Chicago Bears: Aaron Rodgers

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC North

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
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The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.

Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?

Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?

Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?

And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?

These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.

First Down

Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.



Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That is only happening if the other two quarterbacks end up as backups. First off, Bridgewater doesn't have to put up big numbers because he has a beast in the backfield in Adrian Peterson. So all he needs to do is hand off to Peterson and make sure not to turn it over on passing downs; be a game-manager. Perhaps Bridgewater is more of a gamer than workout performer, which is what all the scouts I have talked to would say. But I'm just not sold on Bridgewater based on what I saw from his pro day workout. That means he will probably wind up being Rookie of the Year.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.

Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.


Second Down

The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.



Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.


Third Down

Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.

Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.

Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.


Fourth Down

The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.

Bears schedule: 5 key games

April, 24, 2014
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Here is a look at the five key matchups on the Chicago Bears' 2014 regular-season schedule:

Harbaugh
1. Sep. 14, Bears at San Francisco, 7:30 p.m. CT, NBC: The 49ers have been one of the NFC’s elite teams under head coach Jim Harbaugh with a 36-11 regular season and 5-3 postseason record (including a berth in Super Bowl XLVII) over the past three seasons. This Week 2 battle will be the first game played in the 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The California stadium development is fantastic news for the Bears. San Francisco’s old venue, Candlestick Park, was a house of horrors for Chicago teams. The Bears lost their final seven games at Candlestick by a combined score of 230-49. That is not a typo. 49ers 230 -- Bears 49. Hello, Santa Clara.

2. Oct. 12, Bears at Atlanta, noon CT, FOX: The Falcons fell apart last season because of injuries and finished 4-12. With better health and a couple new pieces on defense, Atlanta figures to contend for the NFC South title in 2014. But the Georgia Dome is another place that has played tricks on the Bears in recent years. The Bears were poised to knock off the Falcons in 2009, but lost 21-14 after a series of costly mistakes that included: Jay Cutler throwing an interception in the red zone, Matt Forte fumbling on two straight runs from the one-yard line, and former offensive tackle Orlando Pace being whistled for a false start on 4th-and-1 from the Atlanta 5-yard line on the game’s final drive. The Bears also allowed the Falcons to escape with a 22-20 victory in the Georgia Dome in 2008 on a late botched coverage that led to a winning field goal as time expired.

Belichick
3. Oct. 26, Bears at New England, noon CT, FOX: The Bears' most recent visit to Foxborough occurred in the Super Bowl year of 2006 when the teams played a tight game that featured a massive amount of turnovers. The Patriots eventually won 17-13, and four years later New England routed the Bears at a snowy Soldier Field, 36-7, leaving ex-head coach Lovie Smith winless against Bill Belichick. Second-year Bears’ boss Marc Trestman now has the opportunity to match wits with the perennial AFC powerhouse and arguably the greatest coach in the history of the NFL. Since the Patriots are always good, this figures to be one of the NFL’s marquee matchups in Week 8.

4. Nov. 9, Bears at Green Bay, 7:30 p.m. CT, NBC: This all looks so familiar. The Bears, fresh off their bye week, travel to Lambeau Field for a nationally televised night game. Where have we seen this before? Oh, yes, it was last year when Shea McClellin knocked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of a Monday night game with a fractured collarbone as the Bears pulled out a 27-20 victory. Can the Bears do it again? Keep in mind the Packers will also be coming off a bye week when the Bears arrive in Green Bay, so it’s not as if the Bears are expected to be fresher. But having extra time to prepare for Rodgers and company is never a bad thing. In a scheduling twist, the Bears won’t see the Packers again after Week 9 unless the teams meet in the playoffs.

Smith
5. Nov. 23, Bears vs. Buccaneers, noon CT, FOX: Welcome back, Lovie and Josh. The return of Lovie Smith and Josh McCown to Soldier Field will be highly anticipated in Chicago. Expect McCown, the new Tampa Bay quarterback, to receive a warm ovation from the Soldier Field faithful. Why wouldn’t he? McCown had a career year for the Bears in 2013 when he completed 149-of-224 attempts for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception. Sure, McCown signed with the Bucs in free agency, but the Bears never made him an official offer. You can’t blame McCown for jumping ship. On the other hand, the reception for Smith is unlikely to be as positive, even though he won 81 regular-season games and three division titles in nine years before the Bears fired him. But Smith probably won’t care. He never struck me as the nostalgic type.

Reviewing the Bears' drafts: 2012

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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Here's Part 4 of our series reviewing the past five drafts of the Chicago Bears.

For the first time since 2002, the Bears had a new set of eyes overseeing the draft process. The Bears fired longtime general manager Jerry Angelo at the end of the 2011 regular season and replaced him with respected scout and college talent evaluator Phil Emery.

First-round pick: Shea McClellin, DE, Boise State

Number of picks: 6

How they did: Three members of the 2012 draft class had important roles for the Bears last season: McClellin, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (second round) and nickel back Isaiah Frey (sixth round). Safety Brandon Hardin, selected in the third round out of Oregon State, spent his rookie year on injured reserve and suffered another injury in the final preseason game last summer that again landed him on IR. The Bears quietly released Hardin several weeks later. Fourth-round pick tight end Evan Rodriguez contributed to the offense in 2012 but was released the next offseason after multiple brushes with the law. Greg McCoy, a cornerback/return man out of TCU whom the Bears took in the seventh round, failed to make the club out of training camp in his first season.

