Breaking Down the Chicago Bears' Likely Opening Game Starting Lineup
Throughout the offseason and training camp, general manager Phil Emery has worked tirelessly to put together the best roster he can for the 2014 season.
As the preseason winds down, all NFL teams will begin the process of trimming their rosters from 90 players to 53 before the start of the regular season. While some of the final few spots on the roster are still up for grabs, some of the projected starters on both sides of the football appear to be locked in now.
Offensively, the Bears appear ready to have the same 11 players starting in Week 1 against the Bills as they did last season in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
On the defensive side of the football there are still some positions with questions marks. The defensive line and cornerback spots appear to be locked in, while strong-side linebacker and both safety positions are up in the air.
Every position is still subject to change with two more preseason games to go, but here is our breakdown of the Chicago Bears' likely starting lineup for Week 1.
If one thing is for certain heading into Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, it's that there will be no surprises at the quarterback position.
After inking a seven-year deal this offseason, Jay Cutler is set to be the team's starter for the foreseeable future.
Injuries limited Cutler's production last season, but the veteran threw for 2,621 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, finishing with a career-high 89.2 quarterback rating.
While it is only the preseason, Cutler has looked sharp in the handful of series he has played in the first two games. Against Philadelphia and Jacksonville he combined to go 16-of-22 for 160 yards with two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 123.3.
Now in his second season in this offense, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has seen a new comfort level with Cutler this offseason, telling Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com: "Jay has learned to solve his own problems on the field. He’s much quicker this year with his reads. He knew them last year; don’t get me wrong. He had a good year, one of the best of his career. But it’s even happening faster for him."
One of the biggest obstacles for Cutler during his tenure in Chicago has been his health. He has only played all 16 games once as a member of the Bears, back in 2009, and has missed 12 starts over the past three seasons.
Despite his injury-riddled past, head coach Marc Trestman believes Cutler has improved his durability this offseason, saying in an interview on SiriusXM NFL radio in June, via the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer:
Jay has really worked hard in the offseason, and he has always been a hard worker in his conditioning and his training, but he has really amped it up. He’s bigger, he’s stronger than a year ago, and he has really focused on staying physically well for the entire season.
That’s No. 1 — we’ve got to keep him standing, keep him safe. And we see the improvements he’s made in working on different issues in his mechanics, and I think he’s feeling very comfortable back there in Year 2.
As long as he can stay healthy in 2014, the sky is the limit for this Bears offense with Cutler under center.
Running Back: Matt Forte
Fullback: Tony Fiammetta
Since arriving in Chicago in 2008, Matt Forte has been one of the league's most consistent, all-around running backs.
Forte finished second in the league in rushing yards with 1,339 in 2013, had nine rushing touchdowns and registered 74 catches for 594 yards with three receiving touchdowns. Because of his productive 2013, he was named to his second Pro Bowl after the season.
Despite putting up some of the best numbers of his career, Forte believes there is still room for him to grow this season.
"Best year?" Forte said when asked about last season, via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. "Not really. I feel like it was a decent, above-average year knowing what this offense can do and the talent we have and it being new. This being our second year, we can definitely surpass what we did."
He has been a workhorse for the offense throughout his career, averaging just over 258 carries and 56 catches a season, resulting in an average of 314 touches a season.
GM Phil Emery went out and drafted Ka'Deem Carey in the fourth round and signed veteran Shaun Draughn to help lessen the load, but offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer knows how hard it is to take Forte out of the game.
"It's hard to take Matt off the field, but for the best interests of the team we should take him off a little bit and get him rested," Kromer said, via Biggs. "You say, 'Next drive we are going to take him out.' And you look at him on the sideline and he doesn't look tired, so it is hard to take him out."
Even with the new additions behind him on the depth chart, Forte will likely once again be the team's workhorse.
Helping to open up holes for Forte once again this season will be veteran fullback Tony Fiammetta. He was signed by the team last offseason and appeared in all 16 games, registering four catches for 57 yards.
Like most fullbacks, he isn't flashy but he does all of the little things right and will once again claim the starting fullback role in 2014.
After a career year in 2013 that saw him haul in 65 catches for 759 yards and five touchdowns, Martellus Bennett made headlines during training camp for an on-field altercation which resulted in a suspension.
“Last night we made a decision to fine and suspend Martellus Bennett for an undetermined length of time,” general manager Phil Emery told reporters the day after the incident, adding: "This is a process we’re working with Martellus. We are in contact with him. Our goal is to have Martellus back as soon as possible. He’s a very loved and respected teammate. We want him back, but it’s a process we have to work through."
Bennett ended up spending five days away from the team and admitted the incident was a learning experience.
“I think everything in life is about learning lessons,” Bennett told the media after returning to the team. “Whatever situation you’re going on through life, you always learn from it. Whether it’s good or bad, whatever it may be, there’s always a lesson or a moral to the story.”
The Bears did not specify what they wanted Bennett to do while he was away from the team, but head coach Marc Trestman was pleased with the results. “He did everything we wanted him to do in a very positive and professional manner and that’s why he’s back,” Trestman told reporters. “He deserves to be back.”
