Chicago Bears: State of Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason
It's all over. The NFL sees action only once a week, but it's one of the longest seasons in all of sports. The Bears have been done for a while now, but now every team is on common offseason ground.
Closing the book on 2013 requires one last look back. Looking forward involves some coaching changes already made and some potential player moves that could be made.
Click forward as we give you the state of the Chicago Bears as we begin to look forward to the 2014 season.
2013 Season in Review
Marc Trestman's first season as head coach had its ups and downs. The Bears fielded an explosive offense, but the defense was a franchise worst.
The season resulted in an 8-8 record, and the Bears missed the playoffs for the third straight season. The Bears blew multiple chances to clinch the NFC North and saw their playoff hopes fly by with a last-minute touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb in the regular-season finale.
There were positives to take away from the season. Second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery emerged as a another star weapon. He finished with 89 receptions for over 1,400 yards, seven touchdowns and his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Jeffery was joined in the Pro Bowl by Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Kyle Long. This was the first time the Bears sent four offensive players to the Pro Bowl since 1985. Tim Jennings from the defense joined them as well.
Josh McCown was a pleasant surprise. The journeyman quarterback was 3-2 in five starts during the season. He played well in relief of Jay Cutler who battled injuries all season. McCown had 13 touchdowns and one interception on the year.
Most of the team woes were on the defense. The team finished 30th in the league in total defense and dead last against the run. The unit gave up over 6,300 total yards including 2,583 on the ground.
At the end, the Bears failed to take control of a weak division. They let the Green Bay Packers back into the race even though quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed seven straight games. He came in a Week 17 winner-take-all matchup to defeat the Bears 33-28 in Soldier Field.
It's currently not an ideal situation for the Bears when it comes to the salary cap. The Bears currently have $112.8 million committed to just 33 players. This leaves $13.5 million to sign over 20 players.
Julius Peppers' contract immediately becomes front and center. Peppers' $18.2 million cap hit ranks in the top 10 of the league. What doesn't rank in the top 10 of the league is the production out of Peppers.
The Bears can free up some money if they choose to release Peppers. Added to the list of potential salary cuts are punter Adam Podlesh, receiver Earl Bennett, receiver and special teams ace Eric Weems and running back Michael Bush.
Should the Bears part ways with all five players, their cap space increases to $29.8 million. This allows the team more financial flexibility to re-sign Henry Melton, Charles Tillman, Devin Hester and Zackary Bowman.
Other veterans could be brought back on one- or two-year contracts. Linebacker D.J. Williams, center Roberto Garza, linebacker James Anderson and defensive end Corey Wootton all figure to be in the plans for Chicago going forward.
Chicago could make another big splash via free agency for the second season in a row. Currently, quarterback Jay Cutler carries a cap hit of $22.5 but also has an "automatic conversion" clause in his contract.
Cutler's contract gives the Bears flexibility to convert some of his salary into a signing bonus. This allows the team to pursue a big-name free agent like Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy or Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward.
Impending Free Agents
The Bears have a staggering 23 impending free agents. General Manager Phil Emery will look to bring a good portion of them back, but expect a lot of them to walk.
A few weeks ago we looked at each of the 23 players and gave a decision on their future with the team. Henry Melton and Charles Tillman have to be first priority for the team.
Melton is coming off a torn ACL but is still young and productive enough to build around on the defensive line. He will come back next season fully healthy, but the Bears could get a discount due to his injury.
Look for the Bears to lock up Melton for two or three seasons at a much cheaper rate than what the two sides were negotiating before the start of the 2013 season.
Recently Charles Tillman said he guarantees he will "retire as a Bear." Both sides have remained mum on contract negotiations, but the Bears would benefit from having Tillman for another two seasons. He is still very productive and could bridge the gap for another young player.
Devin Hester is an intriguing player. It's tough to put a price tag on his skill set because there just isn't another player like him in the league. At the end of the day it's tough to see Hester in a different uniform.
D.J. Williams, Zack Bowman, Corey Wootton, Nate Collins and James Anderson are all solid veterans who can help turn this defense around next season. Best of all, they won't cost the team much money.
The Bears have a ton of roster spots to fill. They can ill afford to waste valuable time on some of their own players who can be signed fairly quickly. The sooner the Bears bring their bargain veterans back, the sooner than can move on to outside options.
Coaching Changes, Current Staff
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was much-maligned but ultimately was retained by the team. His return for another season did force other casualties on defense.
Line coach Mike Phair and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar were fired last month. The team struggled to get a pass rush and stop the run, and many point to former first-round pick Shea McClellin as an early bust.
Brought in the replace Phair is Paul Pasqualoni. He is the former University of Connecticut head coach and has over five years of coaching experience in the NFL. In 2010, Pasqualoni served as defensive coordinator and defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys.
Reggie Herring will replace Tibesar as linebackers coach. Herring was recently the linebackers coach for the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys. He was the interim head coach of the University of Arkansas in 2007.
Clint Hurtt was also hired to be the assistant defensive line coach. The three coaches are expected to help develop linebackers Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene as well as find a suitable role for McClellin.
2014 Draft Preview
The Bears have seven total picks in the upcoming draft. They will draft 14th overall in the first round and will finish with two picks in the sixth round.
Phil Emery has shown an affinity to not only draft outside the box but also take the best available player. Shea McClellin, Alshon Jeffery and Kyle Long were all surprises. Brandon Hardin was a miss, and Jordan Mills was a nice find.
With so many holes on defense, expect the Bears to go defense in the first round. Defensive tackle Louis Nix III out of Notre Dame figures to be on the board when the Bears draft. His large frame and ability to shift his weight around works well in filling the team's glaring need to get better in the middle of the defensive line.
Expect a safety to be drafted at some point in the draft. There are solid options available in Rounds 2 and 3. Ahmad Dixon from Baylor and Calvin Pryor out of Louisville would fit the Bears well.
After Round 3, anything is up for grabs. Emery likes to strengthen his roster in free agency and look for the best available talent in the later rounds of the draft. Nothing is off the table with the Bears' final five picks. A quarterback, tight end or even a slot receiver could be drafted by Chicago.
This division can be had next season, and the Bears brass will do whatever possible to get this team back into the playoffs. They have had plenty of time to develop a strategy this offseason and will begin to execute very soon.
The scouting combine is up first. On display in late February will be the majority of the upcoming draft's best talent. This gives Phil Emery and Marc Trestman the perfect chance to evaluate the young talent before free agency.
What's different this year is free agency comes well before the draft. Normally in April, the draft has been pushed back to May. The Bears can use what they learned from the combine to maneuver around free agency in March. If the team believes it can get an impact pass-rusher in the draft, then there's no reason to splurge on the open market.
The free agency period will most likely be used as a chance to fill in some gaping holes. Safety figures to be an important position for the team during this time. By the time the draft rolls around in May, the defense and entire team will be fairly intact.