If healthy, WR can be impact player
Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery's modest rookie season numbers (24 catches, 367 yards, three touchdowns) are not a true reflection of the type of impact player he can be in the NFL, when healthy.
Entering his second year, Jeffery showed flashes last season that appeared to justify the Bears' decision to move up in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft to take the South Carolina All-American.
Jeffery has excellent hands, deceptive speed and the size (6-foot-3) to be an effective threat in the red zone.
But Jeffery's problem was staying off the injury report. He missed a combined six games due to a broken hand and a knee injury that required surgery, effectively killing the rhythm he was beginning to develop with quarterback Jay Cutler over the first five weeks of the regular season.
However, Jeffery closed out the year on a strong note with four catches for 76 yards in the Bears' victory over the Detroit Lions in the season finale.
Jeffery spent the first couple months of the offseason training with receiver Brandon Marshall and other Bears teammates in South Florida before the start of the club's offseason program. Jeffery appeared to be adapting well to the new offense until he suffered a minor hamstring injury in the week leading up to minicamp.
Jeffery's hamstring wasn't believed to be serious at the time, but it did serve as another reminder that the receiver has had difficulty remaining healthy in just over one year in the league.
But if Jeffery's body cooperates, he should be able to catch anywhere from 50 to 70 balls from Cutler, even though tight end Martellus Bennett (an offseason addition) and sure-handed slot receiver Earl Bennett are also options for Cutler to throw to along with Marshall. But for the sake of the team, Marshall can't be targeted nearly as much in 2013.
If Jeffery can put up those kinds of numbers, that qualifies as a breakout year, at least in my book.
Now it's up to Jeffery to make it happen by staying in the lineup and off the trainer's table.
Jeff Dickerson covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.
Bears have set up QB for success
Jay Cutler figures to be the most improved player on the Chicago Bears' roster in 2013 for a variety of reasons, most notably the fact he almost has to be in order to remain the franchise's quarterback beyond this season.
In the final year of his contract, Cutler won't ever articulate this, but he certainly has a golden opportunity in front of him. He could parlay the upcoming season into a megadeal the way Joe Flacco did in landing $120.6 million contract after leading the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title.
Other elements factor into Cutler's potential to emerge in 2013 as the most improved Chicago Bear.
First, general manager Phil Emery hired a quarterback specialist, Marc Trestman as the team's head coach. That's huge, and it's perhaps the biggest reason Cutler stands to improve dramatically. So far, quarterback and coach are off to a fast start in turning around what's been mostly an anemic offense over the years.
Emery also made it a priority in the offseason to acquire some help for Cutler. The club signed left tackle Jermon Bushrod and drafted Kyle Long to beef up what's been pathetic protection during Cutler's tenure in Chicago. Emery also brought in tight end Martellus Bennett to address one of the main deficient areas of the team's passing game in 2012: the middle of the field, a place the Bears hardly ever attacked.
Coming off arthroscopic hip surgery, Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall likely won't put up a 119-catch season as he did in 2012 because Trestman's new offense will involve more equitable distribution among the targets. But with Bennett in the mix, coupled with the improvement of rising second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery and a healthy Earl Bennett, Marshall won't have to because, in theory, Cutler should be making defenses pay for devoting too much coverage to Marshall.
The expected change in offensive philosophy should help Cutler, too. Trestman's offense will run through running back Matt Forte (who might be even better this season, based on the type of shape he was in during the offseason). This, in turn, will open up the passing game, allowing Cutler the opportunity to finally start the process of shedding that "enigma" label.
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.