Chicago Bears 2015 Preview

(Julio Cortez/AP)

Marc Trestman went 8–8 in his first season with the Bears in 2013 and Chicago was powered by the second highest scoring offense in the NFL. Unfortunately for Chicago, the Bears had one of the worst defenses in the NFL in 2013. In 2014 the Bears offense took a major step backwards, mainly due to poor play from quarterback Jay Cutler. Chicago’s defense wasn’t any better and they ranked 31st in scoring defense and 30th in yards allowed for the second straight season. A fall in offensive production and a horrible defense led to a 5–11 record and resulted in a house cleaning that took out general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman and his staff. Former Saints personnel executive Ryan Pace was hired as the Bears’ general manager and he hired former Panthers and Broncos head coach John Fox as his head coach. Fox brought offensive coordinator Adam Gase with him from Chicago and he brought former 49ers’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to transition the Bears defense from 4–3 to 3–4. The Bears opted to retain Cutler with the hope that he can have a bounce back 2015 season.


Offense

Adam Gase nearly became the head coach of the 49ers this past year, but he was unwilling to retain Jim Tomsula as his defensive coordinator so the 49ers went with Tomsula as their head coach. Gase was a finalist for several head coaching vacancies but settled as the Bears’ coordinator under former boss John Fox. The Bears struggled last season, but they’re obviously capable of having a good offense based on their production in 2013. Much of Chicago’s offensive outcome depends on what version of Jay Cutler they will see in 2015.

Quarterbacks

Last year quarterback Jay Cutler led the NFL with 24 turnovers. Coordinator Adam Gase could try to limit the control that Cutler has in terms of simple reads and limited audibles at the line of scrimmage, which seemed to work when Cutler had his most success with coordinator Mike Martz. Martz helped tutor Gase into the coach he is today and Gase does carry some concepts he learned from Martz. Making an offense easier for Cutler should help compensate for his poor decision making which led to the turnovers in 2014. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase is going to emphasize getting the ball out quicker and not forcing plays with Cutler. Gase wants Cutler to be more of a patient, balanced quarterback and less of a gunslinger who forces things. Cutler is learning new offense from offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who’s just five years older than the quarterback. That relationship will be very important, as Cutler has a history of troubled relationships with his coordinators. So far Cutler and Gase seem to be getting to where they need to be in terms of having the offense ready for action, but it’s going to be hard to tell until it actually happens. Cutler has all the tools you want in a quarterback. He’s a decent athlete with solid arm strength and accuracy, but his poor decision making, which leads to turnovers, has always been his negative. Gase’s offense should maximize quick passes and easy reads which should help Cutler maximize his talents. Backup quarterback Jimmy Clausen was drafted by Fox in Carolina, where he struggled mightily before being replaced by Cam Newton. Clausen played much better in Chicago last season than he did as a rookie with the Panthers, but he’s still not the person you want at quarterback. Clausen started in week 16 against the Lions and almost led the Bears to victory, throwing two touchdowns and only one interception. Clausen limits the Bears offense because he’s not good at stretching defenses vertically. 2014 sixth rounder David Fales and undrafted rookie Shane Carden will compete for the third quarterback job and a spot on the 53-man roster of the practice squad. Fales was a great fit in Chicago’s system under Trestman and he might get booted in favor of Carden, who was expected to be picked in the draft. Fales probably has better physical traits, but the new Bears regime likes Carden.

