By Michael Beller
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
2008 was a surprisingly decent campaign for the Bears, who went 9-7 and were a Week 17 victory at Houston away from making the playoffs instead of the Eagles. Kyle Orton won a quarterback competition with Rex Grossman in training camp and became an effective quarterback and leader, completing 272 of 465 passes with 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 2,972 yards. The maturation of Orton was made easier with the addition of Tulane running back Matt Forte, whom the Bears selected in the second round of last year's draft. He had a superlative rookie season, rushing for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns on 316 carries, while catching 63 passes for 477 yards and four touchdowns.
Orton, Forte and tight end Greg Olsen appeared to give the Bears three solid building blocks for the future. That was before the Jay Cutler saga this offseason, in which Cutler felt betrayed by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and new coach Josh McDaniels when they reportedly made a big play for QB Matt Cassel. When it became clear, as a result of the feather-ruffling, that Cutler would not take another snap behind center for Denver, the Bears acted quickly, sending Orton and two first-round picks to the Mile High City for the Pro Bowl quarterback. Then, just hours after trading for Cutler, the Bears signed five-time First Team All-Pro Orlando Pace to anchor their offensive line at left tackle. The addition of Cutler (and Pace, to a lesser degree) immediately makes the Bears co-favorites in the NFC North along with the Vikings, and gives them a legitimate chance at a Super Bowl run.
Cutler does not single-handedly solve every offensive problem the Bears have, however. He literally may already be the best quarterback in franchise history, but they still have one of the league's weakest groups of wide receivers. The only bit of certainty is that Devin Hester will start. Cutler and Hester could become quite the connection, as Cutler has a huge arm and Hester is a deadly home run threat. However, the Bears need another receiver to step up and be a credible pass-catching option along with Hester, Olsen and Forte.
In 2008, the defense appeared to be as opportunistic as ever, registering 32 takeaways, ranking behind only the Ravens in the entire league. The years may change but the faces remain the same, as the Bears are still led by Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Tommie Harris on defense.
The Bears enter 2009 with a ton of optimism after the Cutler trade finally brings their offence into the 21st century. With him joining budding stars like Forte and Olsen, along with an above-average defense, it could be a very good season on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Round, Player, Overall
3. (68) Jarron Gilbert, DE, San Jose State
Adds youth behind Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown.
3. (99) Juaquin Iglesias, WR, Oklahoma
Played in a big time offense at a big time school; could start immediately.
4. (105) Henry Melton, DE, Texas
Another speed rushing end, which the team covets.
4. (119) D.J. Moore, CB, Vanderbilt
Bears feel they got a steal with Moore, who dropped due to a subpar pro day.
5. (140) Johnny Knox, WR, Abilene Christian
Big time speed threat adds another downfield option.
5. (154) Marcus Freeman, LB, Ohio State
An athletic player who fits right into the team's scheme.
6. (190) Al Afalava, S, Oregon State
Adds needed safety depth and will contribute on special teams.
7. (246) Lance Louis, G, San Diego State
Provides offensive line depth.
7. (251) Derek Kinder, WR, Pittsburgh
Very athletic receiver who landed in a great situation for a young pass catcher. Has as legit a chance as any seventh-rounder to stick.
Jay Cutler, QB (Broncos)
Makes the Bears legit contenders for the NFC crown.
Orlando Pace, LT (Rams)
Gives aging line a much-needed boost.
Michael Gaines, TE (Lions)
Could help out with his blocking.
Kyle Orton, QB (Broncos)
Should continue to grow under offensive guru Josh McDaniels.
Brandon Lloyd, WR (FA)
Shone for a game or two before getting hurt last year.
John Tait, OT (FA)
Replaced by Orlando Pace at all-important left tackle.
THE CUTLER EFFECT
Jim McMahon, Mike Tomczak, Jim Harbaugh, Peter Tom Willis, Will Furrer, Erik Kramer, Steve Walsh, Dave Krieg, Rick Mirer, Steve Stenstrom, Moses Moreno, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Jim Miller, Chris Chandler, Henry Burris, Kordell Stewart, Rex Grossman, Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, Kyle Orton, Brian Griese. That's the list of Bears' starting quarterbacks since 1987. It's quite the list and one that must be seen to be believed and to truly understand just what the acquisition of Jay Cutler, easily the most prolific passer in team history, means to the franchise. The trickle down effect he will have on the team should be immense, especially in the case of Matt Forte. As the 2008 season wore on, teams stacked the box against Forte and dared Kyle Orton to beat them deep. Even though the Bears don't have the best receiving corps in the world, you can be sure teams won't try that against Cutler. Also, the impact he has already made on the fan base cannot be discounted. Chicago is a football-crazy city that has been waiting for a franchise quarterback since the days of Sid Luckman. There's a good chance they finally have their man.
BUT WHO WILL CATCH CUTLER'S PASSES?
We know Devin Hester, Greg Olsen and Matt Forte will be big parts of the offense. Desmond Clark should figure into the mix as well. After that, however, things become a bit cloudy. Rashied Davis, Earl Bennett and Juaquin Iglesias figure to be the main contenders to start alongside Hester. Davis has the most NFL experience, Bennett and Cutler formed a dangerous connection in their college days at Vanderbilt, and Iglesias comes from an NFL-style offense at Oklahoma. The Bears could go after a free agent like Plaxico Burress or Marvin Harrison, although the odds they go after Burress are slim considering they've shown a history of avoiding malcontents. No matter what, someone else will have to step up if the Bears are to be contenders in the NFC.
IS Matt Forte A TOP FIVE PICK?
After jettisoning Thomas Jones and acknowledging the sunk cost that was Cedric Benson, the Bears were looking for a do-it-all back in the 2008 draft. Their prayers were answered with Matt Forte, who was the team's best receiver in addition to rushing for 1,200-plus yards. We've already discussed how Jay Cutler should ease the pressure on Forte, and with a few of last year's high picks sliding down draft boards (LaDainian Tomlinson, Joseph Addai), he could easily be a consensus top-five pick by time draft season rolls around. He displayed the durability that impressed the Bears from his time at Tulane, as he handled the ball 379 times and started all 16 games. Moreover, he fumbled just one time. The Bears trust him to do everything offensively, and should put the ball in his hands just as often this season, even with Cutler on board. Add it all up, and it could be a monster year for Forte.
Rising: With his aforementioned top-five potential, Matt Forte is the highest impact Bear in fantasy terms since Neal Anderson.
Declining: Desmond Clark would be a shoo-in starter on plenty of teams, but this should be the year he really takes a back seat to Greg Olsen.
Sleeper: There's been a major resurgence at the tight end position, which could lead to Greg Olsen getting overlooked. Be ready to pounce on the ultra-talented Olsen, who should have his best year in the league now that Jay Cutler is in Chicago.
Supersleeper: In his one year with Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt, Earl Bennett caught 79 passes for 876 yards and nine touchdowns. With few established options at receiver and an already great rapport with his quarterback, Bennett could break out as Devin Hester's running mate.
Lance Briggs, LB
Another year, another 100-plus tackle season for Briggs. Also had three picks.
Charles Tillman, CB
Notorious ball hawk piled up 93 tackles and three interceptions.
Alex Brown, DE
Often goes unnoticed, but led team with six sacks last season.
RotoWire Rank: 12
Article first appeared 6/09/09
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