Chicago Bears: 2014 Position outlook

Bears position outlook: Cornerback

January, 30, 2014
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Free agents: Charles Tillman, Zack Bowman, Sherrick McManis and Kelvin Hayden.

The good: Tim Jennings earned a return trip to the Pro Bowl and a new four-year, $22.4 million contract after he led the defense with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. Before he suffered a season-ending triceps injury, Tillman had three picks and three forced fumbles. Bowman, who replaced Tillman in the starting lineup for the final seven weeks, had two interceptions and a pick-six in a pivotal win over the Cleveland Browns. Second-year nickel back Isaiah Frey made 62 tackles despite playing some of the year with a broken hand. The Bears' pass defense was by far the strength of the unit in 2013. McManis was second on the team with 15 special teams tackles.

The bad: Losing a player of Tillman’s caliber would hurt any team. Bowman did an admirable job stepping in for the two-time Pro Bowler, but Tillman is a turnover machine. His playmaking ability was missed. Hayden, who began training camp as the starting nickel back, went on injured reserve during the preseason.

The money (2014 salary cap figures): Jennings is scheduled to count $7.5 million against the cap next year, per the terms of his new deal. Frey, a 2012 sixth-round draft choice, will eat up only $495,000 worth of space in 2014. It’s unclear what the Bears plan to offer Tillman in free agency, but it will likely be far less than the $8,001,575 he made last season.

Draft priority: The Bears do have a couple of young cornerbacks on their offseason roster (C.J. Wilson and Demontre Hurst), but with Tillman, Bowman, McManis and Hayden all in-line to test the market, general manager Phil Emery would be justified in selecting a cornerback in the draft. Bowman is another versatile veteran who can be re-signed for close to the league minimum.

Bears position outlook: Linebackers

January, 29, 2014
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Free agents: James Anderson, Blake Costanzo and D.J. Williams.

The good: Before suffering a minor shoulder fracture that forced him to miss seven games, veteran weakside linebacker Lance Briggs was in the midst of another Pro Bowl-caliber season. Despite sitting out almost the entire preseason due to a calf strain, Williams appeared to be stabilizing the position until he went on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle on Oct. 18. Anderson led the Bears with 129.5 tackles. Rookie second-round pick Jon Bostic, forced into the starting lineup because of all the injuries, had a solid game versus the Baltimore Ravens in November with eight tackles and one key interception. He could be an outside linebacker in 2014. Costanzo topped the Bears with 17 special-teams tackles.

The bad: Obviously, the injuries to Williams and Briggs really hurt, especially after the Bears decided to let veteran linebackers Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach leave the previous offseason. Bostic and fellow rookie Khaseem Greene predictably struggled on occasion when pressed into action as first-year players. The Bears' linebackers were often in the wrong place and out of their gaps, which played a role in the team having the worst run defense in the NFL. Even when Briggs returned late in the season, he was never the same.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Briggs has one year left on his current contract and is scheduled to count $6.5 million against the cap. The Bears really need a big year out of Briggs, so hopefully whatever unhappiness still lingers from the firing of Lovie Smith can be put aside for the greater good of the team. The last thing the Bears need is for Briggs’ contract to become a distraction in the offseason since the club has so many other holes to fill on defense. Bostic and Greene are locked in for the foreseeable future with cap hits below $1 million next year. Williams appears to be a prime candidate to return at another veteran minimum/incentive laden deal.

Draft priority: Moderate. Even with the selections of Bostic and Greene last year and the possible addition of Shea McClellin to the room in 2014, the Bears shouldn’t pass up a talented linebacker in the mid-to-late rounds if one remains on the board. There is a chance Costanzo leaves in free agency, meaning the Bears could have a large hole on their coverage teams. Bottom line: There is always value in selecting a good linebacker, especially given the ages/contractual statuses of Briggs, Williams and Anderson.

Bears position outlook: Defensive end

January, 28, 2014
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Free agents: Corey Wootton (DE/DT)

The good: Shea McClellin was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his three sack effort against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 4. McClellin knocked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of the game with a fractured collarbone. Without McClellin’s hit on Rodgers, the Bears probably wouldn’t have been in a position to battle Green Bay for the outright NFC North crown in Week 17. Veteran Julius Peppers led the club with 7.5 sacks. Rookie David Bass returned an interception for a touchdown in a Bears’ win over the Baltimore Ravens.