Pivotal pick: The Bears were in need of fresh legs at defensive end to complement Julius Peppers, who at that time still played at a Pro Bowl level, and veteran Israel Idonije. Emery bypassed what some considered safer pass rushing options at No. 19 overall (Chandler Jones and Whitney Mercilus) and selected McClellin, who impressed the Bears with his combination of speed and athleticism. Two years later, McClellin is projected to compete for a starting job at strong side linebacker in 2014. McClellin was certainly disruptive at times rushing the passer from the edge, but the name of the game at defensive end is sacks. McClellin had only a combined 6.5 sacks in two years, with three of the quarterback takedowns occurring in his memorable effort against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Nov. 4 when McClellin knocked Aaron Rodgers out of the game with a fractured collarbone. McClellin went on to win NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Best pick: Jeffery, by a mile. Undeterred by the rampant questions surrounding Jeffery's weight and attitude in his final year at South Carolina, the Bears moved up in the second round to snatch the former All-American wide receiver. Jeffery rewarded the Bears' faith by being named to the Pro Bowl in just his second season after catching 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. The 6-foot-3 wideout holds the top two spots in franchise history for receiving yards in a game with 218 yards against the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 6, and 249 yards against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 1.

Worst pick: Hardin. A former and often injured collegiate cornerback, Hardin failed to make the transition to safety. Although Hardin had impressive size (6-foot-3, 217 pounds), he didn't seem to bend his hips much and appeared to play too high. Even if he stayed healthy, it would have been difficult to make an argument for the Bears to keep Hardin on the 53-man roster based on pure performance and football skills alone. The Bears are still searching for help at safety, in part, because the Hardin pick failed to pan out.

Bears position outlook: Defensive end

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
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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.

DE McClellin on the move?

January, 2, 2014
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Shea McClellin's days as a 4-3 defensive end could be numbered.

Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery acknowledged Thursday the organization needs to find a better way to maximize McClellin's talents after the 2012 first-round pick (No. 19 overall) consistently struggled to stop the run and sack the quarterback over the past two seasons.

[+] EnlargeChicago's Shea McClellin
AP Photo/Morry GashShea McClellin (99) had a significant sack of Aaron Rodgers -- one that knocked out the Packers QB -- but has otherwise struggled to do what the Bears envisioned for him.
"When we needed a pass-rusher to step up, Shea contributed greatly in terms of our overall production," Emery explained. "No matter how we shake out the stats as far as the importance of the person on the field to our pass rush, Shea was No. 1. But he did not have enough impact plays. Sacks are king and Shea did not have enough of those.

"What we have to do with Shea is find ways to use the unique talents and skills of the players that we have. Putting him at defensive end, that's on me, not giving him the ultimate opportunity to succeed. He produced in a positive way but the overall impact of the last two seasons has not been at a high enough level."

Bears head coach Marc Trestman added: "We'll look hard at Shea doing other things besides being lined up at defensive end. If that means moving him to a linebacker position as we move forward, that will be under consideration as well. But there's no doubt as Phil and I watched the tape this week that he's capable of more, and we'll work toward that as we move forward. He's got it in him. It's our job as coaches, and it starts with me, to get him in a position to be more successful, and we feel confident we can get that done."

McClellin was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his career-high three-sack game against Green Bay on Nov. 4, when he knocked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of the game with a fractured collarbone in the first quarter.

But McClellin managed just one full sack in the other 15 games, and in his first two full NFL seasons, has sacked the quarterback only 6.5 times.

That is not the kind of production Emery envisioned when he drafted McClellin out of Boise State.

"Shea was brought in -- and I said this last spring when I was asked about what do I expect out of him in terms of how I want him to improve -- he was brought in to the Chicago Bears to be a rotational, complementary pass-rusher," Emery said. "The whole idea and thought behind Shea is the high end of the athleticism he has and his speed to handle the quarterbacks that we face and the mobility that they have. The role model was some of the players that Lovie [Smith] had had in the past in terms of being somebody that comes in during the nickel downs, primarily, and then goes anywhere from the high 40 percent to about 60-62 percent is the effective range of a player that has the skill set that you're looking for.

"Shea was brought in to help us disrupt the passer. We were a better pass-rushing unit a year ago when he was in the game than when he was out of the game. That is again true this year. Where he hasn't had is an impact on sacks. Sacks are king in terms of sacks against you and sacks that you make. They're a huge part of the overall win formula. We have a win formula that has six aspects of it. Sacks are a big part of three of it, and they have a big determination on whether you win or lose from a statistical aspect."

However, Emery has not abandoned hope in regard to McClellin's development. The general manager even went as far as to cite three players he found to be comparable to McClellin who failed to blossom until later in their respective careers.

"When I look at Shea and study Shea and study other players in the league that fit his profile -- Rob Ninkovich from the New England Patriots, and I'm sure I totally screwed that name up; Jason Babin, who's with Jacksonville now; Jerry Hughes, who's down in Buffalo -- the most amazing thing in studying those players, they all had the same general size as Shea, speed, fast athletes, very quick athletes, athletes with versatility," Emery said.