Running Backs

Matt Forte has rushed for at least 900 yards in all seven seasons of his career. Forte had a down year in terms of rushing productivity in 2014, but he caught a career high 102 receptions for 808 yards. Forte likely won’t come close to matching those numbers in Adam Gase’s offense, but he wills till have a role as a pass catcher. Forte averaged only 3.9 yards per carry last season, a major drop from his 4.6 average in 2013. He’s seen 16–18 carries a game consistently over the past seven years, but that number could go down slightly if he can’t be more productive as a rusher. Forte, at 29 years old, might be slowing down, but I think his decline in production might be more caused by the chaos around him. Forte only broke the 100 rushing yards barrier three times last season and he had six games where he averaged 3.0 yards per carry or less. Chicago picked up Jeremy Langford in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. Langford possesses great speed and explosiveness, but he’s not going to be a three-down back. Langford’s best role would likely be as a third down back, but that’s where Forte really excels. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah mentioned Forte on his Move The Sticks podcast as one of the best third down backs in the NFL because of his value as a receiver and runner. Langford might not get a lot of opportunities next season, but he might eventually get a shot at replacing Forte. The Bears signed Jacquizz Rodgers, another speedy back with some receiving ability. Rodgers almost has more career receiving yards than rushing yards and was used in a third down role in Atlanta and isn’t a great rusher, albeit effective as a receiver. There will be a lot of competition for roles behind Forte. Rodgers will probably have to beat out Ka’Deem Carey, Daniel Thomas, and Senorise Perry for a roster spot because Chicago may only keep three backs, but there’s a chance they’ll keep four. Carey, a fourth round pick from 2014, was somewhat disappointing last year. Carey doesn’t have the speed of Langford, Forte, or Rodgers, but the old regime thought he was a solid back. Carey could have a tough time making the Bears, but he’ll likely be on a roster somewhere next year if the Bears don’t keep him. Former Dolphins second round pick Daniel Thomas probably won’t make the roster and has never been an effective runner in the NFL. 2014 undrafted rookie Senorise Perry is an extreme long shot to make the roster and would probably have to make it as a kick returner. Chicago won’t use a fullback next season. Depth behind Forte should be much improved next year, but Chicago will want a bounce back season from their aging runner.

Receivers

The Bears traded Brandon Marshall to the Jets this offseason partially because they think youngster Alshon Jeffrey has the ability to be a “true No.1 receiver”. Jeffrey, like Marshall, is a big target who has the ability to make big plays. Jeffrey caught 85 passes for 1133 yards while battlng hamstring issues last year. It would not be a shock at all if Jeffrey’s numbers get a decent boost from the departure of Marshall. The Bears won all three games last year when Jeffrey caught over 100 yards, and keep in mind that the Bears only won five games last year. Jeffrey is also a tough target to cover in the redzone and he can also be a threat on intermediate and deep routes. Chicago drafted Kevin White with the seventh overall pick, but John Fox and Adam Gase have a history of letting rookie receivers sit in favor of veterans (i.e. Cody Latimer). Eddie Royal is expected to start immediately opposite Jeffrey, but I think Fox may change his mind close to the start of the season when he gets a good taste of what White can do in training camp. White has elite size and speed and has received comparisons to Larry Fitzgerald. A strong rookie season would help replace Marshall and take a lot of pressure off of Jeffrey and Cutler. Royal’s best used in the slot and he’s a reliable target who knows how to get open and has decent speed. Royal caught 62 passes for 778 yards and 7 touchdowns with the Chargers last year, which is pretty good production compared to the rest of his career. A repeat strong season definitely isn’t out of the question. Royal is a strong upgrade over Marquess Wilson, who impressed in limited time before 2014, but was a major disappointment when he got extended action. Wilson started 7 games last year but only caught 17 passes for 140 yards. He could get a chance at redemption if Chicago eases Kevin White into action. Marc Mariani likely will make the roster as the fifth wide receiver and as a return specialist. 2014 practice squad receivers Rashad Lawrence and Josh Bellamy could compete for a roster or practice squad spot with rookie Levi Norwood or ex-CFL prospect John Chiles. Martellus Bennett is one of the better starting tight ends in the NFL. Bennett, who’s improved as a blocker and receiver since entering the NFL, has a big personality and had a career year last season, catching 90 passes for 916 yards. Adam Gase utilized Julius Thomas well in the red zone, which could be good news for Bennett. Dante Rosario played under John Fox in Carolina and Denver and is going to be Bennett’s top backup at tight end. Rosario’s an underrated player who’s a decent run blocker and a capable receiver. Bear Pascoe could be fighting Rosario for a roster spot, as both players are primarily blockers. Pascoe offers less as a pass catcher than Rosario, but he would be nice depth as a third tight end. Veteran Zach Miller has struggled to stay healthy and probably won’t make the roster with the addition of Pascoe and Rosario re-signing. The strength of Chicago’s offense is in their receivers. They have a big, physical target in Alshon Jeffrey, and elite tight end in Martellus Bennett, a young dynamic playmaker in Kevin White, and a consistent slot threat in Eddie Royal. Depth at receiver and tight end isn’t great.

