Despite posting a 7-3 record prior to Jay Cutler's thumb injury, the Chicago Bears' collapse over the final six weeks of the regular season highlighted the organization's need to address several key areas in the offseason.
Here are five pressing needs as the Bears head into an uncertain future with a yet to be named general manager:
1. Wide receiver
It was impossible to watch the NFL playoff action over wildcard weekend and not notice the abundance of big plays made by wide receivers. Houston's Andre Johnson, New Orleans' Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, Detroit's Calvin Johnson, New York's Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham and Denver's Demaryius Thomas and Eddie Royal all had impressive games. And those were just wideouts who made impact plays over the weekend. Atlanta has Roddy White and Julio Jones. Pittsburgh has the promising duo of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. And Cincinnati wisely used a 2011 first-round pick on A.J. Green.
The Bears' method of receiver by committee is unacceptable. They must add at least two viable threats at the position to complement Earl Bennett, and as insurance in the event Johnny Knox is slow to recover from a serious back injury. The days of 37 receptions for 507 yards and two touchdowns constituting "enough plays" from a receiver are over. Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and Colston need to be on the Bears' radar once free agency begins. Lovie Smith should even put in a call to Tony Dungy to ask the former Colts coach how much he truly believes Reggie Wayne has left in the tank. The Bears' group of receivers are in dire need of an upgrade. To ignore the position (Roy Williams, Sam Hurd and Dane Sanzenbacher don't count) for a second straight offseason would be downright criminal.
2. Defensive end
Why the Bears failed to spend money last year on Jason Babin is beyond me. If the Bears want to re-sign Israel Idonije, a solid third defensive end, that's fine, but the club needs another fierce pass rusher to complement Julius Peppers. Peppers constantly faces double teams, which should free up the other defensive end to register at least 10 sacks per season. That should be the bare minimum.
We haven't seen much out of former fourth-round pick Corey Wootton. On the other hand, Chauncey Davis did a nice job late in the season and earned the right to stick on the roster heading into training camp, but the Bears need to prioritize the position in the draft or free agency. As a whole, Bears defensive ends only managed 17 sacks in 2011, with 11 of those coming courtesy of Peppers. Babin had 18 all by himself with the Philadelphia Eagles. That's a problem.
The Bears face a conundrum at cornerback due to the expiring contracts of Tim Jennings, Zack Bowman and Corey Graham. Attempting to bring back Graham is a no-brainer, but the Pro Bowl special teamer probably wants to explore the free agent market to see if he can find a team willing to let him play defense. Maybe it happens. Maybe it does not. Or perhaps Graham could be re-signed and given an opportunity to challenge for playing time at safety. Either way, it's not a slam dunk Graham figures into the secondary plans next year.
Jennings might remain in the mix considering he's proven to be a pretty good player in this system, although he comes with certain limitations. Bowman probably could use a fresh start someplace else, so the odds of him returning appear to be slim. Even if the Bears hold on to Jennings, they still require more depth at the position and another future starter. Can it be done? The Bears also have some decisions to make at safety, where Chris Conte showed promise and Craig Steltz made a strong push late in the year to be re-signed, but former third-round pick Major Wright inspires little confidence.
Are the Bears really going to head into another year with Wright penciled into the starting lineup? Every player deserves a second chance, but Wright has been handed every opportunity imaginable and still makes costly mistakes. D.J. Moore appears to have a decent hold on the nickel back spot, although he was never quite the same after he punched Matthew Stafford in the head then hurt his ankle a few days later at practice.
4. Left tackle
File this under the "concern" category, because I don't know if the Bears intend to make any changes at offensive tackle. Obviously, the Bears believe a healthy Gabe Carimi will settle back into the starting lineup without any real issues next summer. Even though Carimi managed to play just six quarters of football his rookie year, he looked to be a legitimate starting NFL tackle in training camp and the preseason. Let's just say I'll take the Bears at their word on Carimi. J'Marcus Webb, meantime, is a complete mystery. Some games he looks good. Other games he looks bad. Can the Bears consistently win with an average left tackle? Tough to say. And will Webb ever be better than simply average? Also tough to tell.
You could point to the Bears making the NFC Championship Game in 2010 with Frank Omiyale. But when the Bears were really good (2005 and 2006) the left tackle was John Tait. Granted, Tait was a proven veteran when he arrived in Chicago, but based on two years of work at left and right tackle, Webb has a long way to go before he reaches Tait's level, or that of Fred Miller. Which brings me to another issue: Was Smith serious when he said the current offensive line situation is the best it's been since he got to town in 2004? Uh, no Lovie. That would have been the aforementioned group of Tait (LT), Ruben Brown (LG), Olin Kreutz (C), Roberto Garza (RG) and Miller (RT) that paved the way for back-to-back division titles. How quickly they forget at Halas Hall.
5. No. 2 quarterback
If Kyle Orton is available, sign him. End of story. Orton has made no secret how much he would welcome a chance to return to Chicago. He is the ideal backup to Jay Cutler. In a perfect world, the Bears never even need to use Orton because Cutler stays healthy. But we all know there is no perfect world when it comes to the NFL. If you have to make Orton one of the highest paid No. 2 quarterbacks in the league, then so be it.
The Bears cannot afford to let another season slip away due to limited options on the depth chart behind Cutler. Josh McCown did a good job given the circumstances, and if he performs reasonably well in training camp, should be rewarded with a roster spot as the No. 3 QB. But at least initially, the Bears need to aim higher than McCown to become Cutler's primary backup. If there is no one else out there -- i.e. Orton gets a starting job somewhere -- then McCown could factor into the equation.