Last year, Chicago rebounded from its first losing season since 2004 to finish 9-7, a game behind the NFC North champion Vikings. With the addition of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler and future Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace, the Bears should make a serious run at that title in 2009.
OFFENSE (#26 total yardage, #24 rushing, #21 passing, #t14 scoring):
As one of the founding members of the American Professional Football Association – the name would change to the National Football League shortly thereafter – the Bears have a long and distinguished history. Twenty-six Hall of Famers have worn Chicago navy and orange, more than any other team, with quarterbacks George Blanda, Sid Luckman, and Bobby Layne (who spent a season there before moving on to Detroit) included in that total.
One problem: Blanda, the youngest of the three, completed his career with the team in 1958. His predecessor, Luckman, has owned the franchise passing yardage (14,686) and touchdown (137) records ever since he retired in 1950. Since then, aside from the occasional single-season anomaly – Erik Kramer’s 3,838-yard, 29-touchdown performance in 1995 comes to mind – a succession of Bears quarterbacks has done little more than hand off and try not to turn the ball over too often, with inconsistent success. Out of the 32 teams in the league, just Baltimore and Houston – teams whose franchise records date back only to 1996 and 2002, respectively – have career passing yardage leaders with lower totals than Luckman’s.
Enter Jay Cutler. When the Broncos’ franchise quarterback suddenly became available following a spat with new head coach Josh McDaniels, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo jumped at the chance to upgrade from last season’s mediocre Kyle Orton/Rex Grossman combo, sending Orton and two first-round picks to Denver in return for the young Pro Bowl passer. The strong-armed and supremely confident Cutler, who broke John Elway’s single-season record by passing for 4,256 yards last year, is built to deal with the winds of Soldier Field. He became an immediate fan favorite, too – since April 1, Cutler’s No. 6 jersey has been the top seller in the league. For the Bears’ sake, though, the new face of the franchise had better stay healthy, because backups Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez have exactly one game of NFL experience between them.
Keeping Cutler upright falls to the other marquee offseason addition, former Rams left tackle Orlando Pace, and the rest of an offensive line anchored by six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz. Pace’s arrival on the same day as Cutler pushes last year’s first-round pick, Chris Williams, over to the right side, and the team also added former Falcons and Browns tackle Kevin Shaffer to the roster. Starting guards Josh Beekman and Roberto Garza return, with free agent Frank Omiyale (Panthers) pushing Beekman on the left side.
While the Bears front office was busy over the winter, no action was needed to fortify the running back position. 2008 second-round pick Matt Forté’s first season was a stunning success; the Tulane product broke the franchise rookie record with 1,238 rushing yards and also led all NFL backs with 63 receptions, scoring 12 total touchdowns and finishing third in the league with 1,715 combined yards from scrimmage. Backups Kevin Jones, Adrian Peterson, and Garrett Wolfe also return.
The situation at wide receiver isn’t nearly as clear. Outstanding return man Devin Hester, still continuing his transformation from cornerback to full-time wideout, paced the team with 665 yards on 51 receptions. Brandon Lloyd and Marty Booker have moved on, leaving Cutler’s Vanderbilt teammate, 2008 third-rounder Earl Bennett, with the inside track for the other starting spot. Brandon Rideau, former Colt Devin Aromashodu, and veteran Rashied Davis are also in the mix. Of local interest, keep an eye on No. 83, seventh-round pick Derek Kinder. The Albion grad played his college ball at Pitt, returning from an ACL tear to lead the Panthers in receiving last year.
Until he knows whether or not he can trust his unproven receivers, look for Cutler to find his tight ends early and often. 2007 first-round pick Greg Olsen and eleventh-year vet Desmond Clark combined for 95 catches last year, setting a franchise record for the position, and Olsen could challenge the top TEs in the league this season. Old friend Michael Gaines is also on the roster.
DEFENSE (#21 total yardage, #5 rushing, #30 passing, #t16 scoring):
After an un-Bears-like season from the defense, which gave up more than 30 points four times, head coach Lovie Smith brought in Rod Marinelli to coach the line and help set things back in order.
He might have to do it with a limited contribution from defensive tackle Tommie Harris, though. After sitting out the first few training-camp practices, Harris recently revealed he had offseason surgery on the same knee which has bothered him since 2007. The three-time Pro Bowler probably won’t play against Buffalo; if he misses significant time, Israel Idonije – who lost 30 pounds during the offseason to concentrate on playing at end – might have to slide back inside. The Bears also used their top draft pick on a defensive tackle, selecting San Jose State’s Jarron Gilbert in the third round. Anthony Adams, Dusty Dvoracek, and second-year player Marcus Harrison will compete at the other tackle spot, with Dvoracek flashing signs of talent but unable to stay healthy so far in his three-year career.
The ends are set: Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye each started all 16 games last season, and Mark Anderson is also in the rotation. Brown led the team with six sacks last season, followed closely by Harris and Ogunleye with five apiece.
