A look at 20 pressing questions as the Bears enter training camp in a crucial 2012 season.
Is Jay Cutler’s two-year string of injuries an emerging trend or an anomaly?
Let’s hope it’s the latter! There is evidence to support either claim, but Cutler has a stronger body of work to back up the notion that he’s a tough, durable quarterback who can sustain a prolonged beating. Two years ago, Cutler left the NFC Championship because of a torn knee. Last year his season ended because of a broken thumb. The first injury was the result of a barrage of pressure from the Packers defense whereas the second one was a fluke on an interception return. Chances are Cutler will be protected better this season and will largely be kept out of harm’s way, but freak accidents still can occur.
Now that Matt Forte has been paid, will his production slow down?
Chances are his production will indeed drop off a notch but it won’t be because he’s fat and happy. The likelihood that 2011 will end up being Forte’s best season when he finally hangs up the cleats appears strong at this point, but he’s still in the prime of his career and could churn out several more productive seasons. Fortunately for the Bears but unfortunately for Forte, the passing game likely will eat up a bunch of Forte’s yards despite the fact that new offensive coordinator Mike Tice will maintain a concerted effort to utilize the ground game. The presence of Michael Bush in the backfield could also take away some of Forte’s stats.
What kind of role will Michael Bush play?
In short, a vital one. Over the past three years, the Bears brought in three different running backs because they knew the value of having depth in the backfield. Unfortunately, Chester Taylor never panned out as the short-yardage back two years ago and Marion Barber hit a wall last year that his powerful running style could not truck through — the age wall. Bush has more in the tank at this point in his career than the other two backs possessed and his three yards and a cloud of dust running style ought to help the Bears shore up their short-yardage woes. Bush, although known as a bruiser between the tackles, has deceptive playmaking ability and he figures to keep Forte fresh throughout not only individual games but the entire season.
Can Brandon Marshall remain out of trouble off the field in order to be productive on it?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? If Marshall’s personality disorder doesn’t cause him to make a fool out of himself or the organization, then new general manager Phil Emery will look like a genius for swindling Marshall from the Dolphins. Marshall is the long-awaited No. 1 receiver this franchise has been seeking, well, forever. Marshall instantly is the most talented receiver the organization has ever had and his strength and speed combination paired with his leaping ability make him a matchup nightmare for most cornerbacks in the league. On the other hand, if the enigmatic receiver does something silly to get himself suspended or has some kind of mental breakdown, the Bears will be left with a corps not much better than a year ago, considering rookie Alshon Jeffery will need some time to get acclimated to the professional game.
How will the wide receiver depth chart pan out?
The Bears are looking at a much-improved depth chart assuming the pieces all fall in the right place for them. Marshall will of course be the No. 1 with Devin Hester starting opposite him. The Bears will try to bring Jeffery along with the hopes he can be a contributor at some point in the season. Earl Bennett will be the dependable backup behind Hester that he normally is and come in on passing downs and in situations where the Bears could use a reliable set of hands. Johnny Knox may not play this season and Eric Weems is all but assured of a spot on special teams. That leaves Devin Thomas and Dane Sanzenbacher on the outside looking in at the moment.
Can Kellen Davis finally break out into a legitimate weapon at tight end?
The Bears are counting on it and fans sure are hoping for it. Davis has a good set of soft hands that he’s put on display at various points throughout his short career but never has been a consistent player due to roster competition and Mike Martz’s system. Tice figures to use the tight end more this season and Davis’ size and hands will benefit him. Davis has good straight-line speed — he’s been a solid special teams contributor — but he lacks great fluidity and may not be able to separate from defenders regularly. He remains a good red zone threat and could benefit from an offensive system that runs plays specifically designed for him.
Will Gabe Carimi be productive for the Bears, assuming he can stay healthy?
Absolutely. But the health is obviously the big concern. Carimi was known for his run blocking coming out of college and he can surely pave the way on the right side of the line for Forte and Bush. His health will have a ripple effect along the rest of the line. If he stays healthy and is an anchor at right tackle, that means Lance Louis can remain at guard where he is a more natural fit, the loser of the J’Marcus Webb-Chris Williams battle at left tackle can then be a swing tackle, and the Bears can keep the rest of their linemen in the right positions and have some depth. But Carimi certainly has good talent and can be productive this season.
How will the personnel along the offensive line shake out?
