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Chicago Bears 2014 Season Preview

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Updated: 8/26 7:06 am

It worked like a charm or was a disaster depending on what brand of Kool- Aid you enjoy.

Trestman did indeed build a tremendous offense which succeeded whether Cutler or veteran backup Josh McCown, who is now in Tampa Bay with Smith, was on the field thanks in large part to a revamped offensive line, along with one of the best all-around running backs in the game, Matt Forte, and the dynamic receiving duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.

The defense, however, tanked without Smith and retired middle linebacker Brian Urlacher running things, turning on a dime from the most opportunistic group in the NFL to a unit incapable of stopping just about anyone.

The Bears ranked 30th in the NFL in total defense (394.6) last season, 32nd in rushing defense (161.4) and allowed 28 points a game.

This time around rebuilding the defensive side of things was paramount and general manager Phil Emery spent most of his spring trying to upgrade things on that side of the football with a particular emphasis on the front four.

Chicago bid adieu to veterans Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton and used free agency to bolster the defensive end position, bringing in veteran pass-rushing star Jared Allen, along with Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Emery then carpet-bombed defensive tackle in the draft with a pair of early selections, second-rounder Ego Ferguson and third-rounder Will Sutton.

Not much was done at linebacker with the team counting on the return of veterans Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams, who both missed large swatches of last season with significant injuries.

That, however, could be specious logic since Briggs is 33 with a ton of mileage on his legs and at 32, Williams is far closer to the end than the beginning.

Meanwhile, expecting Shea McClellin to pull off the move from the defensive line to the strong side without a hiccup is also questionable, as is assuming a full NFL season under their belts means second-year pros Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene are ready to help in any significant way.

"I think we're a humbled group," Briggs said. "We're working real hard right now. We'll keep taking steps in the right direction You're never going to know (in the preseason). It's good to get tested against an opponent but you're never really going to know until Week 1."

Briggs' tepid enthusiasm could be a warning sign.

Even potential strengths are shaky in Chicago. Playmakers Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings return on the outside of the defensive backfield and are joined by first-round pick Kyle Fuller, a Virginia Tech product with significant upside.

Tillman, though, is now 33 years old and coming off a torn right triceps while Jennings is also now on the wrong side of 30, certainly a line of demarcation between ascending and descending players in today's NFL.

Safety, meanwhile, remains the biggest issue and none of the bodies Emery has assembled spark much enthusiasm among the team's fan base.

Ex-Giant Ryan Mundy looks like the starter at strong safety, while rookie speedster Brock Vereen, a fourth-round pick, is trying to make things tough for pedestrian options like M.D. Jennings and Chris Conte at free safety.

If you think all of that smacks of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, you're not alone.

2013 RECORD: 8-8 (2nd, NFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Green Bay in NFC Championship

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Marc Trestman (8-8 in one season with Bears)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Aaron Kromer (second season with Bears)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mel Tucker (second season with Bears)

KEY ADDITIONS: DE Jared Allen (from Vikings), OC Brian de la Puente (from Saints), LB Tim Dobbins (from Texans), DE Lamarr Houston (from Raiders), S MD Jennings (from Packers), S Ryan Mundy (from Giants), DE Willie Young (from Lions)

KEY DEPARTURES: CB Zack Bowman (to Giants), WR Devin Hester (to Falcons), QB Joah McCown (to Bucs), DT Henry Melton (to Cowboys), DE Julius Peppers (to Packers), P Adam Podlesh (to Steelers), DE Corey Wootton (to Vikings), S Major Wright (to Bucs)

QB: Despite being outplayed by McCown last year the Bears went all in on the talented Cutler, signing him to a long-term extension in January. It was a prudent move. Despite some frustrating mechanical issues and a propensity to pout when things don't go his way Cutler will enter his sixth season in Chicago as franchise leader in career passer rating (83.1), completions (1,258), passing yards (14,913) and passing yards per game (222.6). He might not be in the Manning-Brady-Rodgers class but Cutler is on the tier below.

His backup this year will be ex-Notre Dame star Jimmy Clausen, who beat out Jordan Palmer for the job despite coming in late this offseason after four largely nondescript campaigns with the Carolina Panthers. Clausen hasn't shown much in his previous opportunities but his skill set is greater than Palmer and Trestman generally gets the most out of QBs.

"They both competed really hard for the job," Trestman said. "Jimmy's played a lot more football in this league. He's younger, and I thought the competition was very close. But I thought at the end of the day, I think the upside for Jimmy, his age, his experience, and he came highly recommended from some people I trust in Carolina."

The long-term backup might be rookie David Fales, who was selected by the Bears in the sixth round of the draft. Over two seasons at San Jose State Fales put up some serious numbers and some scouts believe he could succeed with sound and patient coaching.

