Grading the Strength of Each Position on Bears' Roster Heading into Free Agency
The Chicago Bears have a lot of holes as they enter free agency with 25 of their own players with expiring contracts.
Most of their upcoming free agents played major roles for the Bears on offense, defense or special teams. If the Bears don't bring back their own free agents, they're going to have to either invest in other veterans or draft picks to replace them.
The Bears made three big moves by resigning quarterback Jay Cutler, guard Matt Slauson and cornerback Tim Jennings before they hit the open market, but they still have a lot of questions about what their roster will look like in 2014.
While depth is a concern at some positions, there's no question the Bears have far more talent on the offensive side of the ball.
Defensively, they don't have either talent or depth. You can expect many new faces by the start of the 2014 season.
In the following slides, I'll go through the Bears position-by-position and hand out grades for each.
An "A" will mean that the Bears don't need to add to the position; a "B" will mean they need to make a minor addition for depth; a "C" indicates they need a high-level backup; a "D" signifies a group that needs to add a possible starter; and an "F" will be for units that need major work.
As of now, the Bears only have starter Jay Cutler under contract, and they'll have him for quite some time.
In Cutler, the Bears have a high-level starter, although he has durability issues.
In the nine games Cutler completed healthy, he had a passer rating of 95.7. If you average out his statistics from those contests and multiply them by 16 for a complete season, he would've finished with more than 4,100 yards, 32 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. That would've ranked him in the top 10 in passing yards and rating and the top five in touchdowns.
But he didn't play 16 games, and he hasn't since 2009. The Bears need depth at this position.
They had great depth last season with Josh McCown, but he is an unrestricted free agent and could get a big pay raise.
As I wrote earlier this week, I think McCown will return to the Bears. If he does, they're set at this position. If he doesn't, they should look for another veteran backup with a similar skill set.
The Bears got more than 1,900 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns from Matt Forte this season, but they didn't get much of anything from anyone else.
Michael Bush is paid to be a top reserve, but he showed very little this last season, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. He got better as the season progressed, scoring two touchdowns in their final four games.
This was by far the worst season of Bush's career, as his pounding style isn't necessarily a good fit for the Bears zone-blocking scheme. Still, he's a better player than he showed this past season, and the Bears should expect better production next year.
The team also has Michael Ford who didn't receive a carry this season but did a solid job on special teams.
Tony Fiammetta was adequate as the team's fullback despite being added to the team after the organized team activities concluded.
He isn't a powerful blocker, but he got the job done and made a couple big plays as a receiver.
The Bears aren't set here, but they're close. They could use someone to push Ford and Bush, but that player is likely to come through the draft or as an undrafted free agent.
The Bears have arguably the best duo in the league in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, as well as some young talent.
Marshall caught 100 passes for the fifth time in his career and had a career-high 12 touchdowns. Jeffery led the team in yardage with 1,421 on 89 catches to go with seven touchdowns. He showed a knack for making very difficult catches.
After finishing his second season, it seems the sky is the limit for Jeffery, but he's not their only talented young player at the position.
The Bears didn't get much from rookie Marquess Wilson, but his future appears bright.
Wilson dropped to the Bears in the seventh round of the draft due to some potential character concerns. He only caught two passes for 13 yards this season, but he has good height (6'3") and work-out numbers and won't turn 22 until next September.
The Bears also have veteran Earl Bennett on the roster. Bennett has proven to be reliable, but he struggled to make big plays despite getting favorable coverages. He caught 32 passes but averaged just 7.6 yards per reception.
It seems likely that Wilson will have a chance to unseat Bennett as the Bears' third receiver next season. If he's able to do so, the Bears will have great depth at the position.
This seems to be unquestionably the Bears' strongest position. They also have Eric Weems, who is capable of filling in in a pinch and is an excellent special teams player.
The Bears set out to fix this group a year ago, and they appear to have at least gotten a good start.
They added tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Matt Slauson through free agency, as well as guard Kyle Long and tackle Jordan Mills in the draft.
Bushrod was solid in his first year as the Bears' left tackle, and Slauson was much better than anyone could've expected. Long and Mills went through growing pains, but they showed potential and could develop into top-of-the-line starters at their positions by next season. Mills has much longer to go than Long.
Center Roberto Garza had one of the best seasons of his career—certainly the best since he became the team's starting center in 2011. The veteran is a free agent, but he seems likely to return.
Eben Britton proved to be a valuable backup, capable of playing all five positions. He became the team's second tight end and filled in admirably for Mills in the team's final game. Like Garza, he also is a free agent.
Jonathan Scott wasn't on the team's active roster much, but he's an experienced tackle, capable of playing on both sides. The team also has James Brown, who battled Long early in camp.
The Bears could use more depth—perhaps someone to push Mills if he doesn't develop as much as they'd like—and a possible replacement for Garza.
This may be the Bears' biggest problem area.
Starting defensive ends Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin are both under contract, but neither may be lining up with their hand down next year.
Peppers is due to count more than $18 million against the Bears' cap next year and more than $20 million in 2015. After notching just 7.5 sacks and anchoring arguably the worst defensive line in the league, he could end up being released.
McClellin has looked like a bust as a first-round pick, and the Bears appear likely to move him to linebacker.
