STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After a 2010 season where seemingly everything went right for the Bears, 2011 was a punch to the gut. A promising 7-3 start was derailed by key injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, exposing roster deficiencies and leading to their general manager’s departure. Now, after a new hire (GM Phil Emery) and an aggressive offseason, the Bears are ready to make another push in the NFC.
Mike Tice has a lengthy coaching resume, but has limited time as a NFL play caller. That didn’t stop the Bears from naming him their new offensive coordinator. Lack of experience, though, may not be his only obstacle. All signs point to a lengthy holdout for offensive centerpiece Matt Forte and new acquisition Brandon Marshall can rarely stay out of trouble. To their credit, the Bears did do an excellent job of finding backup plans by signing Michael Bush and drafting Alshon Jeffery, but the offense will be at its best when all the pieces are playing together. Speaking of those pieces, if everything is smoothed out before the season, Jay Cutler will have the best weapons at his disposal since his days in Denver. Working under the assumption that Gabe Carimi’s return from knee surgery would be an upgrade in itself, the Bears chose not to address their spotty offensive line this offseason. While the coaches do believe a change from blocking schemes under previous coordinator Mike Martz will also improve the line’s performance, they remain more confident than anyone else.
While many new faces will be seen on the offensive side of the ball, the defense has hardly changed. The workmanlike Cover 2 will remain intact and continue to be the strength of the team. The major addition was first-round draft pick Shea McClellin, who was brought in to beef up the pass rush opposite Julius Peppers. Though expected to play defensive end, the rookie could be used in many different roles similar to Green Bay’s Clay Matthews. If there is a question on defense, it is the health of Brian Urlacher’s knee. Urlacher damaged both his MCL and PCL in last year’s season finale, and reports regarding his health have varied throughout the offseason. The special teams unit will be hurt by Johnny Knox’s inevitable absence, but after a dinged up season, Devin Hester should return to his old form in 2012.
Despite a handful of question marks, the Bears still have a team in place that should contend. The ugly final six games of 2011 likely left a bad taste in fans’ mouths, but the first 10 games shouldn’t be discredited so quickly. The Bears will have their hands full with the Packers and the Lions, but anything less than 10 wins or a playoff berth in 2012 will be deemed a disappointment, and may land head coach Lovie Smith in hot water.
Brandon Marshall, WR (Dolphins)
Reunited (with Jay Cutler) and it feels so good.
Michael Bush, RB (Raiders)
The perfect backup and Matt Forte holdout insurance, the bruising Bush has also shown that he can shine in the No. 1 role.
Jason Campbell, QB( (Raiders)
A much-needed addition after the backup QB follies of the past few years in Chicago.
Shea McClellin, DE, (Boise State (Round 1, 19th overall)
The Bears need him to make an immediate impact to beef up their waning pass rush.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, (South Carolina (Round 2, 45th overall)
Comes with conditioning questions, but could become Jay Cutler’s new best friend in the red zone.
Marion Barber, RB (Retired)
Rather than sit, he quit. His bruising presence will be replaced
Roy Williams, WR (FA)
Didn’t really pan out with the Bears, who got serious about upgrading at wideout by adding Marshall and Jeffery.
Corey Graham, CB (Ravens)
Special teams ace will finally get more playing time on defense in Baltimore.
MARSHALL, MARSHALL, MARSHALL…
Since Marty Booker’s 1,189 yards in 2002, the Bears have not had a 1,000 yard receiver on their roster. Not even two years under pass-happy Mike Martz could break that string. Two traded third-round draft picks later, do the Bears finally have their man? In his six-year career, Brandon Marshall has failed to crack 1,000 yards just once, his rookie season. During that span, Marshall had his two best seasons when current Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was slinging him passes in Denver. But, however much the deal looks like a bargain or brings good vibes from a Cutler reunion, the Dolphins moved him for a reason, and were reportedly ready to cut him before the Bears made an offer. Miami had enough of his well-documented off-the-field problems and constant headaches. Could a suspension be coming to start the year for the troubled star? If so, will it lead to more problems and the same old story in Chicago? The Bears believe a fresh start and a reconnection with Cutler can keep the wideout in check and bring out his glory years, but if one thing is certain with Marshall, it’s that nothing is certain.
WIN-OR-ELSE FOR LOVIE?
Rarely does hiring a new GM and keeping your old head coach work out well, but that is the awkward situation in play for Lovie Smith after the Bears replaced Jerry Angelo with Phil Emery. Smith is an owner and player favorite, who is signed through 2013, but this has all the makings of a make-or-break year. Smith is 14 games over .500 in his eight-year career, but also has just three playoff appearances. Those numbers may keep you safe elsewhere, but not in the Windy City. The combination of a new GM, a 1-6 record against Green Bay the last three years, and a spotty playoff resume will certainly put Lovie under the microscope, which could lead to major distractions in 2012.
WHAT IS FORTE’S FUTURE?
Contract negotiations between Chicago and their star running back have not gone well, and may have reached their tipping point. The departure of Angelo was supposed to ease discussions with Matt Forte, but no progress has been made. Rather than pay him long-term along the lines of Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson, or DeAngelo Williams, the Bears stuck Forte with the franchise tag, which he has yet to sign. As insurance, the Bears then signed free agent Michael Bush and re-signed Kahlil Bell. Despite Forte losing leverage by the day, a holdout into training camp still seems highly likely. Who will be the first to crack? Forte’s track record speaks for itself, but do the Bears want to invest long-term in the 26-year-old? The Bears offense may hang in the balance.
RISING: Jay Cutler has plenty of new toys to play with after an impressive 2011 was cut short by injury.
DECLINING: Matt Forte’s ongoing contract dispute, plus the signing of Michael Bush, will cut into both his offseason and regular season reps.
SLEEPER: Alshon Jeffery may still be a work in progress, but his 6-4 frame in the red zone will be hard to overlook.
SUPERSLEEPER: Last year, the 6-7 Kellen Davis caught five TDs in an unfriendly system. With Mike Martz out and Mike Tice in, a rise in numbers would not be out of the question.
Lance Briggs, LB
With his contract dispute over, an excellent bet to top 100 tackles again for the eighth time in nine years.
Brian Urlacher, LB
Mr. Consistency, assuming he is healthy.
Julius Peppers, DE
If Shea McClellin is the bookend the team envisions, Peppers could be in for his best year in Chicago.
RotoWire Rank: 5