STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After years of rooting their identity in a hard-nosed defense, the Bears flipped the script under first-year coach Marc Trestman in 2013, becoming one of the league's most dangerous offenses thanks to bevy of talent at the skill positions. Matt Forte was the greatest beneficiary of Trestman's running back-centric playbook, setting career-highs in rushing yardage, catches, receiving yards and total touchdowns. Meanwhile, Alshon Jeffery delivered a breakout sophomore season, combining with Brandon Marshall to give the Bears perhaps the most feared wideout pairing in the league. Tight end Martellus Bennett also fit in seamlessly as a short-yardage and red-zone target.
Behind the talented stable of playmakers, quarterback Jay Cutler posted a career-best 89.2 quarterback rating, yet remained a media lightning rod. A torn groin muscle and a high-ankle sprain cost Cutler five games, with the Bears forced to turn to backup Josh McCown in his stead. McCown proved to be an exceptional fill-in, amassing 13 touchdowns against just one interception and leading some to speculate that he might be a more optimal fit for Trestman's system than Cutler. Trestman ultimately quelled the controversy by turning the offense back over to a healthy Cutler for the final three games, with the NFC North title still in reach.
Cutler performed somewhat unevenly with the team's playoff hopes on the line, but it was the Bears' season-long defensive woes – particularly against the run – that were chiefly responsible for their 8-8 finish and third straight missed postseason. The Bears allowed a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry to opposing runners, lowlighted by a Week 16 showing against the Eagles in which they surrendered 289 yards on the ground in a 54-11 defeat.
A litany of long-term injuries contributed to those defensive woes, but GM Phil Emery made overhauling the defense a priority in the offseason. Versatile Raiders defensive lineman Lamarr Houston was signed to stymie the run and aid the pass rush, while Jared Allen was poached from the Vikings to provide the double-digit sacks that cap casualty Julius Peppers couldn't last season. In addition, the Bears went defense on four of their first five draft picks, hoping that at least a couple of those rookies can amount to upgrades at their respective positions.
But the most significant offseason move was on offense, where Emery defused the quarterback controversy for good by inking Cutler to a seven-year, $126 million extension shortly after the season, while McCown latched on with the Buccaneers. With a revamped defense now in tow to complement a top-flight supporting cast on offense, the onus will be on Cutler to lead the Bears back to the playoffs.
Jared Allen - DE, Vikings
Expected to provide double-digit sacks in place of Julius Peppers.
Lamarr Houston - DE, Raiders
Dependable against the run, while offering pass-rush skills from inside or outside.
Kyle Fuller - CB, Virginia Tech (Round 1, 14th Overall)
Will play nickel back as rookie, but an eventual replacement for Charles Tillman.
Josh McCown - QB, Buccaneers
Frontrunner for the starting job in Tampa following his impressive play in place of Jay Cutler.
Julius Peppers - DE, Packers
Released after production didn't match his massive contract.
Devin Hester - KR, Falcons
Made his name as a dynamic returner, but was a non-factor in the Chicago passing game.
Earl Bennett - WR, Browns
De-emphasized in the passing game in 2013 due to Alshon Jeffery's emergence.
Michael Bush - RB, FA
Cut by the Bears after posting a career-worst 3.1 YPC last season.
ROOM FOR MORE?
Alshon Jeffery's 89-catch, 1,421-yard season was a welcome development for the Bears and those with the foresight to take a late flier on him in fantasy drafts, but the unusually high number of targets he saw as a No. 2 receiver limited the impact of those below him on the depth chart. All told, the Bears were one of the league's most top-heavy teams in terms of target distribution, as the four starters at the skill positions (Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett) were the intended receivers on 503 of 579 (86 percent) of the total passing attempts from quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Josh McCown. Although promising youngsters like Marquess Wilson and Ka'Deem Carey would seem to warrant intrigue as the presumptive top backups at receiver and running back in a high-octane offense, the extreme reliance on the stars ahead of them might require an injury for either player to supply anything more than marginal fantasy production.
STICKING WITH CUTLER
Coach Marc Trestman's up-tempo offense was expected to push Cutler's production to new levels in his contract year, but the quarterback showed only modest improvement in his counting numbers before groin and ankle issues sabotaged his season. Cutler's lack of growth was only further magnified when McCown stepped in and supplied superior numbers. While Cutler's new deal secures him as the team's quarterback for the present and future, 2014 might represent the last chance for the 31-year-old to become something more than a middle-tier fantasy option. With a solid offensive line and a competent core of skill players around him, Cutler's tendencies to hold onto the ball too long and force throws no longer come as viable excuses. To date, Cutler hasn't exceeded 30 touchdowns, 4,000 passing yards or completed over 65 percent of his attempts over his five seasons in Chicago.
WHO'LL STOP THE RUN?
The deterioration of the Bears' defensive line was a surprising development, considering the unit was viewed as an area of strength heading into the campaign. However, season-ending ACL tears to tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins routinely left the Bears vulnerable against the run, while ends Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin failed to generate enough pass rush to aid the secondary. The struggles prompted GM Phil Emery to reconstruct the entire defensive line, signing two of the more notable free-agent ends in Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston and spending high draft picks on Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton to mix in with Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea at tackle. It's too early to say how all the new faces will coalesce, but, if health permits, the infusion of talent at least gives the unit a chance at reestablishing itself as an asset rather than a liability.
Rising: A league-winning waiver wire pickup for many teams last season, Alshon Jeffery will be on everyone's radar on draft day after finishing sixth in NFL with 1,421 receiving yards.
Declining: Though a nicked-up Charles Tillman was a useful IDP on a per-game basis in 2013, the selection of Kyle Fuller suggests the veteran could see fewer snaps even if fully healthy.
Sleeper: Marquess Wilson didn't see the field much as a rookie, but looks to have the inside edge for the No. 3 receiver job (over Josh Morgan) in a potent passing attack.
Supersleeper: Fourth-round selection Ka'Deem Carey probably won't get many carries behind Matt Forte, but is just an injury away from landing one of the more fruitful fantasy running back gigs.
Lance Briggs - LB
Was on pace for career-best tackle total before fracturing his shoulder.
Jared Allen - DE
Former division foe has double-digit sacks in each of the last seven seasons.
Charles Tillman - CB
Provided three picks and three forced fumbles in just eight 2013 games.
RotoWire Rank: 26