The Bears have three other defensive ends on their roster.
Rookie David Bass made some big plays for them this past season, but he struggled with consistency. 2013 sixth-round pick Cornelius Washington made a few appearances, but he didn't look anywhere near ready to be on the field. Cheta Ozougwu is a fringe roster player.
As bad as that looks, it's nothing compared to the situation at defensive tackle, where they only have Stephen Paea under contract for 2014.
At his best, Paea is an adequate starter. He's not someone who should be relied on to anchor the middle of a defense, though, which is something the Bears learned this season.
Henry Melton was playing this season under the franchise tag before tearing his ACL in their third game. His backup, Nate Collins, tore his the next week. Both could return under reduced salaries, but Melton will likely test the market.
The Bears brought in Jeremiah Ratliff late in the season. He played well after he got his legs under him, but he could be looking for a bigger deal.
Landon Cohen was a street free agent when the Bears signed him, and he's almost certainly going to go back to that.
Corey Wootton played both end and tackle for the Bears, but he is also slated for free agency.
None of these players appear to be the kind of players the Bears can build their defensive line around, though.
Peppers can still be a quality player, but he no longer appears interested in taking on double-teams. Melton is an unknown, coming back from injury, but he probably wasn't the kind of player they could build their defense around even before his injury.
A lot of what the Bears do here depends on the kind of scheme they run next season, which has yet to be determined. Bass and Paea could be rotational players and Peppers could start if he isn't cut, but the Bears have a lot of work to do.
Lance Briggs was the leader of the Bears' defense, but he missed seven games and finished with a career-low 71 tackles.
Briggs appears to still have plenty of gas left in the tank, although he didn't have much around him.
Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene were second- and fourth-round picks in 2013, but neither appeared ready to play in the NFL.
Bostic, in particular, struggled as he graded out to be the fifth-worst inside linebacker on Pro Football Focus (subscription required). There's no questioning Bostic's physical talent, but he didn't have anywhere near the physicality or instincts to be a successful middle linebacker this year.
According to Jeff Dickerson of ESPN, Bears general manager Phil Emery suggested Bostic could move to the outside, which puts Greene's future into question. If the Bears also move McClellin to linebacker, they could have a logjam outside but no answer in the middle.
The Bears also have veteran free agents in D.J. Williams, James Anderson and Blake Costanzo.
Williams played well before being injured early in the season, Anderson struggled after a strong start, and Costanzo has mostly played special teams.
There's little question that the Bears have talent at this position, but there is no clear direction. If they were to switch to a 3-4 defense, they could be forced to completely rebuild. Even if they don't, there's no way of knowing if their current players—outside of Briggs—are going to be capable of playing.
The Bears have some tough calls at this position, but they could always use more talent. Regardless of scheme, it wouldn't be a bad idea to add a veteran capable of starting if the young players don't improve.
The Bears made a big move in locking Jennings before he hit free agency, but they have major questions everywhere else.
Charles Tillman was injured for much of the season and there have to be questions on if his body can still hold up as he'll be 33 at the start of next season. He'll be a free agent and it will be interesting to see what kind of contract he demands.
When Tillman wasn't in the lineup, Zackary Bowman did an admirable job, but probably is best suited to be a special teams player.
Isaiah Frey did a solid job as the team's slot corner, but really struggled when he was matched up against good receivers. Still, there's reason to believe he'll grow and could be a starter next season, either in the slot or outside.
The safety situation is a mess.
Both Chris Conte and Major Wright have talent, but they were terrible this season.
Wright is a free agent and likely won't be back unless the Bears can get him for cheap. Conte is still on his rookie deal and the Bears will almost certainly hold onto him to see if they can tap into his potential.
Craig Steltz was the top backup for both players. He's an excellent special teams player as he's a good tackler, but struggles in coverage. He's also a free agent, although he seems likely to return unless offered a chance to start elsewhere.
Anthony Walters is the other backup, but he didn't play a defensive snap last season.
Whether the Bears have enough resources to address this position in the offseason is questionable. Ideally they'd add a new starting cornerback—if they can't bring Tillman back—a new strong safety and someone to compete with Conte at free safety. With so many needs elsewhere, it will be hard to get it all done this offseason.
Another big move the Bears made before free agency started was locking up kicker Robbie Gould with a four-year deal.
Gould is one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the league and accomplished that kicking in one of the most difficult places.
Long snapper Patrick Mannelly is set to be a free agent but appears likely to return, as he's played his entire career with the Bears.
Punter Adam Podlesh is under contract for two more seasons, but he has struggled with the Bears. They already brought in young punters Tress Way and Drew Butler to compete with him, and it would be a surprise if he made the team next season.
Return man Devin Hester will be an interesting free agent. He finished in the top five in both punt and kick-return average, but he will be 32 next season and counted nearly $3 million against the cap.
He could return at a much smaller rate, but it seems more likely the Bears will allow him to sign elsewhere and have Weems—a former Pro Bowl return man himself—be their primary kick and punt returner next season. The Bears also have running back Ford, who did a nice job returning kicks in the preseason.
The team needs to continue to bring in players to challenge Podlesh, but they probably won't need to spend big money to get someone to beat him out.
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