If I had to make my prediction today, I’d say the Bears open the season with J’Marcus Webb at left tackle, Chris Spencer at left guard, Roberto Garza at center, Lance Louis at right guard, and Gabe Carimi at right tackle. That leaves Chris Williams as the swing tackle, Edwin Williams and free agent addition Chilo Rachal as backup guards, and possibly James Brown as the developmental project. There’s certainly some talent in numbers there but the ultimate success of an offensive line is how well they play together as a unit and that means the starting five will need to mesh quickly and be sorted out early in the preseason, if not by the first exhibition game.
Can and will Shea McClellin make an impact for the defense on Day 1?
McClellin certainly has the playmaking ability to make an impact from the opening of the regular season, but whether or not he will depends on how quickly he can pick up the defensive schemes and whether he can adapt to the professional game early on. Even if he doesn’t have a 12-sack season like Mark Anderson did in 2006, McClellin still can make an impact with his uncanny ability to be around the football at the right time. The first step in making plays is to know your assignment and be in the right place at the right time. And I have no doubt that McClellin will have the mental part of the game down on Day 1. He ought to have an impact as the swing end at the beginning of the season.
Is Henry Melton ready to take the next step?
I think he is. Melton is still relatively young and he’s still a newbie as the three-technique tackle, considering he played running back in college and was a defensive end to begin his career with the Bears. Melton has the right tools physically — a quick burst off the line and lateral agility — but he needs to work on two things to become a force at the position: quicker play recognition and improved fundamentals. Similarly to McClellin, Melton can still be a difference maker for the defense even if he is not recording sacks. Quick penetration into the backfield can open up opportunities for Julius Peppers and Melton’s other fellow “Rush Men.”
Can the “Over-30 Club” produce at a high level this season to keep the defense near the top of the league?
This is probably the next important question for the Bears behind Cutler’s health. In football, it’s often said that players don’t exhibit a gradual decline in performance as they age. Rather, it just hits them like lightning where they can no longer perform at the same level they did throughout their careers. As such, the Bears have several players who are walking that fine line between Pro Bowl caliber and lightning rods. Most notably, Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman all are on the wrong side of 30. These four make up the foundation of the defense and one loose piece will crumble the foundation and ruin any hopes of a Super Bowl run. It’s impossible to predict health and whether or not those players will be hit by the bolt of lightning known as old age, but all four still have the talent to produce at a high level and help this defense ensure a lengthy playoff run assuming they maintain health.
Did the Bears sufficiently supply enough depth at the linebacker position after last year’s thin crop?
Fortunately, they did. Anybody asking the question, “Are any of the backups good enough to be the future replacements for Urlacher and Briggs?” is missing the point. Nobody on the roster can replace Urlacher. Nobody on the roster can replace Briggs. But if either of those guys goes down, can their replacements steady the ship and keep it afloat? Short term, yes. Long term, no. In other words, if either of those two veterans tweaks a hamstring or rolls an ankle and has to leave a playoff game for a few series, then the Bears should be fine with guys like Geno Hayes, Dom DeCicco, and second-year man J.T. Thomas. But if Urlacher or Briggs suffers a season-ending injury a la Cutler last year, the Bears are in big trouble. You don’t replace Pro Bowlers that easily. If nothing else, the moves the Bears made at the position this offseason should improve competition and upgrade special teams.
Is the cornerback position really as strong as Charles Tillman made it sound?
Peanut Tillman called this year’s cornerbacks the best group he’s played with in his tenure with the team. Is he right? Even though Nathan Vasher — dubbed “The Interceptor” — made a Pro Bowl, I tend to agree with Tillman. Tillman, a Pro Bowler last year, is still solid at this point in his career and Tim Jennings figures to start opposite him. While lacking the ideal size, Jennings has proven to be a dependable starter who rarely gets beat for a big play and is strong in run support. He was benched for a game last year due to dropping potential interceptions, but the team realized how valuable he was in other areas and re-signed him this offseason. The Bears also added considerable depth to the position with the additions of Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite to go along with nickelback D.J. Moore and rookies Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy. Competition breeds success and cornerback should have some stability this season.
Have the Bears finally stabilized the safety position?
Who knows? Seriously. And it’s not a cop-out answer, either. The revolving door at safety throughout Lovie Smith’s tenure with the Bears is growing to be as big a joke as the quarterback carousel was in the 90s. Until the Bears can keep their safeties healthy, let alone productive, this position will remain an area of concern. But once again, the roster has a few bright spots that offer a glimpse of hope. Last year, rookie Chris Conte stepped into the starting lineup and showed promise with good recognition and ball skills. The Bears used a third-round draft pick in April’s draft on safety Brandon Hardin, a guy who played cornerback in college but is transitioning to safety in the NFL. As a cornerback, Hardin obviously had playmaking ability which sounds ideal for a free safety. But he has big size at 6 foot 3 and 220 pounds, which is a new trend for safeties in the NFL these days. Beyond those two, there are concerns about depth. Major Wright will have to continue to show signs of improvement in his third season with the team and Craig Steltz remains the most senior player in the unit, but is hardly a reliable starter and is more of a special teams player.