The bad: In the 15 other regular season games, McClellin managed just one total sack and proved to be a major liability versus the run. The 2012 first-round pick has a combined 6.5 sacks in his first two years in the NFL and could be headed to linebacker. While Peppers had a couple impactful games, he remained silent for much of the season. His future with the Bears is in doubt. 38 of the Bears’ 41 team sacks in 2012 were courtesy of its defensive line. In 2013, the line accounted for 21 of the club’s 31 overall sacks. The Bears’ inability to generate consistent pressure off the edge remained a problem from Week 1. Rookie six-round pick Cornelius Washington appeared in just two games and failed to dress in 11.

The money (2014 salary cap numbers): There is simply no way Peppers can return on his existing salary that calls for the eight-time Pro Bowler to count $18,183,333 against the cap next season. If the Bears release Peppers, they would have to carry $4,183,333 in dead money in each of the next two years, but the move would open up tons of space in 2014 the team could use to target other players and fill existing needs. That’s not to say the Bears wouldn’t welcome Peppers back to the team, but not as his current salary structure. McClellin’s projected cap number is $2,253,654. The Bears need to try and squeeze whatever value they can out of McClellin. Cutting ties with first round picks after two or three seasons is bad for business. Just ask Jerry Angelo. The other defensive ends currently under contract all have small deals that eat up little space.

Draft priority: Urgent. It hurts to have to use another high draft pick on a defensive end only two years after McClellin went in the first round, but this is the reality the Bears find themselves in. The old saying that it all starts up front in the NFL is not just a cliché. It’s true. The Bears have to find young players that can sack the quarterback on a frequent basis. Regardless of what happens in free agency, the Bears are still likely to target a defensive end in the early parts of the draft.

Bears position outlook: Defensive tackle

January, 27, 2014
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2014 free agents: Landon Cohen, Nate Collins, Henry Melton, Jeremiah Ratliff and Corey Wootton (DT/DE).

The good: Wootton proved flexible enough to move inside after Melton and Collins were lost for the season due to knee injuries. Although Wootton was bothered by a hip issue that eventually required offseason surgery to correct, the versatile free-agent defensive linemen managed to record 31 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 12 quarterback pressures. Bears general manager Phil Emery was non-committal about Wootton’s future with the club at the end of the regular season, but did remark that, “I’m sure that we’ll continue to talk to him.” Wootton is expected to need several months to rehabilitate his surgically repaired hip before he receives the necessary medical clearance to resume football-related activities without restrictions. Ratliff, a nine-year NFL veteran who the Bears added to the roster later in the year, did a serviceable job in the final five games and is another candidate to return.

The bad: How much time do you have? Decimated by injuries (Melton, Collins and Stephen Paea) and the surprise retirement of Sedrick Ellis on the eve of training camp, the Bears were exposed up the middle in the run game and failed to generate an acceptable pass rush. Six opponents rushed for at least 198 yards versus the Bears. Some of those running lanes between the tackles against the Bears defense can best be described as monstrous. Remove Wootton from the equation and the entire defensive tackle group combined for only 4.0 sacks over the entire season. Melton played in just three games despite pocketing $8,454,725 as the club’s franchise-tag player. Not surprisingly, the team recently parted company with defensive line coach Mike Phair.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Thankfully, the Bears have next to nothing allocated to the position. With almost the entire group currently scheduled to be off the books, the highest projected cap figure belongs to Paea -- $1,172,787. Although the Bears tied up a good portion of their 2014 salary-cap space with extensions for quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerback Tim Jennings, left guard Matt Slauson and kicker Robbie Gould, there are options available to open up more space to potentially add a proven defensive tackle in free agency if necessary.

Draft priority: Urgent. The Bears must begin the task of rebuilding the defensive line. Emery promised a younger defense in 2014. The only way to accomplish that is by finding high-impact defensive players in the draft who can contribute immediately. Selecting a defensive tackle in the early rounds appears likely.
2014 free agents: Roberto Garza, Eben Britton, Jonathan Scott, Taylor Boggs.

The good: With four new faces on the offensive line, the Bears used the same five starters up front for all 16 games last season and were one of just three teams in the NFL (Washington and Philadelphia were the others) to start the same five for the entire season. Garza was the only starter in 2013 returning from the 2012 team, and the right side of the line consisted of two rookie starters in Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, who were the first rookie starters on Chicago’s offensive line on opening day since 1983. The offensive line paved the way for the team to set multiple franchise records on offense, and allowed 30 sacks, which tied for the fourth fewest in the NFL. The 30 sacks were the fewest allowed by the Bears since 2008.