"All three of those guys did not produce right away for their initial team. It took Jason Babin a long time. He went about five or six seasons without any production, and then all of a sudden he had 18 1/2 sacks. Then he had 13 1/2 sacks. And he continues to have sacks this year. Same thing with Rob with New England. His original team? He washed out. He went to another team, no production. He went to the New England Patriots, they found a role for him, and they just re-upped him. He's in his ninth season and he just got a contract extension. He had 91 tackles this year and eight sacks. Same body type, same frame, and same upside. Jerry Hughes, first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts. Three years of no production. Way less production overall than Shea. Goes to a new team, they find a different role for him. They use him as a hand-down rusher and as a linebacker. That team was one of the higher sack teams in the league. He had 10 sacks this year, 41 tackles."

Emery continued: "What I want for Shea is for it not to take that long, for us to find that role, not for the New England Patriots or the Buffalo Bills or the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Eagles to find those roles, but for us. All of those players have a similar skill set. We need to find a better role fit so that he can be productive as a run-down player and productive as a pass rusher."

Bears prepared for Aaron Rodgers

December, 26, 2013
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears cornerback Zack Bowman drew a parallel to hoops when explaining curiosity about whether Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers would start Sunday when the teams meet in the regular-season finale at Soldier field.

“It’s almost like wanting to know if Michael Jordan was gonna go back in the day because, [like Jordan, Rodgers] is a difference-maker,” Bowman said.

Now that it’s a slam dunk Rogers will play, the question is whether the quarterback’s presence under center changes the approach for the Bears, who need a win in order to capture the NFC North crown and a postseason berth. Chicago’s struggling defense certainly recognizes the challenge it faces against one of the game’s top quarterbacks in Rodgers, but in terms of preparation, nothing changes.

[+] EnlargeRodgers
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Bears say news that Aaron Rodgers will be back under center for the Packers won't change their preparation for Sunday's game.
“It didn’t surprise us. If he could play he would, and we’ve prepared for that,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “That’s no disrespect to the job [backup quarterback] Matt Flynn has done. But if Aaron could play, we expected him to play. We’re prepared for that and we know that Mike [McCarthy] was going to get his team ready to play anyway with whoever was available. He’s proven he can do that year in and year out. With Aaron back, they have a feeling they’ll be at their best and we’re ready for that, excited about it.”

It wasn’t as if the Bears would prepare any less vigorously to face Rodgers than they would any other quarterback, even though several defenders in the club’s locker room on Thursday acknowledged the starter’s capabilities are more vast than those of the backup.

“It doesn’t change anything,” safety Craig Steltz said. “Matt had won games in this league and so has Aaron. You’re going to prepare hard, no matter who the quarterback is.”

Perhaps Chicago might toil even harder in readying themselves for Rodgers, given his track record against the Bears.

Rodgers has won eight of the 10 regular-season games he’s finished against Chicago, posting a passer rating of 107.7 throughout his career against the Bears, and completing 68.8 percent of his throws for 2,513 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions.

When the teams met on Nov. 4 with the Bears coming out of their bye, Rodgers completed 1-of-2 passes in Green Bay’s opening drive before suffering the collarbone injury, which has sidelined him for the past seven games. Prior to that 27-20 Chicago victory, the Bears hadn’t defeated Rodgers and the Packers since Sept. 27, 2010.

When the Bears won that game, they took advantage of an almost fluke James Jones fumble, which gave them possession on the Green Bay 46 with 2:18 left to play to get into position for Robbie Gould's winning field goal. Green Bay committed a franchise-record 18 penalties for 152 yards in that outing, including a call during Chicago’s final drive that wiped out what should have been an interception and gave the Bears possession at the Packers' 9 for Gould’s kick.

Other than that outing, Rodgers and the Packers have owned the rivalry. In the past four games he’s actually completed against the Bears, Rodgers is undefeated, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 1,091 yards, 12 TDs, two interceptions and a passer rating of 117.2.

The Bears expect Rodgers to pick up where he left off Sunday, and don’t anticipate any rust from the quarterback, who has practiced, but hasn’t played in seven weeks.

“I don’t know if he’s rusty or not. I haven’t seen him in about seven or eight weeks,” Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said. “We’ll see come Sunday, but I don’t anticipate him being rusty at all. It doesn’t matter if he’s the quarterback or not. We’ve got to go out there and execute. Everybody knows what’s at stake. Our playoffs start now.”

Double Coverage: Bears at Packers

November, 1, 2013
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On the day former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith got the job, he said that one of his priorities was to beat the Green Bay Packers.

First-year Bears coach Marc Trestman made no such promises about this rivalry, but it goes without saying that he's eager to end Chicago's six-game losing streak to the Packers.

The last time Chicago beat Green Bay was on Sept. 27, 2010, on "Monday Night Football." The teams meet again in prime time Monday night at Lambeau Field.

ESPN.com's Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright break down the matchup.

Rob Demovsky: We all know how much Smith wanted to beat the Packers. He stated as much the day he got the head coaching job. What has Trestman's approach to this rivalry been like?