Is Major Wright a starting NFL safety?
No. Simply put. He’ll be given every opportunity to earn that starting spot but the Bears will have to do more scheming to hide his deficiencies. At this point in a player’s career, Wright’s third season in the league, you should have clear indications as to whether he can play the game. Wright has big cover problems. Oh, and his sure-tackling ability has been exposed as he’s taken poor angles and has gotten beaten by players who really don’t have explosive agility — remember former Giants running back Brandon Jacobs juking Wright out of his jock for a touchdown? Wright needs to improve his recognition skills and reduce mental mistakes, but I’m not so sure that if he doesn’t shore those up this year that he’ll ever do it.
Which rookie will have the biggest impact this season?
It has to be — both through common sense and wishful thinking — defensive end Shea McClellin. There’s a reason the Bears addressed the pass rush with their first round pick this year and that’s because they sorely need to give Peppers some help. Even if McClellin panned out as a pass rush specialist in the mold of Mark Anderson in 2006, the Bears would still be lacking the prowess that the Super Bowl champion New York Giants have displayed in recent years, and a good rotation of players who get to the quarterback is the ultimate goal of any team with championship aspirations. The remainder of the Bears rookies are in need of development time before they can contribute on a consistent basis.
How big a role will special teams play this season?
Special teams will play a huge role for the Bears this season, even greater than it has in the past few years. Lovie Smith has openly compared this year’s team to the one that made a Super Bowl appearance in the 2006 season, and one of the main reasons for that successful season was Hester’s record-setting rookie campaign, and the level of play of all phases of special teams. The Bears strongly addressed the special teams this offseason, bringing in Weems to take the place of Corey Graham as a gunner and to replace Knox as the kick returner and complement Hester in the return department. They also added Thomas — who will be in a fight to make the roster — and reserve linebacker Blake Costanzo, a solid special teams contributor. The third phase will surely play a huge role in helping the Bears make a deep playoff run.
How will Mike Tice fair in his first season as offensive coordinator?
Honestly, this is a question that can’t be answered because nobody knows, and predictions for this type of topic are difficult to make. Tice will be calling plays on a full-time basis for the first time in his career, and it often takes many years for a coach to hone his skills. Plus, if the Bears ever reach a situation where a game comes down to one final play, Tice’s play call in that pressure situation could make or break the game — and possibly the season. Hopefully, with the additions to the offense, the Bears can win games outright and won’t have to put Tice in such a situation. I think Tice will feature the run game early in the season whereas his predecessor Mike Martz neglected it for the month of September. However, now with a legitimate playmaker on the outside, teams will have to respect Cutler’s arm even more and the Bears can feature a balanced offense that’ll keep defenses guessing. Tice should do just fine as long as he doesn’t try to outsmart himself or let his ego get in the way like Martz did on a number of occasions.
Can the Bears win the division?
Yes, they can. Will they? I’d still say the Packers are the favorite to win the NFC North. What it’ll come down to is which team can stay healthier the longest. The Packers offense has been stable and productive for longer than the Bears, but the trio of Cutler, Forte, and Marshall is rivaled by few other teams in the league. Offensive line play will probably become the x-factor and the Bears will have to protect Cutler much better than they have in the past three years.
(Note: Neglecting to mention Detroit in this conversation was not an oversight)
Are the Bears Super Bowl contenders?
Yes, they are. Naysayers will point to the offensive line and the safety position and ask, “How can you lump this team in with some other teams like the Patriots and Packers?” But in the NFL, where parity reigns, any team can be a Super Bowl contender as long as they have the right positions filled out. The Bears have a talented quarterback in Cutler, who has been given a quarterbacks coach he is familiar with and a receiver he has excelled with. They’ve added playmakers to the offense including depth at quarterback in the event Cutler suffers another injury. They have one of the best defensive ends in the game and a duo of linebackers rivaled by few other tandems throughout the league. The best teams are the ones who can pass the ball, put points on the board, and rush the passer. Last season during their five-game win streak, the Bears were one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. If they can apply better pressure on the quarterback this season, there’s no reason to doubt they’re title contenders.