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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Chicago Bears Season Preview

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Chicago Bears (projected finish: 8-8)

Team synopsis: It’s different in Chicago, these days.  The attempt to bring Jay Cutler in to an established offense and have him save their passing game was poorly scripted from the beginning.  Cutler took a campfire of burning plays and threw kerosene on them.  He also set a career high in TD passes, so it wasn’t all bad.  Enter Mike Martz to help Cutler bring a new era of Bears football, one where a passing game isn’t just something that is inconveniencing the defense.  Cutler has young, talented receivers to help him, and a young offensive line that will require his help.  It’s hard to worry about an offense in such good hands, especially when it’s flaws are so understood (Cutler will throw a fair share of INTs, Martz will not care).

Best Players

  • QB Jay Cutler (trade — Denver/2009 & 2010 1st round, 2009 3rd round picks, QB Kyle Orton)
  • C Olin Kreutz (drafted — Washington/1998 3rd round pick)
  • DE Julius Peppers (signed — Carolina/2010 free agent)
  • LB Lance Briggs (drafted — Arizona/2003 3rd round pick)
  • LB Brian Urlacher (drafted — New Mexico/2000 1st round pick)
  • CB Charles Tillman (drafted — UL-Lafayette/2003 2nd round pick)

Best Prospects

  • WR Johnny Knox (drafted — Abilene Christian/2009 6th round pick)
  • WR Earl Bennett (drafted — Vanderbilt/2008 3rd round pick)
  • LT Chris Williams (drafted — Vanderbilt/2008 1st round pick)
  • RG Lance Louis (drafted — San Diego State/2009 7th round pick)
  • DE Corey Wooton (drafted — Northwestern/2010 4th round pick)
  • CB Zack Bowman (drafted — Nebraska/2008 5th round pick)
  • S Al Alfalava (drafted — Oregon State/2009 6th round pick)

The first true Martz project will be to finish the development of Devin Hester into a NFL receiver.  The Bears drafted Hester without any real plan for him, then tried him on returns and received two of the greatest return seasons in NFL history.  He started at corner, converted to receiver in his second year, and though he was inserted into the starting lineup in 2008, he pretty much could run just two routes at the time.  The strides Hester made between 2008 and 2009 in Ron Turner’s offense can not be understated: he was not the most explosive Bears receiver last year, but he was the best.

Turner’s system is about as stripped down as NFL offense gets before it becomes a college offense, which is where Turner had his best days as a coach: about ten years ago at the University of Illinois.  Martz’ offense is a little bit more complicated, terminology-wise, and has a lot more depth.  Martz thinks Hester can be his number one target this year, but it’s going to require a similar jump in the understanding of an NFL offense as he made last year.

Johnnie Knox is probably a more realistic target to develop into the Bears’ top overall receiver.  Few players in the entire league are smoother in and out of routes as Knox is.  His numbers last year are weighed down by a limited understanding of his quarterback, as Knox got open, and Cutler threw, but they rarely connected enough.  Earl Bennett isn’t a great scheme fit, but is by far the most dependable receiver for Cutler.  As the Bears passing game gains dimension, Bennett will begin to play a larger role.  This means that Devin Aromashadu could be the odd man out, but even he, as a fourth receiver, could make a difference on third downs and in the red zone.

Just as interesting is the game that will be played with the tight ends.  The Bears have four worth keeping.  Brandon Manumaleuna is the starter, because the scheme calls for a blocking tight end in the singleback formations that Martz prefers.  The three other receivers are variable, meaning that Greg Olsen can still be a starter in this offense, if he’s more dynamic out of the slot than Bennett is early in the season.  Two TE sets will likely mean Desmond Clark and Manumaleuna in the game at the same time, giving the Bears a powerful outside running front, and an excellent formation to take deep shots out of.  The team also has Kellen Davis, who could be an odd man out, but could also force the Bears to keep four TEs.  Davis is the only one of the four who plays special teams.  Eddie Williams, a 2009 draft choice of the Redskins, is the team’s lone fullback.  He could be cut in order to make room for Davis.

Clearly, this Bears offense has more dimension than it has ever had in the team’s history (Refrigerator Perry at FB doesn’t count as “dimension”), and Martz is exactly the guy you want to give those options to.  Aside from Brandon Manumaleuna, Martz also brought in Chester Taylor from Minnesota.  Taylor has the Matt Forte skill set, which if nothing else, puts pressure on Matt Forte to perform.  The Bears running game remains a question mark.  The offensive line struggles to open holes for Forte, who struggles to get through them.  You know the Mike Martz solution to the problem: stop running.  The Bears would benefit from a RB no. 3 who excels at rushing the football above all.  Well, that and special teams.

Ultimately, Cutler is now responsible for what happens with this offense.  He has weapons, and the protection will be better.  The Bears invested in him not just once (with draft choices), but twice ($20 million extension), so they really need to see some return on that investment — otherwise the people who gave Cutler so much of their effort will pay the price for it.  Tools aren’t his issue, but Cutler has not been one to show he can win shootouts or defensive struggles.

It wouldn’t kill a team to give Jay Cutler a defense.  The Bears have more big names on this defense than they’ve had on any prior defense.  Tommie Harris. Julius Peppers. Brian Urlacher. Lance Briggs.  To show for it, they have a defense that has declined every year since a super bowl season in 2006.  Peppers has the ability to take over games, as does Urlacher, but on average, Peppers/Mark Anderson isn’t a significant upgrade over the Wale Ogunleye/Alex Brown duo the Bears already had.  Peppers can rush the passer well, but he can’t be the team’s pass rush all by himself.  Maybe Harris can help.  He hasn’t been the same player since 2006.  The Bears aren’t much of a pressure defense, though Brian Urlacher’s complete skill set allows him to go after quarterbacks with all-important A-gap pressure.  Still, LE could be a major weakness on this defense.

