STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The honeymoon in Chicago is officially over for Lovie Smith. After winning NFL Coach of the Year in 2005 and reaching the Super Bowl in 2006, Smith has failed to lead the Bears to the playoffs for three straight seasons. Although the team had high hopes last season after trading for quarterback Jay Cutler, the Bears finished a disappointing 7-9 and were eliminated from playoff contention after Week 14.
Despite retooling the offense following the 2008 season, the Bears' offensive woes continued in .09. The team's two biggest stars . Cutler and Matt Forte . both fell well short of their lofty expectations. Cutler threw 26 interceptions-the most by an NFL quarterback since 2005-and mustered a QB rating of only 76.8. Forte had a similarly underwhelming year, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry and totaling just four touchdowns. The offense did show some signs of life at the end of the season, however, as wideout Devin Aromashodu emerged as a receiving threat and the Bears scored 73 points over their last two games.
The Bears' once-vaunted defense also continued its slide into mediocrity last season. The heart of the defense, Brian Urlacher, missed the entire season after dislocating his wrist in Week 1, and the team
never seemed to recover. The Bears gave up at least 21 points in 11 of the team's 16 games and were less than average across the board, ranking 17th in total defense and 21st in scoring defense.
After such a lackluster year, the Bears needed to-and did-make a splash in the offseason. The team signed Julius Peppers, the crown jewel of the free-agent class, to a six-year, $91.5 million contract. Though Peppers has a reputation for taking plays off, he is a premier pass rusher who provides a massive upgrade to the team's defensive line. The Bears also added Chester Taylor, a versatile back with good hands who will help Forte shoulder the rushing load. While the Bears draft class doesn't include any big names (the Bears didn't have a first- or second-round pick), third-round pick Major Wright fills a glaring need at safety. The team didn't suffer any major losses this offseason except for waiving Orlando Pace, but losing the aging star shouldn't downgrade the offensive line.
Looking towards the 2010 season, the Bears should be better on both sides of the ball.The defense will benefit from the return of Urlacher and the addition of Peppers, while the connection between Cutler and Aromashodu provides some hope for the offense. Nevertheless, the Bears are still the third-best team in the NFC North and seem destined to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year. If that happens, don't expect Smith to be the team's head coach in 2011.
Round, Overall, Player
3. (75) Major Wright, S, Florida-Should eventually end the revolving door thatís been the teamís free safety position, though itís no guarantee heíll begin the season as the starter.
4. (109) Corey Wootton, DE, Northwestern-Draft value plummeted after struggling to return from a knee injury suffered in 2008 but possesses first-round talent if he can get back to pre-injury form.
5. (141) Joshua Moore, CB, Kansas State-Adds depth to the secondary but likely to see most of his action this season on special teams.
7. (218) JíMarcus Webb, OT, West Texas A&M-The tallest offensive tackle in the draft, the 6-8, 335-pound Webb is a longterm prospect.
Julius Peppers, DE (Panthers) The top defensive free agent has averaged more than 10 sacks a year for his career.
Chris Harris, S (Panthers) Likely to start at strong safety.
Orlando Pace, OT (FA) The former No. 1 overall pick was waived in the offseason after finishing 2009 as a reserve.
Devin Aromashodu ó BREAKOUT STAR?
Heading into Week 14 of the 2009 season, Aromashodu had posted career totals of nine catches for 112 yards and no touchdowns. After receiving his first start of the season, he nearly matched those totals in Week 14 alone, hauling in eight passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. Aromashodu's breakout performance earned him a spot in the starting lineup for the rest of the year and he didn't disappoint, recording 22 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns in the team's last four games. Despite the late-season heroics, Aromashodu is not guaranteed a starting spot this season. Indeed, as of the start of the team's May minicamp, offensive coordinator Mike Martz named Devin Hester and Johnny Knox as the team's two starters. While even the No. 3 wideout in a Martz-run offense sees a decent number of looks, Aromashodu's production and fantasy value won't match that of late 2009 if he is unable to crack the starting lineup. Keep an eye on the Bears depth chart, however, as Aromashodu could be a solid sleeper pick if he is able to surpass Knox or Hester.
CAN CUTLER REBOUND?
Which Jay Cutler will show up in 2010? Will it be the 2008 version that made the Pro Bowl? Or will it be the 2009 version who threw the most interceptions by an NFL quarterback since 2005? The answer is probably somewhere in between. During Cutler's Pro Bowl campaign with the Broncos in 2008, he was throwing to the impressive wideout corps of Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal and Brandon Stokley. During his unsuccessful 2009 debut with the Bears, he was throwing to the unproven likes of Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Aromashodu. While the team's receiving corps hasn't been reconfigured since then, the insertion of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator means the team should transition to a more pass-centric offense. That should boost Cutler's production, plus he will benefit from being able to pass to the up and-coming Aromashodu for the entire season.
WILL OFFSEASON SPENDING TRANSLATE INTO ON-FIELD GAINS?
The Bears went on the biggest spending spree of any team in the NFL this offseason, spending over $100 million in an attempt to upgrade the team on both sides of the ball. Despite spending more in one offseason than GM Jerry Angelo had in the last eight seasons combined, the team only picked up one sure starter in Julius Peppers. Peppers, however, was the marquee name in this year's free-agent class and could help transform the Bears into one of the league's best pass rushing teams. Offensive additions Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna should help improve a rushing attack that ranked 29th in the league last year. Manumaleuna is one of the league's best blocking tight ends, while Taylor is a versatile back who's expected to share rushing duties with Matt Forte.
Rising: Devin Aromashodu had a strong finish to the 2009 season and has a shot to emerge from training camp as the top receiver on the depth chart.
Sleeper: Pass-catching backs such as Chester Taylor are normally a focal point in Mike Martzís offensive scheme.
Julius Peppers, DE Has recorded double-digit sacks in five of the last six seasons.
Lance Briggs, LB Recorded a team-high 118 tackles in 2009.
Brian Urlacher, LB The former Defensive Player of the Year missed last season with a dislocated wrist, but is healthy heading into the 2010 season and will start at middle linebacker.
RotoWire Rank: 11