Kiper's Summer Audits: NFC North
Overhauled offense should help Cutler, Bears thrive
Every summer, with the NFL draft and free agency in the rearview mirror, I take a look at each team. What did it accomplish in terms of added personnel? How did its draft fill holes? What voids remain? Let's jump around the league, addressing three things for each team:
• Help added: What the team has done this offseason to improve its prospects. Given my greatest area of expertise, I put a particular emphasis on the draft.
• Questions that remain: A look at what voids must be filled.
• Next year's help now: With an eye toward next year's draft class, which player of 2013 could seemingly help the team in 2012? This is meant to be hypothetical, a quick look at prospects to keep an eye on.
Here is the version for the NFC North:
Help added: Jay Cutler has spent virtually every year of his career both questioned for his decision-making and lauded for his raw quarterbacking instincts and exceptional arm. He is, like a lot of ultra-talented QBs thrown into the mix early in their careers, somehow stuck in that "Gifted gunslinger" category. But Cutler has, particularly in Chicago, also suffered from a lack of good pass-catching options as well as a lack of blocking. You can look like a gunslinger when you're running for your life and trying to throw receivers open. His career INT rate -- basically the same as Eli Manning's -- should continue to improve, and last year was at just 2.2 percent of throws.
Before he got hurt, he was on pace for his best season ever in terms of limiting mistake throws. But where he's really needed help in Chicago is with receivers who can go get the ball. I've seen Cutler throw the kind of back shoulder or "jump ball" passes to receivers with the idea they'll make a play on the ball, but guys like Devin Hester aren't programmed that way. Instead, you see overthrows or INTs. With the addition of Brandon Marshall (via trade) and Alshon Jeffery (draft), the Bears have totally changed the dynamic at wide receiver. Cutler now has an interesting mix at wideout, with Marshall and Jeffery providing size and red zone matchup potential, and Hester and Earl Bennett the speed to target good matchups. Bennett is decent in the slot, and my guess is they'll move Hester around.
The defense, solid if not spectacular for years, should return largely intact, though with the addition of a pair of draft picks who could work their way into the rotation. Shea McClellin could give the Bears some pass-rush depth, but lacks the athleticism to explode on the scene. I think he'll be a solid but not flashy addition. Same goes for Brandon Hardin, who could push to start early at strong safety. One guy to keep an eye on for down the line: fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez is a tight end who can run, and this roster lacks much at the position, to put it mildly.
For the full NFC North breakdown from Mel Kiper, including picks for next year's draft, you must be an ESPN Insider.
The NFL on ESPN.com