We are now just one month away from the 2014 NFL Draft. The Bears have made a slew of moves so far in the offseason, not just to upgrade the talent on their roster but to supply it with depth as well.
In dire need of bodies along the defensive line after parting ways with Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton — as well as switching Shea McClellin from end to linebacker — the Bears brought in Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and the prize of their free agent class, Jared Allen.
The team also made moves to help upgrade the secondary, bringing back starting cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, nickelback Kelvin Hayden, and signing safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings.
The Bears are not done yet. They may have upgraded talent with veteran free agents, but they recognize the need to infuse the roster with youth, and that’s exactly what general manager Phil Emery will set out to do with next month’s draft.
Here’s a look at where the Bears’ needs now stand:
1. Stud playmaker at safety
The Bears understood how important it was to upgrade the defensive line, because even a weak secondary can be aided by a solid pass rush. But now that they’ve added bodies that can amp up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they need to fix a broken secondary. One half of last year’s horrid safety tandem — Major Wright — is now gone, and the Bears added a couple players in Mundy and Jennings. But the Bears need a solid safety who is a playmaker and can emerge as a leader back there for the future.
2. Disruptive defensive tackle
The Bears made a couple of great re-signings by agreeing to terms with defensive tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins. Both players excel in creating pressure up the middle and will fit in nicely in a rotation. In his introductory press conference, Allen even remarked how he was excited to play alongside Ratliff. But the Bears need somebody to fill the hole left by Melton and add another body to the rotation. Houston may slide inside from the end position on passing downs because he has the body and skill set of a three-technique. Also, veteran Israel Idonije, re-signed by the Bears after a brief stint with the Lions last year, has the ability to play inside, too. But Ratliff is getting up there in age and the Bears need a better long-term solution.
3. Middle linebacker of the future
Emery made another nice move by retaining veteran D.J. Williams, who only saw a partial season with the Bears last year after suffering a season-ending torn pectoral. But he was showing flashes early in the season and is a solid veteran player who can upgrade the defense as long as he can stay on the field — which has been a problem for him the past few seasons. The Bears not only need depth at the position — Jon Bostic and McClellin, who are competing for the strong-side linebacker job, will be backups for Williams in the middle, too — but the Bears need a long-term solution there.
4. Backup running back
After releasing Michael Bush to free up some cap space, the Bears are thin at the running back position. Matt Forte, already one of the most talented running backs in the league, is a force to be reckoned with when inserted into Marc Trestman’s offense. But he needs a break every now and then and Michael Ford isn’t ready to take the reigns and run with that backup job. Plus, God forbid, if Forte went down with an injury and missed extended time, the Bears would need an extra body who could do at least some of the things Forte is good at (such as pass protection and receiving out of the backfield).
5. Competition at outside linebacker
As previously mentioned, Bostic and McClellin are competing for the starting strong-side linebacker job. Can either one be a solid NFL starter? That’s something that we don’t know. And when you combine that uncertainty with Lance Briggs’ rising age on the weak side, the Bears will need more bodies at outside linebacker. I think with Briggs, Williams, McClellin and Bostic, not to mention Khaseem Greene, the Bears will have enough bodies, but if injuries start to mount again, they could be in real trouble like last year.
6. Complementary tight end
Everybody loves Martellus Benentt. What’s not to love about the Black Unicorn/Orange Dinosaur? He’s charismatic off the field and a playmaker on the field. Last year, in his first season with the team, he solved the Bears’ long-running issue of a pass-catching tight end who can stretch the middle of the field. Now, the next step in improving an already great Bears offense — I just want to say that again because it’s so refreshing: “a great Bears offense” — is to throw another pass-catching tight end into the mix and really put the pressure on opposing defenses. The Bears added Zach Miller and retained Dante Rosario (and let him go, and then re-signed him again … is he still around?), but the team could use an upgrade there.
7. Depth at guard
Kyle Long was a fantastic draft pick by the Bears last year and emerged as a Pro Bowl player. He’s going to be a cornerstone piece to this offensive line for many years to come, assuming no career-threatening injuries mount. The Bears also have stability at the other guard in veteran Matt Slauson. Beyond that, though, they’re a little thin. Eben Britton had a nice role with the team last year as an extra lineman in certain packages, but I don’t know if he has the chops to fill in as a full-time player if called upon. James Brown (owww!) can play both tackle and guard. But the team needs an extra player that can develop and take the reigns should the Bears decide to move Long to left tackle or an injury occurs at the position.
8. Wide receiver depth
The Bears have the best duo of wide receivers in the NFL. I’m confident enough in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to declare that. But after those two, the rest of the depth is uncertain. The team parted ways with veteran Earl Bennett, who was a solid third-down possession receiver, in order to save money. They brought in Domenik Hixon, but he’ll likely see time on special teams. That leaves second-year pro Marquess Wilson, who showed flashes in his rookie season but did not get a lot of playing time. He worked out with his fellow offensive skill players this offseason and he could show some great improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, but is he ready to be trusted there? And with Marshall set to be a free agent next offseason, the Bears could use some depth at the position.
9. Youth at cornerback
I was pleased that the Bears re-signed veteran (and Pro Bowl) cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman this offseason. Jennings got a four-year deal but Tillman is back for just one year. Both are getting up there in age, but for a secondary that needed stability, they were good signings. The team has nine cornerbacks on the roster as of this moment, but most are camp bodies and special teamers. The Bears could do themselves a favor by getting younger and more productive at the position.
10. Developmental quarterback
With a “quarterback whisperer” like Trestman, and with Jay Cutler being re-signed to a deal that likely amounts to a three-year contract (at which point they’ll evaluate him year to year after) the Bears are in prime position to snag a late-round quarterback that the team can try to develop. Jordan Palmer, as it stands, is the primary backup to Cutler, taking over the role that Josh McCown filled so nicely last year. Can he have the same impact that McCown had if called upon? That remains to be seen, but competition is always a healthy thing.
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