by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters
Prior to the season, NFL.com asked 11 of its analysts to predict which of the NFC North teams had the best chance to make the playoffs. All but one named Green Bay. Brian Billick, however, stated Chicago had the best chance, claiming “On paper, the Bears have the best-looking offensive unit in football.”
It didn’t quite work out this way, as the Bears finished 21st in total offense. The head coach and GM have since paid the ultimate price for that. So, now what can be done to reverse the effects of a 5-11 season? Former Saints’ Director of Player Personnel Ryan Pace, recently hired as the General Manager in Chicago, has the challenging job of beginning to build this team into a winner.
Jay Cutler, Jimmy Clausen (UFA), David Fales
The much-maligned offense runs through Jay Cutler, until some other team wants to take over the burden and trade for his crazy contract and antics. While the offensive line has its own limitations to discuss later, the $126 million the Bears owe Cutler is paying for the 32nd ranked QB in football, according to Pro Football Focus. However, there’s not much to be done. Save for a trade, the 32 year old Cutler will be the QB for the foreseeable future. Asking Cutler to restructure would create some cap space, but at what cost? If he has another terrible year, the Bears might need to move on. Restructuring his deal hamstrings the cap with prorated bonus dead money for future seasons.
Jimmy Clausen, picked up last off-season, was also below average and is a UFA. David Fales, drafted in the 6th round last April, hasn’t seen the field. Short of a miracle trade, 2015 will have the same guy taking the snaps. If Clausen isn’t re-signed, I’m curious to see if they can upgrade the backup in case Cutler doesn’t improve. However, Clausen has experience and should be inexpensive.
Matt Forte, Ka’Deem Carey, Senorise Perry, FB Montell Owens (UFA)
Matt Forte is fresh off a record-setting season, as he tallied 102 receptions last season. Take a closer look, though; Forte’s abilities seem to be only average. He is just above average with regard to PFF running and receiving ratings, implying much of his statistics are generated from solid run blocking and check-downs from poor pass blocking. In addition, when his terrible pass blocking is added in, he is a below average running back. This may seem counter to popular belief and tough to swallow for Chicago fans. There are talks to extend him, but unless they can get a cap friendly extension, I would wait and see if he declines and/or Carey develops.
Ka’Deem Carey showed very little in 100 snaps after being drafted in the 4th round last April. Third-stringer Senorise Perry touched the ball once. It seems this would be a good area to try a developmental project, but there are bigger needs elsewhere. Fullback Montell Owens, acquired from Detroit, has not seen the field much since 2012, but has had success and is worth re-signing.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
WR: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Josh Morgan (UFA), Marquess Wilson, Josh Bellamy
TE: Martellus Bennett, Zach Miller (UFA), Dante Rosario (UFA), Blake Annen, Jacob Maxwell
Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Josh Morgan were 3 of the 5 best blocking wideouts in the NFL this season. Didn’t know that, did you? Martellus Bennett was also above average. Forte may owe them a little something.
Other than blocking, Jeffery and Rosario are the only pass catchers not named Forte that were above average. Jeffery is becoming a true #1, as Marshall seems to be relegated to short- and mid-range routes. Bennett caught 91 passes this year, but then the situation gets really bad, really quick. Santonio Holmes got cut earlier in the season when it turns out he’s not good anymore. However, Morgan and Marquess Wilson have been equally unhelpful in the passing game. While Wilson is still only 22 years old, it seems the Bears should be on the lookout for a better #3 WR.
Zach Miller, who spent 2014 on the IR, is a decent blocker and can catch some passes, should be re-signed to back up Bennett. Rosario can block for the run, but isn’t much help anywhere else and is not necessary.
L to R: Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long, Jordan Mills
Top Backups: C Brian de la Puente (UFA), T Michael Ola, G Ryan Groy
Kyle Long is one of the top 12 guards in the league, anchoring the right side of the Bears’ line. He’s a great pass blocker and a good run blocker. It was a good move by the departed Emery to lock up Long through 2017.
When looking at the rest of the line, it is not hard to see where much of the problem in the passing game lies, other than Cutler himself. There is not one other above average pass blocker on the team, and some are horrific. Jordan Mills is one of the top 12 on the list of the worst pass blocking tackles in the NFL this year. Both Roberto Garza and Michael Ola graded badly, with Ola doing poorly in pass and run blocking. That’s unfortunate. Matt Slauson was below average before getting shelved on the IR. Although their highest-paid lineman Jermon Bushrod graded out to be about average in the passing game, his run blocking was such a liability that it’s hard to notice anything else.
The run blocking is decent, even though the Bears’ best run blocker is backup C Brian de la Puente. If they would put him in at C, then two spots would be set, but they just signed Garza for the next season and will probably throw him into the lineup. Other backups include below average LG Ryan Groy, unused T Charles Leno, and G Eben Britton. Britton should probably get a chance to unseat Slauson if re-signed due to his run blocking ability.
Bushrod and Slauson will probably be given spots they didn’t entirely earn this year due to their contracts. We will see what the new coach does at center, and Long is set at RG. However, this line is in need of serious upgrading in the draft, starting with a pass-blocking tackle to replace Mills.