The bad: Despite the improved sack numbers, the argument could be made they were a result of the quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quicker than they had in the past. At Philadelphia, the offensive line gave up five sacks, and on occasion, the group struggled to provide sufficient push in short-yardage situations. After all the punishment Jay Cutler has taken over the years, it’s hard to find much “bad” about the 2013 offensive line. Perhaps the most concerning issue the group will having moving forward is whether the front office will bring back Garza, the quarterback of the offensive line, who is set to become a free agent.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Jermon Bushrod ($7.3 million), Matt Slauson ($2,747,500), Long ($1,886,580), Mills ($536,200), James Brown ($570,000), Gaines Rogers ($420,000), Joe Long ($420,000).

Draft priority: Moderate. Even if the Bears bring back Garza, they’ve got to start thinking about the future of the position, and they can possibly address that with a mid-to-late-round pick. Boggs served as Garza’s primary backup in 2013 as well as the top reserve at left guard. But Boggs is about to hit free agency. So the Bears need to decide whether to bring him back, along with pending free agents Britton and Scott, who have proved to be quality backups capable of starting. Reserve right guard James Brown is entering the final year of his contract as well. So while the starting offensive line for the most part appears set for the next couple of years (starting left guard Matt Slauson recently signed a new deal), the Bears might need to start developing younger players at the backup positions that can eventually become starters.
2014 free agents: Dante Rosario.

Bennett
The good: Free-agent acquisition Martellus Bennett finished with 65 catches for 759 yards and five touchdowns as he produced career highs in receptions, and receiving yards while tying a career high for TDs. Bennett ranked eighth among NFL tight ends in catches, tied for ninth in yards and tied for 12th in TD receptions. Bennett is now one of eight tight ends in the league to gain more than 1,000 receiving yards in addition to catching at least 10 TD passes since 2012. Bennett also finished third on the team in receiving yardage and fourth in receptions, providing Chicago the threat down the middle of the field it had lacked in years past.

The bad: Bennett was plagued by nagging injuries, and that limited his effectiveness as a blocker on occasion, especially in the first three games. Bennett gave up two sacks and was responsible for six hurries on the season. The Bears often brought in offensive tackle Eben Britton as an extra blocker at the tight end position. Rosario played in 15 games with three starts, but caught only one pass for 13 yards while promising prospect Fendi Onobun spent the entire season on Chicago’s practice squad.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Bennett ($6.025 million), Zach Miller ($645,000), Onobun ($570,000).

Draft priority: Low. Bennett is an ideal fit for what the Bears do offensively, and if one of the club’s younger players such as Miller or Onobun steps up, the team could be set for years to come at the position. Athletically, Onobun is probably the most talented tight end on the roster. But he’s struggled to make the transition into the NFL game, and has been plagued by concentration lapses. Miller, meanwhile, is a former fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and caught 41 passes over his first two seasons in the NFL, but has since bounced from Tampa Bay to Chicago. It’s unlikely the Bears will bring back Rosario.
2014 free agents: None.

The good: On the way to making it to the Pro Bowl, receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall racked up 1,421 and 1,295 yards, respectively, to finish sixth and 11th in the NFL in receiving yardage. Their combined 2,716 yards ranked as the second most of any receiver duo in the NFL, behind only Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (2,718). Marshall and Jeffery’s combined yardage total represents the most by a duo in Bears franchise history. When teams focused on Marshall, Jeffery often took advantage of single coverage, which helped him to become the only receiver in Bears history to produce two 200-yard receiving games in a season. That production moving forward will likely change the way teams defend Marshall and Jeffery.

The bad: Because of all the weaponry at the offense’s disposal, the Bears weren’t able to utilize much of the receiving corps outside of Marshall and Jeffery. Running back Matt Forte finished third in receptions (74), with tight end Martellus Bennett right behind with 65 grabs. So as difficult as it may be moving forward, the Bears would probably like to get their No. 3 and No.4 receivers more involved. No. 3 receiver Earl Bennett played in 15 games, but finished with a 243 yards receiving, his lowest total since 2009. Rookie Marquess Wilson played the No. 4 role, but caught just two balls for 13 yards as he was inactive or didn’t play in six contests.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Marshall ($9.3 million), Earl Bennett ($2.45 million), Eric Weems ($1.6 million), Jeffery ($1,240,317), Wilson ($506,787), Chris Williams ($495,000), Terrence Toliver ($420,000).