Back in the fold again, Bennett will once more give quarterback Jay Cutler a big target in the middle of the field and should continue to be a presence in the red zone.
Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery
Receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery became one of the best wide receiver duos in the league in their stellar 2013 season.
During the team's first preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sports Illustrated's Peter King tweeted that no receiving group in the NFL has better hands than Marshall and Jeffery:
CHICAGO-Impossible for a group of starting WRs to have better hands than Marshall+Jeffery ... Bear hands (including TE Rosario) in Nov form.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) August 9, 2014
Despite how well the two played last season, Jeffery is expecting more this season.
“I’m not the type of person that brags a lot about anything, but I feel that last year, what we did, we were at the top of the list as the two best receivers,” he told Rana L. Cash of Sporting News. “But that was last year. This year we have to set our goal and try our best to do the same thing we did last year, if not better.”
Jeffery took a big jump from his rookie season in 2012 to last year, and he knows the way he and Marshall motivate each other is what makes them the best duo in the league.
“We motivate each other,” he told Cash. “We compete against each other and we’ve got the same goals. We both want to win the Super Bowl and we want greatness. We want to catch every ball.”
On any given Sunday, opposing teams will have to decide which receiver they will cover with two defensive backs, opening up opportunities for the other receiver to have a big game against single coverage.
With a healthy Jay Cutler and a second year in Marc Trestman's offense, there's no telling what Marshall and Jeffery can do in 2014.
Tackles: Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills
Guards: Matt Slauson and Kyle Long
Center: Roberto Garza
After struggling for years to find the perfect combination along the offensive line to protect Cutler, the Bears finally found a solution last season.
The team signed veterans Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson in free agency and drafted Kyle Long and Jordan Mills in the 2013 draft.
Those four, combined with veteran center Roberto Garza, were a drastic improvement over their 2012 counterparts.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears' offensive line in 2012 graded out as the second-to-last unit in the entire NFL, finishing 27th or worse in pass-blocking, run blocking and penalties.
A significant step forward. Considering they had four new starters, they can be happy with the output after the shambles the line had become. You might question if they overspent on Jermon Bushrod (they did), but they did improve the play of their left tackle and got their rookies on the right side some much needed experience.
That experience on the right side will be key for Long and Mills heading into their second season.
Mills has missed time during training camp and the preseason with a foot injury, and according to ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson, there is no timetable for his return:
Still no word on when Jordan Mills (foot) will return.— Jeff Dickerson (@ESPNChiBears) August 12, 2014
If Mills is not healthy by the start of Week 1, expect either Michael Ola or Eben Britton to claim the right tackle spot.
If the team returns all five starters in Week 1, there is a good chance they will continue to build off their strong 2013.
Defensive Tackles: Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea
Defensive Ends: Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston
The main objective for Phil Emery this offseason was to improve a defensive line that struggled mightily in 2013.
After re-signing veterans Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins before the start of free agency, Emery opened up the free-agency period by signing defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Not long after, Emery signed veteran defensive end Jared Allen to a four-year, $32 million contract.
Allen and Houston are the projected starters at defensive end, while Ratliff and fourth-year man Paea are expected to start at defensive tackle in Week 1.
Allen immediately gives the team a dominant pass-rusher, something it sorely lacked in 2013. He finished last season with 11.5 sacks for the Minnesota Vikings and since 2007 has registered 101 sacks.
While Allen gives the team a proven pass-rusher, Houston gives the team a solid run-stopper out on the edge who has the ability to put pressure on the quarterback.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Houston graded out last season as the fifth-best defensive end against the run with a plus-14.9 grade. He also finished in the top 10 among all 4-3 defensive ends with 41 quarterback hurries.
With Allen and Houston out on the edges, Ratliff and Paea give the team two stud defensive tackles as long as they can stay healthy. Paea has missed four games over the past two seasons and has struggled with a variety of injuries. Ratliff has missed 21 games over the past two seasons after playing in every game from 2008-2011.
If both are healthy, they have the ability to clog up running lanes, make plays on running backs and put pressure on the quarterback.
Weak Side: Lance Briggs
Middle: D.J. Williams
Strong Side: Jon Bostic
After injuries to Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams last season, the play of the Bears' linebackers dropped significantly when relying on rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene.
Not much has changed from where this team was a year ago in terms of their projected starting weak-side and middle linebackers.
Briggs will once again claim his spot along the weak side and should be among the league's best 4-3 outside linebackers. And just as he started off the 2013 season as the team's middle linebacker, Williams is the most logical choice to start Week 1 against the Bills.
While Briggs and Williams have their positions locked down, the strong-side linebacker position remains a battle between Bostic and third-year man Shea McClellin.
After a rough start for both players against the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason opener, head coach Marc Trestman believes they both played well against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, per ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson:
Trestman: "I thought Shea was better this week. I thought Bostic played well."— Jeff Dickerson (@ESPNChiBears) August 15, 2014
While McClellin has shown some struggles as he makes the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker, Bostic appears to be a more natural fit. Most of Bostic's reps in the preseason have come at middle linebacker in place of Williams with the second team, but his skills should translate to the outside.