Wright: Rob, my man, you know that rivalries have to cut both ways in terms of wins and losses for it to be truly considered a rivalry. Counting the postseason, the Bears have lost six in a row and nine of the last 11. So, if anything, this is more Green Bay dominance than a rivalry. But the interesting thing about Trestman is he's a guy who likes to compartmentalize everything. He looks at today rather than the past or the future. So while it sounds cliché, Trestman is looking at the Packers as just another opponent on the schedule. That's just the way Trestman likes to operate, and I think for him it sort of makes things easier.

I keep looking at Green Bay's sack numbers, and I'm a little surprised the club is still in the top 10 in sacks with Clay Matthews out the last three games and other key members of the defense missing time. What is Dom Capers doing over there schematically to keep up the production?

Demovsky: I figured when Matthews broke his thumb, Capers would have to blitz like crazy. Now, he's picked his spots, but he hasn't gone blitz-happy like I thought he might. However, he has been sending different pass-rushers to keep offenses off guard. One game, against the Baltimore Ravens, linebacker A.J. Hawk came a bunch and sacked Joe Flacco three times. Also, they've finally found a defensive lineman with some rush ability in second-year pro Mike Daniels. Three of his team-leading four sacks have come in the past two games.

As long as we're on the topic of quarterbacks, in 2011, backup Josh McCown played a halfway decent game against the Packers on Christmas at Lambeau Field, but he threw a couple of interceptions. What do you expect from him this time around as he starts in place of the injured Jay Cutler?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers have limited Brandon Marshall to 8 catches for 80 yards in their past two meetings.
Wright: Believe it or not, I expect little to no drop-off from McCown in this game. The biggest difference between now and then is that in 2011, McCown joined the team in November, fresh from a stint as a high school football coach in North Carolina, and four weeks later became the starter. So he basically came in cold and still played relatively well. This time around, McCown has become immersed in the offense from the ground level, when Trestman first came on board, and even had some input as the team constructed the scheme. In fact, during the offseason, McCown was holding film sessions with all the club's new additions to teach everyone the new offense. So he's got complete mastery of the offense just like Cutler, which is why McCown came in against the Redskins and the offense didn't miss a beat. Obviously, McCown doesn't possess Cutler's arm strength. But he'll make up for that deficiency with anticipation. I'm quite sure the Bears won't scale down the offense to accommodate McCown at all, because they don't need to. So I expect McCown to play well. I'm just not sure Chicago's offense can keep up with Green Bay's in what I expect to be a high-scoring game.

Speaking of high scoring, the Packers put up 44 points on the Minnesota Vikings. How is Green Bay handling the preparation process for the Bears?

Demovsky: Well, they certainly don't have as much time as the Bears do, considering the Bears are coming off their bye week. But the Packers have gotten themselves into a rhythm. They've won four in a row after their 1-2 start and look like a different team than they did the first three weeks of the season. Mike McCarthy probably doesn't get enough credit nationally, but show me another coach who has stared injuries in the face and hasn't blinked. What other team could lose playmakers like Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Matthews and still keep winning? That's a testament to the program he has established here. You can argue with some of his in-game coaching decisions, but you can do that with every coach. What you can't question, though, is the team's preparation.

The Bears, obviously, have had their share of injuries, too, losing Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs. What's a bigger loss -- Cutler to the offense or Briggs to the defense?

Wright: Well, Cutler's replacement is a veteran in McCown who has plenty of experience and a ton of weapons surrounding him on offense, while rookie Khaseem Greene will likely fill in for Briggs on a bad defense that will also feature rookie Jon Bostic in the middle. From my vantage point, losing Briggs is much more significant. The Bears have already proved to be horrible against the run (ranked 25th), and that issue certainly won't improve with two rookies at linebacker and a defensive line decimated by injury. It's also worth noting that Briggs made all the defensive calls and served as somewhat of a coach on the field for Bostic. Given that Green Bay seems to be running the ball so well, the current situation with Chicago's front seven could be devastating.

Now that the Packers are running the ball so well, how has that changed the way the offense is called? It seems Green Bay runs well regardless of which running back they line up in the backfield.

Demovsky: It's remarkable -- and even a bit stunning -- to see Aaron Rodgers check out of a pass play and in to a run play at the line of scrimmage. That kind of thing hasn't happened around here in a long, long time -- probably not since Ahman Green was piling up 1,000-yard seasons nearly a decade ago. Teams no longer can sit back in a Cover-2 look and dare the Packers to run. Because guess what? The Packers can finally do it. It also has given the receivers more one-on-one opportunities, so it's helped the passing game, too. Right now, this offense almost looks unstoppable.

If the Packers keep playing like this, they might be tough to catch in the NFC North. What are the Bears' prospects for staying in the NFC North race until Cutler and Briggs return?

Wright: To me, this game is the measuring stick for making that determination. But I'm not really confident about Chicago's chances, and that has more to do with the team's struggling defense than Cutler's absence. There have been conflicting statements made about Cutler's recovery time frame. Some teammates think he'll be ready to return by the time the Bears face Detroit on Nov. 4, while Trestman said the plan is to stick to the minimum four-week time frame prescribed by the doctors. Either way, if the Bears lose to the Lions you can kiss their prospects for the playoffs goodbye. The Bears might be able to afford a loss to the Packers because they'll face them again on Dec. 29. But a sweep by the Lions kills Chicago's chances to me because just from what we've seen so far, it appears one of the wild cards will come out of the NFC North with the other coming from the NFC West. Obviously it's too early to predict that, but that's the way things seem to be shaking out.

