Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Chicago Bears check in at No. 9.
Team president and CEO Ted Phillips fired general manager Jerry Angelo in the aftermath of last season’s team nose-dive from a 7–3 start to an 8–8 finish. The fatal fade was the direct result of quarterback Jay Cutler’s season-ending fractured thumb in the final minutes of the Week 11 victory over the Chargers. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie was a disaster, and the loss of do-everything running back Matt Forté two weeks later didn’t help.
Phillips hired former Bears area scout Phil Emery to replace Angelo with one simple edict: Narrow the talent gap between the Bears and the NFC North rival Packers (15–1) and Lions (10–6) — and do it now.
Emery opened with a bang, trading for troubled three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who had worn out his welcome in Miami. Emery also added nine unrestricted free agents and re-signed five of his own. Two key newcomers, quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Michael Bush, give the Bears better depth at those positions than they’ve had since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004.
Cutler has never had a legitimate, No. 1 go-to receiver in Chicago. Johnny Knox has been the closest thing to it, but he will start this season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as he continues his recovery from offseason spinal fusion surgery.
The 6'4", 230-pound Marshall should more than make up the difference. Judging by the numbers Marshall has compiled, especially as a Bronco in 2007-08 when Cutler was his quarterback (206 catches, 2,590 yards), the excitement over his arrival is justified. Another complaint about the Bears’ mediocre receiving units of the past three seasons has been a lack of size. In the second round of the draft, they added 6'3", 216-pound rookie Alshon Jeffery. Part of their plan for Jeffery is pairing him with Marshall and creating a matchup nightmare for opponents in the red zone. if Knox is able to return healthy, he brings elite speed and a deep threat who averaged 19.6 yards per catch last season and 18.8 in 2010. Although Devin Hester’s production has diminished the past two seasons, he provides another dangerous big-time playmaker. Earl Bennett is Cutler’s most trusted receiver, because he’ll willingly cross the middle and work underneath, and he almost always catches everything he touches.
The offensive line has been an issue over the past two seasons, allowing 105 sacks and ranking near the bottom of the NFL when it comes to protecting the quarterback. The only addition has been former 49ers guard Chilo Rachal, but the O-line’s bigger problems have been at the tackles. Last year’s No. 1 pick, Gabe Carimi, will solidify the right side, assuming he’s fully recovered from the dislocated kneecap that sidelined him after just two games last season. But left tackle will remain a trouble spot unless J’Marcus Webb shows great improvement or someone emerges to unseat him. But who? Webb could be helped by the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. New coordinator Mike Tice, promoted from O-line coach, will not leave his left tackle on an island to protect Cutler’s blind side during seven-step drops, as was the case in 2011.
With Forté finally inked to a new long-term contract, he and Bush should form one of the more productive backfield tandems in the league. Bush's presence also should help keep Forté fresh by reducing his workload and the punishment he will sustain through the course of this season.
Every standout player on an above-average defense is over 30. But worry may be premature. Four of those old-timers were voted to the Pro Bowl last season — Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. It may be asking too much for all four to continue playing at the same elite level they have over the past decade, but none of them showed signs of wear last season. All four played all 16 games. But what are the odds they’ll remain that durable for another season?
Clearly, the Bears need more help from supporting players and for younger players to step up and play a bigger role, especially in the pass-rush department. The Bears tied for 19th in the NFL in sacks last season, despite the presence of right end Peppers, who had 11 sacks and still commands double-team attention. Even with offenses focused on Peppers, left end Israel Idonije contributed only five sacks. Up-and-down tackle Henry Melton quietly had seven sacks. But no one else who’s back for 2012 had more than two.
The Bears’ defense depends on getting pass-rush pressure almost exclusively from the linemen with little blitz help from the back seven, who ideally can focus on coverage. When the front four doesn’t produce, an average-at-best secondary is more easily exposed. An upgrade is needed across from Tillman, and the safety position has been a revolving door in Smith’s eight years. The Bears have selected a safety in each of the last eight drafts, but they’re still looking for a winning combination.