RB: Forte is right there with the Eagles' LeSean McCoy as one of the best all-around backs in football. In fact, the edge may go to Forte, who is coming off his second Pro Bowl selection last season and already ranks second in Bears history in yards from scrimmage (9,585), because he is the better blocker.

The consistent Forte is third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage since entering the NFL in 2008 and one of just three players in history to have 1,400-plus yards from scrimmage in each of his first six NFL seasons (Curtis Martin and LaDainian Tomlinson).

Depth is not impressive and the backup spot should come down to veteran Shaun Draughn or fourth-round rookie Ka'Deem Carey, the Pac-10 offensive player of the year in 2013 at Arizona .

The fullback is Tony Fiammetta, a competent 6-foot, 250-pound lead isolation blocker.

GRADE: B

WR: The starters could be the best in the business but depth is lacking here after an injury to prospective third receiver Marquess Wilson.

Five-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall is coming off another spectacular season, following up his 2012 campaign, in which he set single-season Bears records for receptions (118) and receiving yards (1,508), with 100 receptions and 1,295 receiving yards. Overall, since joining the Bears in 2012, Marshall's 218 receptions are second most in the NFL, his 2,803 receiving yards are fourth, and his 23 touchdown receptions are fifth. Marshall is also extremely consistent and the only player in the NFL to have over 1,000 yards receiving in each of the last six years.

Third-year wideout Alshon Jeffery is looking to build off a coming-out year in 2013 where if anything he was better than Marshall by the end of the campaign. The 6-3 Jeffrey was named the PFWA's Most Improved Player after amassing 1,421 receiving yards on 89 receptions. The most imposing part of Jeffery's game may be his tremendous ball skills which are virtually without peer.

Wilson broke his collarbone and will be sidelined until at least midsesaon, opening the door for veteran Santonio Holmes, a former Super Bowl MVP who has fallen on hard times due to injuries and off-the-field issues.

"We spent time with him," Trestman said when discussing Holmes. "I mean, people change. They get into new venues, new environments. You're out for a while, you get a good, hard look at where you are not only in your work life, as well as other aspects of your life."

"We feel he's coming in here at a good place," the coach continued. "He's coming into a great locker room. Guys have reached out to him and are willing to help him and to give him an opportunity to help our football team. But it will be a process. It will be day to day, but it's off to a good start. We'll see where it takes us."

Other options include former Redskins Josh Bellamy and Josh Morgan.

GRADE: B+

TE: Skyscraping 6-6 tight end Martellus Bennett is looking to build off his career year in 2013 in which he set personal-highs in receptions (65) and receiving yards (759), while matching a career-best with five touchdowns. A traditional tight end, Bennett can hold his own in both the passing game and as a blocker but his effort will lag on occasion.

With Zach Miller sent to injured reserve with a foot injury, he backups situation is down to Dante Rosario, who has decent hands but just average speed and Matthew Mulligan, a 270-pound blocker who has bounced around.

GRADE: B

OL: This might have been the most improved group in all of football in 2013, going from a bottom-five unit to a top-10 line thanks in large part to the additions of steady left tackle Jermon Bushrod and two rookies on the right side, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills.

The Bears will return all five starters from last year when the group allowed just 30 sacks, fourth fewest in the league. Fourteen-year veteran Roberto Garza is the anchor and flanked by Long, who made the Pro Bowl after being the team's first-round pick in 2013, and Matt Slauson.

Two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Bushrod has started 78-of-82 games played with the New Orleans Saints (2007-12) and Bears (2013), including the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl season. While a starter, his respective teams have ranked in the top five in the NFL for fewest sacks allowed each season.

Mills started all 16 games at right tackle as a freshman and was quite a find as a fifth-round pick although he will struggle with a speed rusher every now and again.

The Bears re-signed guard/tackle Eben Britton in April, bringing back the sixth-year pro who saw action in 13 games last season with four starts, mostly as a sixth eligible lineman. They also inked former Saints center Brian de la Puente after he started 44-of-48 games over four seasons in New Orleans.

GRADE: B+

DL: This group is totally revamped with veterans Allen and Houston brought in to bookend tackles Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea.

A four-time All Pro Allen is perhaps the best pass rusher of this generation with 128 1/2 sacks since entering the league in 2004. He has recorded seven consecutive double-digit sack seasons (2007-13), and eight in his career. There is little question, though, that the former Viking star is slowing down and a pitch count should be in order. Limiting repetitions at this stage would only help Allen, but he was disagreeable to that in Minnesota. The veteran is also an undisciplined player at times, especially in a system that preaches rushing lanes. All that said, Allen is still as disruptive and durable as they come and the poster child for the high-motor work ethic defensive line coaches around the league preach.

