Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise and proposing solutions for each. So far, the series has covered the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans and New York Giants. Today, it's the Chicago Bears.
The doorstep of the playoffs is a cold, dark and lonely place to finish an NFL season. The Bears know the feeling too well after going 26-24 over the last three seasons and having the postseason door slammed in their faces each year.
This time around, the challenge for general manager Phil Emery isn't just to put together a Bears team that can have a successful regular season, it's to collect a roster that can kick down the playoff door. It will require more than some legwork Robbie Gould would envy, however, because the Bears are in an unusual place. After eons of primitive offensive play, they finally came into a new age last season, finishing second in the NFL in points scored. That was only the third time the Bears ranked as high in the last 48 years. But the defense, which has given this franchise its identity, began to crumble. The Bears ranked 30th in defense in 2013, and it may take more than just a little drywall joint compound to fix these holes.
Problem: The defense is old enough to make Medicare go broke.
Solution: Go heavy on defense in the draft.
Emery wants to take the best players on the board regardless of need, but the best players on the Bears' board need to be defensive players, at least in the early rounds. The Bears need young building blocks to become eventual replacements for defensive pillars like Julius Peppers (34 years old and a potential cap casualty), Charles Tillman (33 with an expiring contract) and Lance Briggs (33). You also could say they still need a replacement for Brian Urlacher, who retired after the 2012 season. The Bears don't have a single defensive player under 30 and signed for 2014 who can safely be considered part of the team's nucleus.
The Bears have seven picks in this May's draft, including two sixths, but no seventh. Trading down in the first or second round to acquire extra picks might be a smooth move, because the Bears need more than just one or two players who can contribute. They need an influx of youth on defense.
The other avenue the Bears need to explore is signing free agent defenders who are coming out of their first contracts. Any significant free agent acquisitions need to be players who can be counted on to be around for years to come. Once the Bears establish a new core with youngsters, they can fill in the holes with older players, who would be viewed as temps.
Problem: The Bears have 23 players with expiring contracts.
Solution: Pick and choose the best, and pack the bags for the rest.
Fifteen of the 23 players whose contracts are up are defensive players. If there is a reason the Bears defense ranked 30th in the NFL last year, it's because the players they had were simply not good enough. For the most part, they are not going to suddenly become good enough this year. The Bears need to let some of those players go and see if replacement players can do better.
They already have re-signed quarterback Jay Cutler and cornerback Tim Jennings, two of their best players who had expiring contracts, and they might make another hit or two before the start of free agency. There are not many players in that group of 23 who the Bears should sign to a market-setting deal; if anything, they should move cautiously with most. And if they lose many of them, que sera, sera.
Problem: Jay Cutler still is Jay Cutler, and backup Josh McCown is scheduled to be a free agent.
Solution: Do not let McCown so much as sniff another team.
After signing Cutler to a seven-year deal that includes $54 million in guarantees, the Bears might be hesitant to invest heavily in a No. 2 for fear of having too much appropriated to one position. But the Bears would be wise to pay McCown more and pay a projected starter at another position less.
Cutler was playing the best football of his tenure in Chicago last season, and his performance really isn't an issue. He appears to be in harmony with head coach Marc Trestman, and there is no reason to believe he's going to be benched at any time soon. But his durability could be a a problem, because he played only 11 games last year, and in the last three years he has missed 25 percent of the team's games. If he misses 25 percent of the games this year, those could be the games that keep the Bears out of the playoffs.
McCown, meanwhile, statistically outperformed Cutler. He had a superior passer rating (109 to 89.2), average yards per completion (8.2 to 7.4) and completion percentage (66.5 to 63.1), and his record as a starter was 3-2 compared to Cutler's 5-6. Some thought McCown should not have been benched when Cutler returned from his ankle sprain last season, and he clearly is at a very good place in his career.
The Bears have to hope McCown is content with being Cutler's caddy moving forward. He is not the typical NFL player, and he values the environment, relationships and the system more than most. That said, McCown has been making the quarterback equivalent of chump change for years, and he undoubtedly wants to make up for it this time. At 34, this is probably his last chance for a payday. He also might want more than money, because if his goal is playing time, he likely will get interest from teams with less stable quarterback situations. That's why the Bears have to move quickly with him. If McCown goes too far down the free agent road, he might never look back.
Problem: If you discount one game, 2012 first rounder defensive end Shea McClellin took down opposing quarterbacks by himself last year as many times as punter Adam Podlesh.
Solution: Try something new with McClellin.
McClellin may be without production, but he is not without talent. According to Stats, Inc., he led the Bears in total pressures (23), quarterback knockdowns (12) and hurries (11). The problem is he often got stuck on blocks or got to the quarterback a half-second too late to really impact the play. At 6-3, 260, McClellin might not have the length and dimensions to consistently defeat offensive tackles from a down position. But his burst, relentlessness and athleticism suggest he might benefit from playing from a standing position and lining up at different spots.
As an outside linebacker, McCelllin could be a more effective pass rusher because he would be less predictable. If a blocker isn't sure if McClellin is coming or dropping, McClellin's quickness should be enhanced. The only issue is if McClellin has the ability to cover. It's worth lining him up at strongside linebacker in training camp and seeing if he can't make the transition.