Without two of his top receivers and tight end Finley, Rogers still hit 83 percent of his passes against the Vikings. Is that success a product of the system, a bad Minnesota defense, or is Rodgers just that good at this point?

Demovsky: The more I see other quarterbacks play, the more I'm convinced it's Rodgers. For example, seldom-used receiver Jarrett Boykin makes his first NFL start two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, and he ends up with eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. How many catches do you think he would have had if he were playing for the Browns that day? Their quarterback, Brandon Weeden, completed only 17-of-42 passes. That's not to minimize what Boykin did or what players like Jordy Nelson do week in and week out, but Rodgers is special, and special players elevate the play of those around them. Look at what Greg Jennings has done since he left for the Vikings. Now tell me the quarterback doesn't make the receiver, not vice versa.

Speaking of receivers, other than Anquan Boldin, who lit up the Packers in the opener at San Francisco, they've done a solid job shutting down other team's No. 1 receivers -- most recently Jennings and Cincinnati's A.J. Green. How do you think the Bears will try to get Brandon Marshall involved against what has been a pretty good Packers secondary?

Wright: This question brings me back to the 2012 massacre at Lambeau Field on Sept. 13. The Packers bracketed Marshall with two-man coverage, and the Bears struggled tremendously. Shoot, cornerback Tramon Williams caught as many of Cutler's passes as Marshall, who finished the game with two grabs for 24 yards. Obviously, this offensive coaching staff is a lot different than last year's group. So the Bears will go into this game with a lot more answers for that coverage. I definitely see McCown leaning on Marshall and trying to get him involved as early as possible, but the only way he'll be able to do that is for the Bears to establish the rushing attack with Matt Forte so the quarterback can operate off play action. When the Bears go to Marshall early, expect to see a lot of short passes that will enable the receiver to gain some yardage after the catch.

Over the years, Green Bay has been pretty successful at limiting the impact of return man Devin Hester. So I was a little shocked to see the Packers give up a kickoff return for a touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson. As you probably know, Hester is coming off a pretty strong return game against the Redskins. Do you think the Packers fix the problems they encountered last week, and minimize Hester's impact?

Demovsky: Part of the Packers' problem on special teams has been that all the injuries have created a trickle-down effect. Here's what I mean: On the kickoff coverage until they gave up the 109-yard return to Patterson, they lined up six rookies, two of whom weren't even on the opening day roster. The Packers always have feared Hester, as they should, and in various games in recent years have shown they'd almost rather kick the ball out of bounds than give him any return opportunities. He's one of those special players who make rivalry games so entertaining.

Anderson to call defense vs. Packers

October, 31, 2013
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LAKE FORERST, Ill. -- With Lance Briggs expected to be sidelined for the next several weeks with a small fracture in his left shoulder, veteran strong side linebacker James Anderson has assumed the role of on-field defensive signal caller leading up to the Chicago Bears road game versus the Green Bay Packers on Monday night.

“James has done it this week so far and it’s looked good,” Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said on Thursday. “He’s done it before. [Rookie middle linebacker] Jon [Bostic] will also have a role in it, helping us get lined up. So we won’t have any issues getting lined up.”

An eight-year NFL veteran, Anderson has proven to be one of the defense’s most consistent performers after the club signed him to a one-year deal in the offseason. Anderson is currently third on the team with 54 tackles. Before arriving in Chicago, Anderson started 53 games for the Carolina Panthers from 2006-2012 -- 43 of those starts occurred over the last three seasons.

“I’m completely comfortable [calling the plays],” Anderson said. “I did it in Carolina so it’s nothing that is new to me. For the most part during the year I’ve been helping Lance make the calls, so it’s not like I’m totally new to the situation.”

Anderson went on to say he embraces the opportunity to call the signals because the act itself makes him a better player.

“I think it helps me to call plays because it reiterates in my mind what the call is and what we are trying to do,” Anderson said. “When I’m telling them what the call is, I’m also telling myself as well.”

This is an important week for Anderson. As the last veteran linebacker standing, until Briggs returns, he will be responsible for properly aligning the defense against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL: Aaron Rodgers. The No. 1 career passer in terms of quarterback rating (105.2) in NFL history, Rodgers is having another All-Pro caliber year in 2013, completing 167 of 249 passes for 2,191 yards and 15 touchdowns with just four interceptions -- 108.0 quarterback rating.

“I don’t think it’s more a teaching role, I think we just have to make sure we improve our communication on the field,” Anderson said. “I just have to make sure I talk to these young guys more on the field so they feel comfortable.”

Privately, Rodgers is likely relishing the chance to face a Bears’ defense without Briggs and with a pair of rookie linebackers (Bostic and Khaseem Greene) in the starting lineup. However, Rodgers downplayed the changes the Bears have undergone this week at linebacker during a conference call on Thursday with members of the Chicago media.