Offensive Line

The Bears really struggled to protect Jay Cutler last season. Right tackle Jordan Mills was a major part of those struggles, allowing six sacks. Mills showed some improvement from his rookie season and he’s developing into a decent run blocker, but he’s well below average for a right tackle. Chicago has tinkered with moving stud right guard Kyle Long to right tackle, but it looks like Long will remain at right guard, where he’s one of the best in the league. Long didn’t allow a single sack last season and he’s strong as a run blocker and as a pass protector. Chicago made a switch at center, dumping Roberto Garza and bringing in ex-Bronco Will Montgomery. Montgomery’s probably one of the more underrated centers in the NFL and he’s pretty good as a run blocker and as a pass protector. Left guard Matt Slauson was limited with injuries last year, but was pretty solid. When healthy, Slauson is one of the better guards in the NFL and his healthy return will be a major upgrade. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was supposed to be a solidifying force at left tackle, but he has been somewhat disappointing, allowing five sacks last season. Bushrod’s not that great as a run blocker either. Michael Ola saw action at left guard when Matt Slauson went down and then moved to right tackle when Jordan Mills went down. He was a liability at both positions. He’s probably a better fit at guard, where he had some good games. The Bears drafted center Hroniss Grasu in the third round and they hope he’ll eventually develop into a starter, replacing the aging Will Montgomery. The Bears also added depth with sixth round tackle Tayo Fabuluje. Charles Leno Jr., a seventh round pick from last season could sneak on the roster or join the practice squad. Undrafted rookie Ryan Groy saw action last year because of injuries, but he’ll have to beat out veteran free agent addition Vlad Ducasse for a roster spot. The return of Matt Slauson should stabilize the Bears line but there’s clearly a weakness at right tackle.

Defense

John Fox is a defensive coach, but he gives a lot of authority to his defensive coordinator. The Bears made a surprising defensive coordinator hire with the addition of Vic Fangio, who came from San Francisco. In San Francisco Fangio ran a 3–4 scheme and he’ll bring that scheme to Chicago. Fox led 4–3 defenses in Carolina and Denver, so it will be interesting to see what touches he’ll want Fangio’s 3–4 defense to incorporate. Chicago’s defense currently is far from a finished product. The Bears have a lot of uncertainty on the defensive side, but they hope that some new faces and some old faces at different places will help improve the Bears’ awful defense.

Defensive Line

Veteran defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff is Chicago’s best fit for their new 3–4 scheme. Ratliff played nose tackle when Dallas ran a 3–4 defense, but he has the versatility to play either defensive end or nose tackle. Eddie Goldman, a rookie second round pick out of Florida State, also has the versatility to play nose tackle or defensive end and will likely start right away. Ratliff and Goldman will get a good push against the run, but both players don’t add much as pass rushers, although Goldman’s probably the better pass rusher. Free agent addition Jarvis Jenkins will likely start at defensive end with Goldman and Ratliff, but he’ll face competition from holdovers Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson. Jenkins has ideal size and experience playing the 3–4, but he’s not a standout as either a pass rusher or as a run stuffer. Sutton, a third round pick from 2014, and Ferguson, a second round pick from 2014, will likely play at defensive end after being drafted as 4–3 defensive tackles. They’re both a little out of place, but I expect one or both to get a shot because they have more upside than Jenkins. Cornelius Washington, a sixth rounder from 2013, will try and make the transition from 4–3 defensive end to 3–4 defensive end. Washington is a decent pass rusher who could be an interesting fit as a 3–4 end. The Redskins probably will rotate a lot on the defensive line, especially at end. Brandon Dunn, an undrafted second year player, will likely make the roster as a nose tackle, but can also play end. Dunn impressed in limited action last year. The Bears have a very weak defensive line and they are depending on Eddie Goldman to step in right away and contribute. I think Chicago will try to upgrade their depth along the defensive line around roster cut time.

Linebackers

Chicago made a big splash when they signed Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who was very productive as a pass rusher last year. McPhee’s not a big name, but he produced big time for the Ravens last year in a rotation with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. The Bears are moving defensive end Lamarr Houston to outside linebacker in their 3–4 scheme. Houston had a disappointing year last year, but Chicago thinks he can bounce back and be productive. Houston is the favorite to start opposite McPhee, but he’ll face competition from Jared Allen, Willie Young, and Sam Acho. Allen had a down year and he’ll have to transition to linebacker after playing defensive end his entire career. I think Allen could do well as a situational pass rusher. Acho has experience in the 3–4, playing significant time in Arizona last season, but he’s more of an edge setter against the run than a pass rusher. Willie Young is strictly a pass rushing specialist who had a decent year last season, but he’ll also be making the switch to a 3–4 for the first time. The Bears may decide to dump one of their veteran outside linebackers because the depth here is really deep. In addition the Bears also have David Bass, who recorded three sacks in 144 snaps last year, but will probably have a tough time making the roster. 2012 first rounder Shea McClellin was switched to inside linebacker, where he’ll try to fend off free agent addition Mason Foster. Second year player Christian Jones is expected to play next to McClellin, but he’s also facing competition, from Jon Bostic. McClellin quietly was a dominant run defender last season, but he’s limited in pass coverage and the converted defensive end is surprisingly poor getting after the passer. Jones, a 2014 undrafted free agent, was decent in almost every category last year, but didn’t really stand out in any. Bostic, the Bears middle linebacker last year, is a liability in pass coverage but a thumper against the run. Free agent addition Mason Foster will likely see some time in certain packages because he’s solid in coverage, but below average against the run. Jonathan Brown and DeDe Lattimore will compete for roster spots based on what they provide on special teams. The Bears have a lot to sort out at linebacker, but they do have some talent. There’s no real standouts here, with the exception of Pernell McPhee.

