In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. So far we've featured the Falcons, Cardinals, Ravens, Bills and Panthers.
Heading down the stretch last year, the Bears were so close they could almost taste it. Ultimately, what they ended up tasting was the dirt the Packers rubbed in their faces. The Bears lost their season finale to their rivals from Wisconsin, subsequently came in second in the NFC North and did not make the playoffs for the third straight year.
The Bears spit out that dirt in the offseason and took a big bite out of free agency. The result is a beefed-up team that on paper looks strong enough to close the gap.
Biggest Move: Tearing down the defensive line and building a new one
Last season, the Bears were pathetic upfront on defense. They had 31 sacks, tied for fewest in the NFL. Their inability to defeat blockers, contain and stay in gaps contributed to 2,583 rushing yards allowed, most in the NFL. All of their defensive linemen combined had 24 sacks, two more than defensive end Jared Allen had all by himself two years ago.
So when the Vikings did not sign Allen and he lingered a bit on the free agent market, the Bears took out their wallet. Even though Allen is 32 years old, the $15.5 million the Bears guaranteed him appears to be money well spent. Allen was not the only significant acquisition. The team also wrote checks for former Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston and former Lions defensive ends Willie Young and Israel Idonije. The Bears also used two of their first three draft picks on defensive tackles on Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. And they resigned defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, who had a brief impact after taking the field last December.
Before they could restock, the Bears had to clear the shelves. The team allowed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton to sign with the Cowboys and former starting defensive end Corey Wootton to sign with the Vikings. Former first-round pick Shea McClellin was chased from the defensive line meeting room into the linebacker meeting room. He still is expected to contribute as a nickel pass rusher, but on first and second downs McClellin will play linebacker.
And most significantly, the team cut captain Julius Peppers, who led the Bears in sacks in each of the last four years. At 34, Peppers still had value but was no longer justifying a massive contract. He remains a rare talent, but a perplexing one. His production fell off last season as his playmaking was sporadic. In essence, the Bears replaced Peppers, who looked like he was coasting at times when he was needed last fall, with Allen, who doesn't even coast on OTA practice snaps. Peppers will show the Bears exactly how much he has left this season as a member of the Packers.
His departure means tackle Stephen Paea likely will be the only major contributor from the line last year who can be a major contributor this year. But he's not on scholarship either, and will have to earn his place.
Biggest Offseason Gamble: Going with an unproven No. 2 quarterback
One of the only reasons the Bears were in contention at the end of last season was the play of backup quarterback Josh McCown. He started five games in place of the injured Jay Cutler and won three of them. What's more, he outperformed Cutler statistically, and played so smoothly that some were calling for him to remain the starter when Cutler returned in December.
But once McCown was offered a starter's job and a starter's salary by the Bucs, he was not going to come back to the Bears. In order to replace McCown, the Bears did not sign a former starter in free agency or invest a high draft pick in a passer. They promoted third-stringer Jordan Palmer. Then, this week, after watching Palmer go through some OTAs, they signed former Notre Dame star Jimmy Clausen.
Whether or not Clausen is around in late July, let alone September, remains to be seen. The former second-round pick is coming off shoulder surgery and has not taken a regular season snap since 2010. In his rookie year, he had a 58.4 passer rating and a 1-9 record as a starter, leading the Panthers to an awful season that culminated with them taking Cam Newton first overall in the 2011 draft.
Palmer may be great. He may be awful. But no one can be sure what he is, because he has not started a game and he has thrown only 15 regular season passes since coming into the league seven years ago. Palmer has bounced around on four teams (not including the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena League and the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League) and rarely has been more than a No. 3 quarterback.
What we know about Palmer is he is a student of the game with great genes. He helped Blake Bortles train for his NFL auditions, and his big brother is Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. The Bears are gambling that will be enough, given Palmer will be coached by Marc Trestman and he will be throwing to Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. The formula worked for McCown, who played the best football of his life in Chicago last year at the age of 34. If Cutler goes down again, whether or not it can work with Palmer or Clausen might decide the Bears' season.
Biggest 2014 Question: Are the Bears good enough at safety?
Whereas many teams stepped out to acquire highly-talented safeties, the Bears took a more conservative approach at the position. They passed up Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, Calvin Pryor and Jimmie Ward in the draft, and they put their money in other positions rather than invest in free agents such as Jairus Byrd, Donte Whitner or Antoine Bethea. What the Bears are counting on is that their new and improved pass rush makes the flaws of their safeties much less conspicuous in 2014.
They retained Chris Conte despite his erratic performance in 2013. Competing for the starting positions will be Conte and a group of newcomers, including Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen.
Bold Prediction: Cutler will have a career year
Last season Cutler had a career-best passer rating of 89.2 and his completion percentage of 63.1 was his best since his first full year as a starter. At 31, he is a mature quarterback, or as mature as he probably can get.
He also is in the best situation of his career. Trestman clearly has reached Cutler in a way no coach has since Mike Shanahan. Cutler's skills dovetail nicely into Trestman's scheme. Most of the old guard leaders from the Lovie Smith days have moved on, making this Cutler's team. He might be throwing to the best receiving duo in the league in Marshall and Jeffery. The pass protection has improved significantly over the last year, and the Bears have a solid running game to help keep defenses honest.
In the offseason, the Bears decided to renew their vows with Cutler, giving him a contract extension that calls for him to be paid an average annual salary of approximately $18 million. As long as he stays healthy, there is no reason for Cutler to play like anything less than an $18 million quarterback.