With the 2013 season officially in the books the Eye on Football staff is looking ahead to the offseason for all 32 NFL teams. Next up: The Chicago Bears.
It's been a recurring theme in recent years: The Bears start strong, Jay Cutler suffers an injury midway through the season, and the team limps to the finish line. In 2011, Chicago began 7-3 under Cutler and finished 8-8 with Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown. Cutler missed just one game in 2012 and the team went 10-6, but last season, a 5-3 start gave way to another 8-8 finish.
Except this time, Cutler's backup, McCown, played well enough to raise questions about whether he should keep the starting gig when Cutler returned. First-year coach Marc Trestman squashed the debate before it got started and maintained that Cutler was his guy. Apparently, general manager Phil Emery agreed; the Bears signed him to a seven-year contract days after the season.Now the question becomes whether Trestman can get the most out of Cutler, who has just one playoff win in his eight-year NFL career.
What went right
The Bears fired Lovie Smith last offseason and replaced him with Trestman, who is known for getting the most out of his quarterbacks. That's exactly what happened with the sometimes erratic Cutler, at least before he suffered a groin injury and a high-ankle sprain midway through the season.
We talked about Cutler's progress three weeks into the 2013 season, after the Bears beat the Steelers on national television. After highlighting Cutler's ability to decipher Pittsburgh's defense before the snap, make the right read and then deliver the ball on time (something he did most of the night), we added this caveat:
But here's the thing: Can this last? Can Efficient Jay continue to be, well, efficient? In the past, we've seen Cutler go off script when things weren't working and it usually led to more sacks, more turnovers and, ultimately, more losses. But again, that might have more to do with (former offensive coordinators) Martz and Tice, right? Cutler had success with Mike Shanahan in Denver, and he looks to be a completely different player under Trestman.
(If nothing else, Cutler is tough.)
And for the most part, it did, even after Cutler returned from injury for the final three games of the regular season.
For comparison, in the first six games of the season, Cutler completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,658 yards, 12 TDs, 7 INTs, and he was sacked 10 times. In the four games he played after missing time because of injuries, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 963 yards, 7 TDs, 5 INTs and was sacked 9 times.
Yes, the Bears went 1-2 down the stretch and missed the playoffs, but that wasn't all on Cutler. In fact, according to the ProFootballFocus.com grades, Cutler played well in Weeks 15-17, and the season finale loss to Green Bay was his second-best performance of the year.
Long story, short: The Bears were right to re-up Cutler, partly because franchise quarterbacks are hard to come by, but also because Trestman appears to be the guy capable of getting the most out of the mercurial QB.
Other bright spots: Alshon Jeffery went from "That big guy who lines up opposite Brandon Marshall" to "This is one of the best young wide receivers in the game." He showed the ability to take over -- see the 10-catch, 218-yard effort against the Saints, or the 12-catch, 249-yard game vs. the Vikings, for examples:
* Marshall also had a superb year, catching 100 balls for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns. Running back Matt Forte was solid, as was the aforementioned McCown, who could be headed for free agency.
* Kicker Robbie Gould remains one of the league's most consistent kickers and the Bears agreed, signing him to a four-year extension in December.
What went wrong
The defense was a mess. Football Outsiders ranked the unit 25th after a first-place finish in 2012, and it's a sea of red grades from ProFootballFocus.com, the worst belonging to former first-round pick Shea McClellin, safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte, and linebackers Jonathan Bostic and James Anderson.
To be fair, Bostic was a rookie and it's not uncommon for players to struggle with the transition from college to the NFL. He'll also move from middle to strongside linebacker in the offseason. And McClellin will move from defensive end to outside linebacker next season.
“I think he's very excited [about switching positions]. Obviously at Boise, he played Mike, he played Sam, he played with his hand on the ground,” Emery said at last week's combine. “So versatility is his strength. I'll say this: generally, we'll take calculated risks, which we did with Shea. When we swing, we're gonna swing on the high side of athleticism, and that's why we're still excited about him being able to contribute at a high level.”
As for the rest of the ineptitude on that side of the ball, Emery has a plan.
‘‘We're going to be a younger defense,'' he said after the season. ‘‘The draft will be focused in that area. It's about finding the best playmakers -- the guys that can make a dynamic difference to our defense.''
That sounds ambiguous, but that's probably the point. The Bears have a lot to fix and getting younger -- and cheaper -- is certainly one way to do it. We'll know more in the coming weeks and months.
We're going with Marshall, who ranked 11th in total value according to Football Outsiders' WR metrics, and graded out as ProFootballFocus.com's top wide receiver. Jeffery had his coming-out party in 2013, but Marshall was consistently dominant.
How bad were the safeties? Conte ranked 82nd out of 86 safeties, according to PFF's grades and Wright was -- you guessed it -- 86th. It's reasonable to think that Emery was referring specifically to the position when he talked about getting younger, better.
What's happened since the end of the season
We already mentioned that the team signed Cutler to a seven-year contract, but they also signed cornerback Tim Jennings and guard Matt Slauson to four-year deals. Jennings was one of the few bright spots in the Bears secondary while Slauson shined along the offensive line.
On Thursday, center Robert Garza signed a one-year deal.
Impending free agents
The biggest names include: quarterback Josh McCown, defensive lineman Henry Melton, cornerback Charles Tillman, return specialist Devin Hester, safeties Major Wright and Craig Steltz and linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson.
Free agency gameplan
The Bears haven't hidden the fact that they'd like to bring back McCown, but the 34-year-old backup will draw interest in free agency.
"We all said we want Josh," Trestman said at the combine. "We want him to be a part of our football team. We recognize how important he is not just as the backup quarterback but as an influence in our locker room. He's a great leader and he's great for our quarterback room as well, which is the most important room in the building. Josh has got the opportunity to look around. We want him to be able to do that. He deserves that right. And we'll see where this thing goes. But Josh is well aware how we feel about him and that we want him back."
The same holds for Melton, who landed on injured reserve last September.
"We do want to bring back Henry and we'll work through that process," Emery said. "He's made progress. He's made positive progress."
And Tillman, who has been with the team since he came into the league in 2003, said earlier this month that, "I know [the Bears] want me back. I think it's a matter of finances and everything working out.” But he added, “My gut is I will be on an NFL team next year. Everyone knows how the process works. It's a business. If I'm here, sweet. If I'm not, that's business … There's no hard feelings. I love Chicago. Chicago's been nothing but great -- great owners, great organization, great teammates.”
See Emery's comments above about getting younger. The draft is certainly the quickest, cheapest way to accomplish that.
As for who the team will target with the the No. 14 pick, according to the latest NFLDraftScout.com/CBSSports.com mock draft, Chicago will target -- shocker -- the defense. Rob Rang and Dane Brugler have them taking Florida St. defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, while Pete Prisco and Pat Kirwan are partial to Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Ridiculously premature prediction for 2014
If Cutler continues to progress under Trestman there's no reason to think this won't be one of the league's most explosive offenses. The biggest question mark is whether this defense can regain its 2012 form in one offseason. Do that, and they'll be right back in the playoff mix.
Predicted record: 10-6