The linebacking corps should be one of the best in the league. Barring injury, Brian Urlacher will break Hall of Fame MLB Mike Singletary’s team standard for tackles this season. (Of note: tackle stats weren’t recorded until 1971, near the end of Dick Butkus’ career, or he might have something to say about that record.) Lance Briggs enters his seventh season as the starting weakside ‘backer seeking his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl selection. Pisa Tinoisamoa, who chose an open competition for a starting spot with the Bears over an all-but-guaranteed job in Buffalo, has the edge over Jamar Williams and Nick Roach on the strong side, with veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer providing depth in the middle.
There’s talent at cornerback, too, but only if they can stay on the field. After missing half the 2008 season, Nathan Vasher is back at full strength, but Charles Tillman (back surgery) and Zackary Bowman (hamstring) have taken his place on the injury report. Buffalo native and Turner Carroll alumnus Corey Graham also has starting experience, and should get plenty of playing time at both corner and nickel in his return to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Danieal Manning starts at free safety, but shifts to the nickel back in that package, with sixth-round pick Al Afalava (Oregon State) making a strong bid to be the next man in. Manning will miss this game with a tender hamstring, so expect to see Afalava get the starting nod alongside Kevin Payne, who led the team with four interceptions last season. The Bears also added free agent Josh Bullocks (Saints).
The Bears’ kicking teams are typically among the best in the NFL, and that shouldn’t change any time soon. Robbie Gould converted on 26 of 29 field-goal attempts in 2008, the most accurate season in team history, and his 85.9 career percentage trails only Mike Vanderjagt and Nate Kaeding in the league record-book.
Punter Brad Maynard put a remarkable 40 of 96 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and his booming kicks also forced 27 fair catches, helping the punt-cover team finish second in the league by allowing just 5.6 yards per return.
Devin Hester is one of the best return men the league has ever seen. In just three seasons, Hester has run back 11 kicks for touchdowns, and Brian Mitchell’s NFL record of 13 is easily within reach. Insult him by kicking to him, as the Colts did to begin Super Bowl XLI, and your defense might be trudging onto the field for an extra-point try 10 seconds later. Manning took over kickoff duty when Hester switched to offense, and merely led the league with 29.7 yards per return last season, scoring one touchdown and tying for the league lead with seven returns of at least 40 yards.
RB: Another performance or two like the one against the Titans, and Xavier Omon may make me reconsider my prediction that the Bills might not keep a fourth RB on the 53-man roster. On the flip side, Bruce Hall’s special-teams gaffes didn’t do much to help him. Omon was in shorts Thursday night, but did participate in some individual drills.
WR: With Terrell Owens officially ruled out of Saturday’s game, Josh Reed moves back into the starting lineup. That should create some additional opportunities for the receivers further down the depth chart, but at this point, it’s tough to see any of the “depth” guys cracking the top six. James Hardy was catching passes on the Growney Stadium turf Wednesday afternoon, but he’s still a candidate to begin the season on the PUP list.
TE: An interesting discussion from the Stadium Wall message board begs the question: is Jonathan Stupar the best tight end on the Bills roster? Considering the massive changes on the offensive line, it might not be a bad idea to keep a TE who can throw a block. Fourth-round pick Shawn Nelson continues to get some reps with the first team in practice.
OL: And so much for wanting to see Marvin Philip work at center; the former Steelers draft pick was waived/injured this week, with former practice-squadder Christian Gaddis returning to take his place. Brandon Rodd was already working with the second team; Gaddis won’t move him out of that spot.
Demetrius Bell showed well at right tackle in Brad Butler’s absence, further cementing his grip on the swing spot ... or perhaps more than that, sooner rather than later. On the flip side, Andy Levitre is spending too much time backpedaling for my liking, including a bull-rush from Kyle Williams in Wednesday’s practice. I know, I know, he’s young and he’ll get better ...
No such worries about Eric Wood. I’ll say it again: he could be the best lineman on the team by midseason.
DL: As of Friday afternoon, still no Maybin. While he probably wasn’t going to start anyway, his continued absence throws a king-sized wrench into any plans defensive coordinator Perry Fewell had to work him in at different positions. Eh, another chance to see Chris Ellis, I suppose.
LB: Marcus Buggs, Nic Harris, and Alvin Bowen are currently running with the second team. Not only do I think that either Harris or Bowen eventually displaces Keith Ellison, I’m beginning to wonder if either Pat Thomas or Jon Corto – the only reserves other than Buggs with any NFL experience – will make the team.
DB: Drayton Florence was in with the first string during nickel situations Thursday night; I expect he and Reggie Corner to battle for the job throughout the remainder of the preseason. Either way, the Bills’ top four CBs should be set. Ditto for the starting safeties, with special-teams captain George Wilson also likely to stick around. Whither Ko Simpson and John Wendling? Their jobs depend on how quickly Jairus Byrd can begin practicing.
See you in Lot 1.
Lori Chase, a staff columnist for Two Bills Drive, can be contacted at lchase (at) twobillsdrive (dot) com.
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