Draft priority: Low. The Bears appear to be set going into 2014 with the receivers currently on the roster. But they might consider trying to extend Marshall prior to the season to try to lower his cap figure and prevent him from hitting free agency. Bennett took a pay cut in 2013, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the club asked him to take another going into the season. If Williams makes it to training camp, he could challenge for one of the auxiliary receiving spots as well as the job of primary return man.
2014 free agents: None.

Forte
Forte
The good: Matt Forte earned his second Pro Bowl berth after finishing the season ranked No. 2 in the NFL with 1,339 rushing yards, third in yards from scrimmage (1,933), third in first downs (97), fourth in receiving yardage by running backs (594) and tied for No. 6 in rushing touchdowns (nine). The rushing yardage and yards from scrimmage were career bests for Forte. In all, Forte ranked in the top 10 in eight statistical categories, while also serving as a crucial component of the protection schemes. Forte’s primary backup, Michael Bush, finished second on the team in rushing with 197 yards.

Bush
Bush
The bad: As well as Forte played in 2013, he can’t do it all by himself. So the Bears need to explore the possibility of bringing in a complementary back. Bush averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt, and ran seven times for minus-five yards in a Nov. 24 loss at St. Louis. Given that Bush outweighs Forte by 27 pounds, it would seem logical he’d be a more viable short-yardage option. But that didn’t seem to be the case in 2013. The team’s 1,828 rushing yards ranked as the team’s lowest total in three years, and the 404 attempts were the club’s fewest since 2009. The Bears also finished last in the league in third-and-1 rushing situations, converting just 33.3 percent.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Forte ($7.5 million), Bush ($3.85 million), Tony Fiammetta ($730,000), Michael Ford ($496,616). The cap numbers are manageable, but the Bears might look into upgrading in Bush’s spot given that his contributions aren’t commensurate to the $3.85 million cap figure. Perhaps the Bears will give Ford an opportunity to win the No. 2 job during training camp. Ford excelled during training camp and tied with Forte for the team lead in preseason rushing, but he’ll have to improve at pass protection for the team to feel comfortable enough to increase his role.

Draft priority: Low. The Bears would be fine going into the season with Bush as the primary backup to Forte. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see whether they can upgrade there because Forte, while healthy in 2013, has missed time in the past. Teams are increasingly going to a running back-by-committee approach, but in Chicago, Forte has shouldered the majority of the workload. That just doesn’t seem to be a sustainable plan moving forward.
2014 free agents: Josh McCown and Jordan Palmer.

Cutler
The good: Jay Cutler responded favorably to the tutelage of new Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman, and displayed enough growth for the organization to reward him with a seven-year contract worth $126 million. With Cutler and backup Josh McCown at the helm, the offense set franchise records in net yardage (6,109), passing yards (4,281), completion percentage (64.4), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating, in addition to scoring 445 points. McCown set the franchise record for passer rating (109.0), completion percentage (66.5), and finished with the lowest interception percentage (0.4) in club annals. Cutler’s completion of 63.1 ranked as second in franchise single-season history, and his passer rating of 89.2 ranked as a career high for the veteran quarterback.

The bad: Cutler missed five games and portions of two others, yet he still threw 12 interceptions, which averages out to a little more than one pick per game. That number is too high, and works out to an interception percentage of 3.4. In addition, injuries forced Cutler to miss more than 22 quarters of action in 2013, and he hasn’t played an entire 16-game season since 2009, which is somewhat concerning given the financial commitment the Bears just made to the quarterback.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Cutler ($22.5 million) and Jerrod Johnson ($420,000). Cutler’s number is sky-high and a big part of the reason the Bears were just $796,000 under the cap as of last Friday. The good news is a portion of Cutler’s base salary of $22.5 million can be converted into a signing bonus to provide some cap relief if the team needs it. But as it stands now, Cutler is the only quarterback on the roster with any real experience, and the club has expressed a desire to bring back McCown for 2014. But it’s unknown whether the Bears can pull off that deal, because McCown will have suitors in free agency, and he’ll have to weigh family life against what money might be available to him on the market in making a decision to continue playing. If the Bears can’t bring back McCown, Palmer would be an inexpensive option the club has some familiarity with.

Draft priority: Moderate to low. The Bears haven’t drafted a quarterback since 2011 (Nate Enderle) and haven’t taken one in the first three rounds since 2003 (Rex Grossman). Cutler will be 31 when the 2014 season starts, and although he just signed a seven-year deal, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the team to find a young quarterback of the future to groom over the next few years.

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