“I’m sure anybody who’s making those calls, regardless of who they put the helmet on, will be ready to go,” Rodgers said. “Those guys have been in that defense for a while so the faces may change, but schematically it’s not going to be a lot of huge changes. It always comes down to execution in these matchups.

It’s been down-to-the-wire games; we’ve gotten the best of them the last few games but we don’t take this game lightly ever.”

Eight in the Box: NFC North camp issues

July, 19, 2013
7/19/13
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC North team?

CHICAGO BEARS

Offense: Kyle Long's readiness
The Bears drafted Long in the first round to help an offensive line that has struggled for years to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Long, however, had a short Division I career and missed almost all of the Bears' offseason work because of the timing of Oregon's final academic quarter. The Bears will find out in camp, and during the preseason, whether Long is ready to be an immediate starter as you would expect based on his draft position.

Defense: Configuring linebackers
After the retirement of Brian Urlacher and the departure of Nick Roach, the Bears gave themselves two tiers of options at linebacker to play alongside Lance Briggs. If all else fails, they can use veteran D.J. Williams in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. But they also drafted two players who one day will get their chance: Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth. The process of determining the best combination will begin in training camp.

Wild card: Coaching transition
This will be the Bears' first training camp in 10 years without Lovie Smith as the coach. Marc Trestman began the transition process during offseason workouts, but training camp is the time for establishing the meat of his program. How does he expect players to practice? How quickly does he expect scheme assimilation? How do players know when he's happy? When he's angry? The first training camp will set the parameters.

DETROIT LIONS

Offense: Line changes
One way or the other, the Lions will enter the season with three new starters on the offensive line. Riley Reiff is at left tackle after the retirement of Jeff Backus, and there will be competition at right guard and right tackle. Pulling off an overhaul of the offensive line in a win-or-else season is an ambitious task. All discussion of improvement for quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the impact of newcomer Reggie Bush, is made on the presumption that the offensive line won't take a step back.

Defense: Ziggy Ansah's development
Usually, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft is ready to step in and play right away. But Ansah was a late arrival to football and was almost an unknown to NFL scouts a year ago at this time. There was a sense during pre-draft evaluations that Ansah would need more development time than the typical No. 5 pick, but the Lions have high hopes of putting him into the starting lineup right away. They gave themselves some flexibility by signing free agent Israel Idonije, but they'll find out in camp if Ansah is going to be ready to play a full-time role in Week 1.

Wild card: Ryan Broyles' status
Broyles was a value pick in the 2012 draft, but he is very much needed after the release of Titus Young. Nate Burleson has returned to play alongside All-Pro Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' depth would be thin if Broyles isn't ready to play soon after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. The Lions hope Broyles can be full-speed by the start of the season, a pace he must confirm with at least some significant work in training camp.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Offense: Running back rotation
The Packers added two rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that includes holdovers DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Unless the Packers suddenly convert to a run-based offense, an impossibility as long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers will have to thin this herd in training camp. Not everyone from that group will make the team, and a few who do aren't likely to get much action in games. Harris, Lacy and Franklin seem the likeliest candidates -- in that order -- to be feature backs.

Defense: Replacing Woodson
The Packers have openings at safety and cornerback following the release of Charles Woodson. Training camp should provide significant insight, if not an outright answer, into who will start at safety -- M.D. Jennings? Jerron McMillian? -- alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll also get a sense for who is ready to step into the cornerback and nickel job opposite veteran Tramon Williams. Top candidates for that job include Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. The Packers' cornerback group is by far the deepest in the NFC North.

Wild card: Crosby's state of mind
No one expects Giorgio Tavecchio to beat out place-kicker Mason Crosby, who went through a well-publicized extended slump last season. But how will Crosby react to the first competition of any sort he has faced since taking over as the Packers' kicker in 2007? That's what the Packers want to find out, frankly. If he isn't sharp in camp, the Packers might need to consider their options elsewhere.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
The Vikings know they want Patterson to be their kickoff returner, replacing Percy Harvin, but is Patterson ready to take over any part of Harvin's role as a primary offensive playmaker? Patterson's short stay at Tennessee once suggested he will need some development time before contributing regularly on offense. His performance in offseason practices, however, suggested he might be further along than once believed. Training camp will tell us for sure.

Defense: Linebacker alignment
Will newcomer Desmond Bishop play middle linebacker or on the outside? What would that mean for Erin Henderson, who spent the offseason transitioning to the middle position? It seems pretty clear that Bishop, Henderson and Chad Greenway will be the Vikings' three linebackers. Training camp should give us a better idea of where they will line up and, importantly, who will come off the field in nickel situations.

Wild card: Chemistry in passing game
The Vikings are expecting a jump in the efficiency, if not raw numbers, of their passing game this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to accomplish that by developing quick chemistry with his new receivers, including Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings. That task appeared to be a work in progress during offseason practices.
Reggie BushRonald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesIt's one thing for Reggie Bush to talk about titles, but it's another for the Lions to win them.
While the groundwork for every NFL campaign is primarily laid in the offseason, championships are never won in May.

But organizations need to set lofty goals. Have you ever heard of an NFL team striving for mediocrity?