First-round pick Shea McClellin is being counted on to goose the pass rush, but it’s tough to imagine where any additional pressure will come from. Without that constant pressure up front, the Bears struggle to create the turnovers that have been a huge part of every successful defense during Smith’s reign. Since 2004, the Bears have 265 takeaways, the most in the NFL and 24 more than the second-place Panthers.
In their eight years under coordinator Dave Toub, the Bears have annually boasted some of the best special teams units in the NFL, and it’s more than Hester’s 17 return touchdowns. And there is much depth behind Hester, including Eric Weems, and Knox if he returns this season. Robbie Gould is the fifth-most accurate placekicker in NFL history, and his kickoffs have gotten longer over the years, while his range on field goals has increased. He was 6-of-6 from 50 yards or farther last season. Punter Adam Podlesh, in his first year with the team, had an impressive 40.4-yard net average.
Final Analysis: 2nd in the NFC North
By almost all accounts the Bears have upgraded the talent on their roster, especially among backups and role players. Their losses in free agency were minimal. But it remains to be seen if they’ve closed the gap with the Lions and, more important, the Packers. Critics could argue that the only elite player they’ve added is Marshall. But the Bears have high hopes for their top two draft picks, McClellin and Jeffery. And they believe that with the addition of Bush and Campbell they will not be susceptible to the type of free-fall they experienced last season when Cutler and Forté went out. They’re hoping to get at least one more Pro Bowl-type year from their four 30-something defensive stalwarts.
Related: 2012 Chicago Bears Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Getting The Band Back Together
Jay Cutler has clamored for a big wide receiver, specifically Brandon Marshall, since he came to the Bears in 2009. But Cutler didn’t really think it would happen. “I’ve talked to anybody and everybody that would listen to me in this building about Brandon Marshall and trying to get him,” Cutler said shortly after the Bears acquired Marshall for two third-round draft picks. “He changes games. When I met with (GM) Phil (Emery), I told him I needed an X. We went and got one of the best in the game.” Marshall has had numerous alcohol-related legal run-ins and has a history of violence against women, but he says he’s getting better since being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Cutler spent three seasons with Marshall in Denver and will be there for his new teammate. “Me and Brandon have a relationship,” Cutler says. “There are times I am going to be tough on him. There are times I’m going to give him a hug. Whatever it calls for, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Coach Lovie Smith, a native of Big Sandy, Texas (population 1,288), can relate to the small-town background of first-round draft pick Shea McClellin, who was raised on a farm by his grandparents in a tiny Idaho town of 1,000. “I texted him and let him know that with 37 in his (high school) graduating class, and since there were 34 in mine, he’s a big-city boy to me,” Smith says. “But we have a spot for him and we’re excited for him to get here.”
Holding His Own
McClellin is considered somewhat of a tweener because he played defensive end and linebacker at Boise State and is “just” 6'3" and 260 pounds. The Bears will play McClellin at defensive end, and Smith has no concerns about his being an every-down player. “Weight is one of the most overrated things there is when you’re talking about a football player,” Smith says. “You’re talking about strength and athletic ability more than that. Shea, believe me, will be able to hold his own with the big boys.”
In his first four NFL seasons, Robbie Gould attempted just two field goals of 50 yards or longer and missed both. In the past three seasons, he’s 11-of-13 from that distance, including 6-of-6 last year.
Sending A Message
Comic book aficionado Lance Briggs’ own creation “Pilot Season: Seraph” came out last year. Briggs teamed with writer Phil Hester and artist Jose Luis to tell the tale of Seraph, a man who, after trying to kill himself, instead becomes blessed with supernatural powers. Briggs says the theme of the comic book is faith and belief.
After being inactive for the first five games last season, second-round defensive tackle Stephen Paea sacked Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb for a safety on the second snap of his NFL career. “I didn’t even know,” Paea says. “I stood up and they said it was a safety.”
The only sack of 2010 fourth-round pick Corey Wootton’s NFL career came against the Vikings on Dec. 20, 2010, and essentially ended the career of Brett Favre, who left with a concussion, never to return. Probably.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 10:Detroit Lions
No. 9:Chicago Bears
No. 8: Wed., August 22
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Related: 2012 Chicago Bears Schedule Analysis