DE: Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen, Willie Young, David Bass, Cornelius Washington
DT: Jay Ratliff, Stephen Paea (UFA), Will Sutton, Ego Ferguson, Brandon Dunn
The defensive front of Jared Allen, Stephen Paea, Willie Young, Jay Ratliff has some positive things going. The pass rush comes from everywhere except Young, so Lamarr Houston and David Bass are there to do it when needed. The rush defense is anchored by Ratliff and Young. If anything, the Bears have a hole in the run defense in Paea, but he makes up for it by being the 4th best pass rusher from his position in the league. If Young and Houston can come off the DL at 100%, the starting line will be fine.
Chicago may be interested in some depth, though. There are currently 10 linemen under contract, with Paea a UFA. They need to resign him, because early draft picks Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson had bad years, particularly Sutton. Undrafted free agent Brandon Dunn seems to have potential, but if it turns out these guys are not ready for prime time, any injuries may be devastating.
OLB: Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic, Lance Briggs (UFA), Khaseem Greene, DeDe Lattimore
ILB: DJ Williams (UFA), Darryl Sharpton (UFA), Christian Jones
There is a serious state of flux in the Windy City right now. Lance Briggs (UFA) has cleaned out his locker and said his goodbyes. D.J. Williams and Darryl Sharpton are also UFA’s. Since all were on IR later in the season, the Bears began to develop the next set of players, especially undrafted rookie Christian Jones.
Unfortunately (but expectedly), Jones still needs some development, especially with regard to pass coverage and run defense. Re-signing Briggs, who at 34 is still their best LB, could have helped with that development and also provided a bridge to a possible future where Shea McClellin, Jones, and Jonathan Bostic take over. Of course, as seen this year, the future may be now for McClellin and Bostic. These two are both above average against the run, even as they learn how to defend the pass.
Williams and Sharpton may not be any great shakes, especially in pass defense, but they could be low cost bench veterans that can keep everyone fresh. Sharpton may be the best idea because of his age and previous salary. The Bears should probably see what they have with their youngsters, rather than trying to spend a lot of money to replace Briggs.
CB: Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman (UFA), Kyle Fuller, Demontre Hurst (ERFA), Al Louis-Jean
S: Ryan Mundy, Chris Conte (UFA), Brock Vereen, Danny McCray (UFA), Anthony Walters
The Bears have wisely been drafting, acquiring, and developing corners and safeties to compete in the pass-happy NFC North. When Peanut Tillman went on the IR Week 3, the “next man up” mindset was in effect and a great deal of experience was gained by Kyle Fuller, their 2014 1st round pick.
Next season, the Bears have some decisions because there are 5 UFA’s: Chris Conte, Demontre Hurst, Sherrick McManis, Danny McCray, and Tillman, who has said he doesn’t want to retire. Without them, the team lines up stalwart CB Tim Jennings with Fuller, and safeties Ryan Mundy and Brock Vereen. Fuller did not come out firing last year; he ranked as the 2nd worst cornerback in the NFL, so he may need a little more time. Filling the CB slots with Tillman and Hurst will at least put average corners out on the field until Fuller develops. Unfortunately, Tillman is getting old, so a 4 year contract might not pan out. If he were to sign a 1 yr deal for $5 mil or so, it may work out well. Pass coverage will continue to suffer, so if a higher level CB UFA is available, they should be in the market. As mentioned, McManis and Hurst are UFA’s, but help on special teams and provide depth in the defensive backfield. It would be wise to re-sign them, but McManis might get left out if Tillman signs.
Vereen, a 4th round draft pick last April, had a decent rookie season, playing mostly in dime packages and covering for injuries. He’s a little above average in pass coverage and a little below against the run. Mundy is the Bears’ best pass defender in the backfield, but is also a little below against the run. Is that good enough? Well, Conte is a below average safety and McCray is not too special. If these two want to re-sign with Chicago at the risk of being backups, it would help Chicago fill out the depth chart. On the other hand, the Bears may feel obligated for some reason to start Conte when Vereen may be better.
With Robbie Gould on the mend and signed through 2018, he will continue his average kicking duties for a few more years. Jay Feely, who took over after Gould was injured, is a UFA and unnecessary.
Punter Pat O’Donnell was a little above average and is also around for a few more years.
Long snapper Jeremy Cain, a UFA, is slightly below average and can probably be replaced. Although he was only signed in September, the Bears may have a certain comfort level and may re-sign him without breaking the bank.
Marc Mariani was signed in November to return punts and kicks, and has done a respectable job. He is signed for two more years.
Initial cap space: $26.3 million – net $3 million for draftees = $23.3 million
Re-sign: Clausen ($800K), Owens ($1 mil), Z. Miller ($600K), de la Puente ($1 mil), Britton ($850K), Paea ($6 mil), Sharpton ($850K), Hurst ($510K), Tillman ($5 mil), McCray ($850K), Cain ($660K) – approx. $18.5 million
Let walk: Morgan, Rosario, T. Scott, DJ Williams, Briggs, McManis, Conte
Biggest Team Needs: OT, OG, WR, CB