing time will be distributed amongst the others. Mark Bradley seems to be the most talented of the bunch and definitely has the most upside, and Bernard Berrian's speed makes him a constant deep threat. While those two could have fantasy value this year, don't count on Justin Gage having any, as a deserved demotion should be headed his way.
4. Is the Secondary Improved?
While the Bears were obviously elated with how their defense played last year (the unit allowed a league-best 12.6 points per game), the performance of their secondary was often spotty, especially in the playoffs. To address this issue, Chicago signed former Panthers corners Ricky Manning Jr. and Dante Wesley and used its first two draft picks on defensive backs Danieal Manning and Devin Hester. So is the secondary now a force to be reckoned with? The Bears' strategy of opting for quantity over quality probably means the answer is "no." The two rookies likely will be used mainly on special teams, and Wesley does not have an interception in his four-year career. Manning Jr. could prove to be an upgrade at nickel back, but the Bears better keep him away from any Chicagoland Denny's.
Rising: After picking off five passes as a rookie in 2004, Nathan Vasher built on that total with eight interceptions last year. The cornerback quickly is becoming one of the league's top turnover creators.
Declining: Muhsin Muhammad saw his numbers take a huge drop last season (64 catches for 750 yards and four TDs) and also looked a step slower.
Supersleeper: WR Mark Bradley showed flashes in his 2005 rookie campaign and should see a much bigger role this year as he returns from a knee injury.
Brian Urlacher, LB
With the numbers he posts (121 tackles and six sacks in '05), how can you call him overrated?
Lance Briggs, LB
107 tackles in 2005 for one of the league's rising stars.
Adewale Ogunleye, DE
Bounced back with 10 sacks last year.
Charles Tillman, CB
Great source of tackles (93 in '05) and picks (five).
RotoWire Rank: 2
Article first appeared 6/20/06