As long as Bostic can continue to improve his ability to read and react to plays, he should be the team's starting strong-side linebacker in Week 1 and beyond.
Cornerbacks: Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings
Safeties: Ryan Mundy and Chris Conte
After missing a portion of the 2013 season, Charles Tillman opted to re-sign with the Bears this offseason on a one-year deal.
One of the best in the league at creating turnovers, Tillman has an uncanny ability to knock the football loose from opposing receivers. In 2012 alone he forced 10 fumbles and had three interceptions that he returned for touchdowns.
Despite turning 33 earlier this year, he remains one of the league's best cornerbacks and is set to be paired with veteran Tim Jennings again this season.
Jennings signed a four-year, $22.4 million contract this offseason after being named to his second straight Pro Bowl. After struggling at times during the beginning of his career in Indianapolis and playing two average seasons in Chicago, Jennings burst onto the scene in 2012, leading the league in interceptions with nine.
While listed as the starter, he will get some playing time this season at nickelback, with 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller moving to the outside when playing against three-receiver sets, per TheGameChicago.com's Adam Hoge:
Interesting development today was Tim Jennings playing nickel when Kyle Fuller came in. Jennings was still No. 2 CB in base D. #Bears— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) May 27, 2014
With Tillman and Jennings set to remain as the team's starters at cornerback, much of the focus this offseason has been on the safety position.
After inking a deal on the first day of free agency, veteran safety Ryan Mundy will likely be the team's starting strong safety come Week 1. Mundy has the ability to play up in the box against the run but can also match up with tight ends and running backs in pass coverage. While not the flashiest of players, Mundy should be a steady contributor in 2014.
With Mundy all but solidified as the team's starter at strong safety, free safety remains a wide-open battle between Danny McCray, Brock Vereen and Chris Conte.
Despite starting both preseason games at free safety, McCray has done very little to make his presence felt. Vereen, a fourth-round pick this past May, has a lot of upside and potential but hasn't been able to get any first-team reps in front of McCray.
With McCray and Vereen seemingly unable to claim the position, Conte still has a shot to take back the job he has held for the better part of the past three seasons in Chicago. After struggling mightily in 2013, Conte underwent offseason shoulder surgery and did not return to the practice field until last week, per Chicago Bears Radio's Zach Zaidman:
Chris Conte and Craig Steltz practicing for first time in this training camp. #Bears not in full pads today.— Zach Zaidman (@ZachZaidman) August 10, 2014
Trestman definitely wants Chris Conte to play vs. #Seahawks. Still up to the trainers. But team hopeful Conte & Craig Steltz face Seattle.— Jeff Dickerson (@ESPNChiBears) August 15, 2014
If Conte can get back onto the field Friday against Seattle, there's a good chance he will reclaim his spot as the team's starting free safety in Week 1 due to of his athleticism and playmaking potential.
Kicker: Robbie Gould
Punter: Pat O'Donnell
Long Snapper: Brandon Hartson
Returner: Chris Williams
After inking an extension prior to the end of last season, Robbie Gould will remain the team's kicker for the foreseeable future.
Gould hit 26-of-29 field goals last season, including three from 50 yards and beyond. He sits as the NFL's active leader in field-goal percentage, completing 86.029 percent of his kicks.
Since entering the league in 2005 with the Bears, his ability to hit from beyond 50 yards has improved, as he's made 16-of-19 attempts since 2009 after only attempting two from 50-plus yards in the previous four seasons.
Barring any injuries, Gould should continue to be one of the best kickers in the league in 2014.
After releasing punter Adam Podlesh earlier this offseason, the Bears picked punter Pat O'Donnell in the sixth round of this past May's draft, leaving him to compete with second-year man Tress Way throughout training camp and the preseason for the open spot.
#Bears Fans chanting "mega punt" when Pat O'Donnell steps on field and kicks.— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) July 27, 2014
Regardless of the accolades he has received from the fans, he appears to be the favorite to claim the position after a strong showing against the Jacksonville Jaguars last Thursday night.
After 16 seasons with Patrick Mannelly at the long snapper position, the team has been trying to find his replacement this offseason after he announced his retirement in June, per Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Patrick Mannelly, one of the best long-snappers in NFL history, announced his retirement after 16 years with the #Bears.— Mark Potash (@MarkPotash) June 20, 2014
Brandon Hartson and Chad Rempel are both vying for the position, and while neither has appeared to jump clearly ahead of the other, the fact that Hartson spent time with the team last offseason will likely give him the leg up over Rempel.
After cutting Eric Weems over the weekend, the team has a real need at kick returner.
Chris Williams, a kick-return candidate, suffered a hamstring injury in the team's preseason opener, but Trestman is encouraged by the progress Williams is making, per TheGameChicago.com's Adam Hoge:
Trestman said he's encouraged by the progress Chris Williams is making coming back from his hamstring injury.— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) August 15, 2014
Williams was a terrific returner in the CFL before joining the New Orleans Saints last season and if healthy could be the Bears' best option heading into Week 1.
Record/statistical information provided via email from the Chicago Bears or ESPN.com.
Matt Eurich is an NFL/Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.