So while a part of me wants to cringe when I read Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley quoted in the Detroit News saying that his team is "going to the Super Bowl”, or watch a video of Detroit running back Reggie Bush tell reporters that he signed with the Lions "to win championships," the reality is that every NFL player should feel that way about the prospects of his respective club this time of the year.

(Read full post)

Rodgers: Urlacher was my favorite foe

May, 24, 2013
5/24/13
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A member of the Green Bay Packers is going to miss Brian Urlacher? That's right.

Aaron Rodgers said on The Jim Rose Show that the Bears middle linebacker, who retired Wednesday, was his "favorite player to play against."

Read the entire story.

Brian Urlacher: Impact on teammates

May, 22, 2013
5/22/13
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video
What made Brian Urlacher special? You have to start, of course, with the way a 6-foot-4, 258-pound man could run, hit and organize a defense on the field. But even an occasional in-person observer of the Chicago Bears over the past decade could notice the reverential stature Urlacher held with his teammates.

If he had enemies, they never surfaced. Urlacher mixed equal doses of dry humor, man's-man competitiveness and two-way respect to keep the Bears' locker room humming smoothly and largely conflict-free during his tenure. So in the moments after Urlacher announced his retirement, I caught up with former Bears defensive lineman Dusty Dvoracek -- who now hosts a sports radio talk show on The Sports Talk Network in Norman, Okla. -- to get a better sense for how Urlacher managed to cast such a popular web.

"Once you became a teammate of Brian Urlacher, you would get the best teammate you could ever ask for," Dvoracek said. "He was one of the biggest superstars in the NFL, but he acted like an average Joe, even to people coming in as a rookie. That matters to people and they don't forget it.

"The first week I was there, he opened up his house and invited me over. It wasn't just me. It was everybody. Not just me. Everybody. He tried to make it as easy and as comfortable for everyone. He was very accepting if you were on his team. He wanted you to do well so the team would do well."

In big media settings, of course, Urlacher could be as grumpy as any player I've covered. His answers could be short, snippy and designed to end the questioning altogether. I told Dvoracek that it was always fascinating to me that a player who seemed as cranky as Urlacher could be so universally hailed and beloved as a leader.

"He is about as opposite of that as you can be in personal life," Dvoracek said. "He really is as nice and as kindhearted a guy as you're going to find in the NFL. A lot of guys put on a show for [the] camera, and behind it they're a jerk. I don't want to say that Brian was the reverse because I don't think he was a jerk to the cameras, but what we saw behind the scenes was genuine and real.

"I mean, he really is a happy guy. He loves to compete at everything he does. He's good at everything. It ticks you off. Whether you're playing pingpong, shuffleboard, basketball or golf, he's really good at everything he does. He's super competitive but really just likes to have a good time with the guys."

Even competitors recognized and appreciated that approach. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers told the Chicago Tribune earlier this spring that "I always appreciated his ability to enjoy the game while being competitive. He plays the game with a lot of class and professionalism. He does it the right way."

Rodgers added that when playing the Bears, "you never had to worry about cheap shots around the pile or after the whistle. They played the right way and it was led by Brian."

Emotions always run high when a superstar retires, and those who spent time around him tend to wax nostalgic. They are already beginning the work toward cementing a legend. Based on what we've heard about Urlacher over the years, that work shouldn't be hard.

Eight in the Box: FA winners or losers?

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
10:42
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each NFC North team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Chicago Bears: A hot start in free agency netted left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett. The Bears had been trying for five years to find a genuine left tackle, and Bushrod's arrival should boost the faith of quarterback Jay Cutler. Bennett, meanwhile, gives the Bears the kind of pass-catching tight end they once had in Greg Olsen. But Bushrod and Bennett accounted for most of the salary-cap space the Bears had budgeted to use, and now they are nibbling the edges. Overall, however, the Bears improved two important positions, making them winners in free agency.

Detroit Lions: The NFC North's most active offseason team has added three new starters in running back Reggie Bush, defensive end Jason Jones and safety Glover Quin. Bush will have a big impact on balancing the explosiveness in the Lions' offense, and Quin will pair with the returning Louis Delmas to give the Lions their best safety duo in recent memory. The Lions have improved as many positions as they could have given their tight salary-cap situation.

Green Bay Packers: It's difficult to win when you don't play, and general manager Ted Thompson is notoriously reluctant to compete financially in the market. He allowed receiver Greg Jennings to sign with the Minnesota Vikings and didn't make a good enough offer on running back Steven Jackson. But the Packers have made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons by following a similar approach. These days, their focus is on saving enough salary-cap space to re-sign quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews. The Packers won't find two players better than that on the free-agent market.

Minnesota Vikings: In essence, the Vikings traded receiver Percy Harvin for Jennings, along with a first-, third- and seventh-round draft pick. They won't replace Harvin's unique skill set, but that's not a bad recovery. The Vikings are also in a better spot at backup quarterback with Matt Cassel rather than Joe Webb. But they don't have a middle linebacker after bidding farewell to Jasper Brinkley, and they remain thin at cornerback after releasing Antoine Winfield. The Vikings remain a work in progress this offseason. They haven't won or lost yet.

Eight in the Box: Quarterback situations

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
11:35
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: How each NFC North team needs to address the quarterback position.