In four seasons with Oakland, Houston was a productive if not spectacular player. He led the Raiders with six sacks in 2013 while serving as one of the team's defensive captains.

Young is coming off of career-highs in almost every statistical category while with the Lions last year including tackles (47), PBUs (five), TFLs (seven) and FRs (two). He's got good speed off the edge and should be utilized in nickel situations.

The three new faces outside figure to team with to returning players on the interior, Ratliff and Paea, at least until Ferguson and Sutton are ready.

Ratliff returns for his second season with Chicago after appearing in the final five contests with the Bears in 2013, including four starts. The four- time Pro Bowler in Dallas hasn't been the same since a pelvic injury derailed his 2012 season. Paea, meanwhile, enters his fourth season with Chicago but is undersized on the nose.

Ferguson, the 51st overall pick in May's draft and Sutton, 82nd overall, have both been slow to pick things up early but should push for playing time sooner rather than later.

GRADE: B-

LB: Seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Briggs enters his 12th season with the Bears, returning from a campaign in which he ranked fourth on the team in tackles (87) despite playing in just nine contests due to a shoulder injury.

Briggs will be bookended by former defensive end McClellin on the strong side. The move has a chance if defensive coordinator Mel Tucker lets McClellin go straight ahead as a disruptor and not expect the former Boise State star to play in space.

Veteran middle linebacker Williams returns after starting four-of-six games and notching 39 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and two tackles for losses last year before going down with a pectoral injury.

Second-year players Bostic and Greene got their feet wet in 2013 but still have a long way to go. getting Bostic up to speed so he can take reps away from Williams should be fast tracked.

GRADE: C+

DB: Two-time Pro Bowler and elite playmaker Tillman teams ups with Jennings to give Chicago a pair of elite corners. Tillman is on another level when it comes to punching out the football when a ball carrier or receiver is being careless. Jennings, on the other hand, made his first Pro Bowl in 2012 after leading the NFL with nine interceptions and is actually the team's best pure cover corner. Both are on the wrong side of 30, though.

Kelvin Hayden should be back from a torn hamstring to handle nickel duties while first-round pick Kyle Fuller offers imposing depth.

Safeties Ryan Mundy and MD Jennings were brought in to replace Chris Conte and Major Wright but neither is anything special. Rookie Brock Vereen can certainly run but he's greener than the Soldier Field grass, while Chris Conte is a hitter and a game trying to devalue that at every turn.

GRADE: B-

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Robbie Gould is one of the NFL's more underappreciated legs and is the third-most accurate kicker in league history. The fact he's done that in a bad weather city tells you just how consistent and important Gould has been over the years.

The punting competition was won by sixth-round pick Pat O'Donnell, who set Miami-Ohio's single-season record for yards-per-punt average (47.1) last year.

Both the kick and punt returner jobs are an open competition this year for the Bears after the team moved on from all-time great Devin Hester, who established an NFL record with 17 career kick return touchdowns (12 punt and five via kickoff) while in Chicago.

Chicago added Micheal Spurlock and Armanti Edwards on the same day (this June but they have been running behind receiver Chris Williams for both return gigs.

GRADE: C+

COACHING: Trestman has been a part of 19 winning seasons, 16 playoff appearances and three championship teams and has two strong coordinators with head coaching experience in Aaron Kromer, who helped lead the Saints through the Bountygate scandal in 2012, along with former Jags mentor Tucker.

Trestman lived up to his billing as a great offensive mind and a bit of a quarterback whisperer in 2013. Now he has to prove that he understands that there are other aspects of this game to excel at if you want to win in this league.

GRADE: B

THE SKINNY: In a division that houses three presumptive offensive powerhouses, it's probably going to be the other side of the ball which determines who rises to the top.

The perceived contenders in the NFC North -- Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit -- all possess extremely talented quarterbacks who lead explosive units when everything is clicking.

Obviously Packers signal caller Aaron Rodgers has the edge over his rivals with the Bears (Cutler) and Lions (Matthew Stafford) -- along with just about every other QB for that matter -- which is why most observers default to Green Bay as the favorites in the division.

Rodgers, though, has masked quite a few deficiencies in Titletown over the previous few years as evidenced by just how poorly the Pack played in 2013 the franchise went down with a broken clavicle.

You can make a strong argument that from two through 53 the Bears are more talented than their Badger State counterparts, meaning the NFC North should be in play, especially if Cutler carries his own water.

If things don't go the Bears way, you will probably be able to look straight past the enigmatic Cutler, however, and focus in on the team's defense.

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