Defensive Backs

Despite his size, Tim Jennings has been one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the NFL in recent years. Jennings had nine interceptions in 2012 and four picks in 2013, but he failed to intercept a pass last season. Still, ProFootballFocus gave him a positive rating. Jennings will move inside in three cornerback sets next season, which he has done in the past. After a strong start, Kyle Fuller struggled as a rookie. Cornerback is one of the hardest, if not the hardest position to transition from college to the NFL, so it’s not really fair to judge Fuller based on his rookie year. Fuller has all the tools and traits needed to be successful and Chicago hopes that they will see major improvement from him in year two. Veterans Alan Ball and Tracy Porter will compete for an outside job in three cornerback sets. Ball is expected to be the third cornerback, but Porter is a new addition who the Bears hope can help out. Both players are coming off injuries and both are below average options and there’s no guarantee that either will make the roster, although they’ll probably keep at least one. If they struggle, the Bears may consider other options. Sherrick McManis, primarily a special teamer, can play inside or out and has seen a lot of playing time during OTA’s and training camp. Demontre Hurst saw a lot of action at slot cornerback last year, but with Jennings moving into that role, Hurst might have to show that he can contribute again on special teams, which he did a decent job of last season. Albert Louis-Jean made the roster as an undrafted rookie last year, but he really struggled in limited action and doesn’t add much on special teams, so his roster spot is in serious danger. Ryan Mundy was a decent starter for the Bears last year and the new regime decided he was good enough to keep as a starting safety. Chicago signed free agent Antrel Rolle, an aging veteran who had a really bad season last year to start opposite Mundy. Rolle was still decent in pass coverage, but was a major liability as a run defender. 2014 fourth round pick Brock Vereen could replace Rolle if his struggles against the run become too problematic. Vereen appears to have a solid future ahead of him, but his ceiling might not be much higher than what he already showed the Bears last season. Chicago selected Adrian Amos in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and Amos will probably compete with Vereen to be the top backup safety.

Special Teams

A few years ago Chicago had one of the greatest special teams units in NFL history and now Chicago’s special teams group, like their defense, is a work in progress. Robbie Gould remains, but his effectiveness does not. last year Gould hit just 9 of 12 field goals while he was bothered by a nagging hamstring injury before being shut down for the season. Gould also handles kickoffs and at this point in his career, lacks elite leg strength to do a good job on kickoffs. Rookie punter Pat O’Donnell looked like a budding punting star last season and ranked 14th in ProFootballFocus’ punter rating. Former Titans Pro Bowl return specialist Marc Mariani resurrected his career in Chicago last year and should handle punt and kick returns. Former Chiefs long snapper Thomas Gafford will take over Chicago’s long snapping duties. Defensive backs Sherrick McManis, Brock Vereen, and Demontre Hurst are solid special teams contributors.

Conclusion

The Bears have the potential to have a potent offense, but much rests on the shoulders of Jay Cutler. I think Adam Gase’s system will work wonders for Cutler, who I think will return to his spot as a middle-tier starting quarterback. Chicago’s defense could go through some rough times in their transition to a 3–4, as the Colts did when they transitioned under Greg Manusky, but I think the Bears will be improved, but still below average on defense in 2015. Chiacgo’s switch to a 3–4 may take multiple years to show fruition, but I think this is a tea, that went in the right direction this offseason. For 2015, the Bears face a very tough division that has three franchises who could easily make the playoffs next year. Because the defense still has some major issues, Jay Cutler isn’t an elite quarterback, and the Bears play in a tough division, I think Chicago will probably come away with 7–9 wins next season.

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