Chicago Bears: First, the new coach Marc Trestman must decide whether he thinks Jay Cutler is the team's long-term starter. Cutler's contract expires after the 2013 season, giving the Bears a chance to move on if Trestman is disappointed. Assuming he is not, the Bears must get Cutler signed to an extension over the next 12 months or be forced to use their 2014 franchise tag on him.

Of more immediate concern is Cutler's backup. Jason Campbell is a pending free agent, but the Bears might not want to devote the $3-$4 million in cap space it would require to re-sign him. Josh McCown, the 2012 third-stringer, could be an option.

Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford's $20.8 million cap figure needs to be lowered, and talks are underway on a contract extension. Regardless, he is the Lions' long-term starter. Backup Shaun Hill, 33, is signed through the 2013 season. He is a favorite of the coaching staff and is unlikely to be replaced by Kellen Moore, the 2012 third-stringer.

Green Bay Packers: Starter Aaron Rodgers' 2013 compensation of $9.75 million is well below market value and will lead to contract talks, but there is every expectation that he will play his entire career in Green Bay. Backup Graham Harrell played sparingly last season and could conceivably be challenged by 2012 draft choice B.J. Coleman.

Minnesota Vikings: Team officials have committed to Christian Ponder as their unquestioned starter, buoyed by his strong performance at the end of last season. Ponder will need a more consistent season in 2013 to generate "franchise" status, but the Vikings will give him every opportunity.

Backup Joe Webb will be forced to win his job back, probably in a training camp competition against a veteran to be acquired. Webb was thrown into an admittedly tough position as a surprise playoff starter, but his performance still cast doubt on whether he should be entrusted with the role moving forward.

Big Decision: Quarterback contracts

January, 22, 2013
1/22/13
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Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Aaron RodgersGetty ImagesMatthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers all could have new contracts for the 2013 season.
First in a series of important offseason issues facing NFC North teams:

Quarterbacks are the most important players in the game. They're also, on average, the highest paid. Those undeniable facts could make for a significant offseason of contract news in the NFC North.

As we discussed in the fall, and as the chart documents, three of our starting quarterbacks are nearing the expiration of their contracts. I would classify two of the situations as urgent, albeit for different reasons. The third is the most undervalued of the bunch.


Could Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford all sign new contracts before the start of the 2013 season? I wouldn't rule it out and, no matter how you look at it, all three must have new contract parameters -- even if it means a franchise tag -- over the next 26 months.

I've tried to minimize the focus on contract issues in recent years because, for the most part, teams have kept the players they wanted most. The cash matters only to the owners, players and agents. As third-party observers, financial specifics are relevant only if they present a unique challenge to the salary cap.

The sheer size of contracts for starting quarterbacks, combined with a projected flat cap during much of this collective bargaining agreement, makes these situations quite relevant. Stafford and Cutler are in urgent situations, requiring franchise-altering decisions to be made perhaps before they throw their next pass, while Rodgers' contract is so outdated that his annual average is about half of what the New Orleans Saints paid Drew Brees last summer.

We'll start with Stafford, who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009 -- two years before the NFL dramatically lowered the ceiling on rookie contracts. The Detroit Lions have already renegotiated his original six-year, $72 million deal twice to delay the accompanying salary-cap headache, but it probably will come to a head this offseason.

Stafford is projected to count at least $20.32 million against the Lions' 2013 cap, close to the figure that forced the Lions to give receiver Calvin Johnson a record-breaking extension last spring to relieve the cap hit. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is already on record saying he would like to get Stafford extended as well, and the question is how much of a premium the Lions will have to pay.

Stafford's rookie contract averaged $12 million annually and included $41.7 million in guarantees. Regardless of the CBA changes, agent Tom Condon will want to build on the original deal. Considering that Stafford will turn 25 next month, you wonder if he will finish his career with more on-field earnings than any player in NFL history. Even if he signs a six-year contract this offseason, he'll be only 31 when it expires. Brees was 33 when the Saints signed him to his five-year, $100 million deal.

Brees' deal will serve as the benchmark for Rodgers, who just turned 29. Rodgers' contract runs through the 2014 season, and he has expressed a desire to sign one more contract before he retires. His situation isn't exactly comparable to Brees, whom the Saints made their franchise player prior to the agreement, but a $20-million annual average isn't out of the question if the sides hold discussions this spring.

Rodgers is due to earn $9.75 million in 2013 and $11 million in 2014. From the Green Bay Packers' perspective, the only urgency is the assumption of a rising price tag over time. The longer they wait, the more expensive the deal probably will be.

The Bears, meanwhile, can't wait too much longer on Cutler. Usually a team doesn't want to enter the season with an established quarterback entering his final contract year, but Cutler's situation is complicated by the arrival of new coach Marc Trestman -- who will make Cutler better and more expensive if he is the quarterback guru the Bears believe he is.

In that sense, it might make sense for Cutler to be patient for a deal in hopes an improved 2013 season enhances his value. The Bears, in turn, might want to see how the Cutler-Trestman dynamic plays out before making a long-term decision.

At some point -- maybe in a few months, definitely with two years -- the futures of all three quarterbacks will be addressed decisively. We'll be waiting.

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