As weak as that position on the line could be, all three linebacker positions will be a strength.  Nick Roach is a very underrated player, and Pisa Tinoisamoa is great depth at both OLB positions (plays better as strong side).  If Urlacher stays healthy for a whole year, the Bears will start three quality linebackers every week, in more or less any other injury scenario.

Zack Bowman, Charles Tillman, and Al Alfalava are three of four pieces of a strong secondary.  Free safety could be an issue all year long.  Major Wright and Danieal Manning are battling for the job in camp.  Chris Harris, back after two seasons in Carolina, should serve as the dime back and a package substitute for Alfalava.  That’s four safeties right there who are likely to make the team, usually a roster’s full.  This team also returns Craig Steltz and Josh Bullocks.  An injury to Steltz in the first preseason game could be an unfortunate way to solve a problem many teams would love to have, as the team likes Bullocks’ contributions on special teams.

Coverage is the biggest issue among corners in the secondary.  Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman are the best cover corners in the group.  Both can be had deep.  Tim Jennings offers some quickness in the slot, but he’s not a great cover guy.  Corey Graham has improved drastically since 2008, and still isn’t even average.  A pair of Moore’s; second year D.J. and rookie Joshua, are in the mix here as fifth corners.  Jennings and Graham are both on the bubble.

The cover-two scheme that emphasizes the safeties in coverage is the Bears’ greatest defense against a weak group of corners.  If a couple of rangy safeties emerge to confound quarterbacks, Peppers could have one heck of a year rushing the passer.  If not, the Bears investment in him could be wasted on a defense that is poor, overall.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

First hand reports out of Bears camp suggest that 6th round QB Dan Lefevour is really struggling.  Caleb Hanie, the Bears backup last season, is injured and is an IR candidate.  With Lefevour unable to prove competitive for the backup role, the Bears have extended offers to veteran QBs Todd Collins (last team: Redskins), and Damon Huard (last team: 49ers).

About that third RB situation: the team loves Garrett Wolfe on special teams.  Kahlil Bell is probably a better runner than Wolfe.  Former Michigan runner Brandon Minor could prove an interesting wild card, with a new offensive coach having little loyalty to last years’ runners.

For the back end of the roster of receivers: Rashied Davis is the proven special teamer.  Juaquin Iglesias is a 3rd round pick from a year ago who just looks like a classic overdraft.  That overdraft could keep him on the roster another year, but likely not at the expense of Davis, a favorite of special teams coach Dave Toub.

The Bears have been working former Atlanta & Cleveland OT Kevin Shaffer on the interior for the first time in his career.  Last years starting LG, Frank Omiyale, is with the first team offense at RT.  Then, longtime RG Roberto Garza is going to switch sides and play the left guard.  He will be replaced by 2009 7th round pick Lance Louis.  Omiyale’s hold on the RT position is tenuous, mostly due to talent deficiency.  The second team RT is James Marten, former Cowboy backup.  The best backup the Bears have is Josh Beekman, who has been working exclusively as the no. 2 Center in training camp.  In practicality, he’s likely the backup LG as well, although Garza has little injury history, and the team is high on Johan Asiata, and other players you’ve never heard of.  This year’s 7th round pick, J’Marcus Webb (West Texas A&M), will play behind LT Chris Williams if he makes it.  If not, I’d imagine that Kevin Shaffer has those duties.

Jarron Gilbert, who can jump out of pools, you know, will work exclusively at the 3-technique behind Tommie Harris.  Anthony Adams will start at the 1-technique, and Marcus Harrison will back him up.  The quality depth at DT allows them to keep five or more ends.  With Corey Wooton behind Julius Peppers right now, either Henry Melton or Maurice Evans could make the Bears at DE.

Hunter Hillenmeyer’s best chance to remain a Bear involves securing himself as the backup MLB behind Urlacher.  Because the Bears may only hold six LBs, Hillenmeyer could be a late release, with Brian Iwuh, Tim Shaw, and Kelvin Smith all in the mix for two spots, with Hillenmeyer.

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  1. Brian
    August 21, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    Aromashodu, Knox and Hester will be the top 3 receivers, no doubt, making things interesting for Bennett or Iglesias. It’ll probably be the same receiver group as last year.

    In the secondary, DJ Moore is inching ahead of Corey Graham for the nickelback and Chris Harris is pretty much guaranteed a starting safety job. The real question mark is the other safety position, and with Major Wright’s injury, we’re probably going to see a lot more of Danieal Manning. Elsewhere on the D, you can’t discount the role Israel Idonije could play in the DE rotation and his contribution could make or break what the line does.

    The O-Line is the issue and everyone knows it. Despite having a lot of the same players, everyone is moved around and people are wondering just exactly who Lance Louis is. Cutler got sacked 5 times tonight, but we’ll get a real picture once the season starts.

    Oh yeah, and I think my nickname of ‘Alfalfa’ for Al Afalava has confused your spelling a bit…

    Also, the Bears got Will Ta’ufo’ou at fullback in addition to Williams.

  2. Brian
    September 3, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Update – Bears ‘best prospect’ Al ‘Alfalfa’ Afalava has been cut

  1. August 18, 2010 at 3:29 am
  2. August 19, 2010 at 10:50 am
  3. August 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm
  4. August 20, 2010 at 7:04 am
  5. August 20, 2010 at 5:23 pm
  6. August 21, 2010 at 11:15 am
  7. August 21, 2010 at 1:34 pm
  8. August 22, 2010 at 9:59 pm
  9. August 23, 2010 at 11:03 am
  10. August 23, 2010 at 11:05 am

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