For the first time since 2004, this is not Lovie Smith’s team. Marc Trestman was imported from the Canadian Football League with the hope that he could make the Bears a more frequent participant in the postseason. That’s something Smith was able do only once in his final six seasons, including 2012, when the Bears went 10–6 but missed the postseason on a tiebreaker.
The Bears are not in a rebuilding mode, and they shouldn’t be, considering their 29–19 record over the last three seasons. But they will have different looks on both sides of the ball, even though new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will play a 4-3 with some Cover-2, similar to what the Bears ran in the past.
The Bears parted ways with eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher when neither side would budge from the team’s offer of $2 million for the future Hall of Famer, who is 35. There were, however, some positive additions on the other side of the ball. For the first time since quarterback Jay Cutler was acquired, before the 2009 season, he has a Pro Bowl left tackle protecting his blind side: free agent pickup Jermon Bushrod. On the same day the Bears acquired the former Saint, they added Martellus Bennett, giving Cutler a tight end known for his pass-catching skills for the first time since Greg Olsen was traded in July 2011.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 10th
Related: 2013 Chicago Bears Schedule Analysis
Cutler is in the final season of a five-year, $49.7 million deal, and he’s unlikely to get another big deal from the Bears without adding to his career playoff victory total of one.
In his fifth year with the Bears, Cutler has been provided with more talent on the offensive line than he’s ever had in Chicago. Bushrod is the key, bringing the stability and consistency that was lacking. Guard Matt Slauson, a starter the previous three years with the Jets, was also added in free agency, replacing Lance Louis, who signed with the Dolphins. Then the Bears used their first-round pick on guard Kyle Long and their fifth-rounder on tackle Jordan Mills.
Bennett, a complete tight end and a talented receiver, represents a huge upgrade at the position. Together with big, strong wide receiver Brandon Marshall and quick, elusive running back Matt Forté, Cutler has more offensive firepower at his disposal than ever before. GM Phil Emery acquired Marshall before the 2012 season for only a pair of third-round picks because of off-the-field problems, which the 6'4", 230-pounder says were a result of undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder. Emery’s gamble paid off with the most prolific pass-catching season in franchise history (118 receptions, 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns). The Bears hope to be less dependent on Marshall, although he still figures to be the go-to guy.
The protection in front of Cutler will look a lot different. J’Marcus Webb will compete with journeyman Jonathan Scott at right tackle. Gabe Carimi, the 2011 first-round draft pick who was a bust at right tackle in 2012, will get a chance to compete for a spot at guard, along with Slauson and Long. The Bears hope they can get a 12th year out of Roberto Garza at center.
The run game is in the more-than-capable hands of Forté, the primary ball-carrier and a productive pass-catcher. He had more than 50 catches in each of his first four seasons before dipping to 44 last season, when the offense de-emphasized his role in the passing game. Burly but agile Michael Bush is a nice complement to Forté and an effective short-yardage option.
If they stick to Trestman’s plan of using Devin Hester almost exclusively as a return specialist, the Bears need to find a deep threat. They had one in Johnny Knox, but he was unable to come back from a spine injury in 2011. Last year’s second-round pick, 6'3", 216-pound Alshon Jeffery, is more than a possession receiver, and tough Earl Bennett is a reliable underneath target, but there’s no one to stretch the field vertically.
The window is closing on a talented but aging defense, led by three players in their early 30s — seven-time Pro Bowl weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman. Urlacher is gone, as is Nick Roach, the strong-side starter for most of the past five seasons. Former Bronco D.J. Williams was brought in to play the middle, and James Anderson takes over for Roach. But both were signed to one-year contracts, and Williams is 31 and Anderson turns 30 in September. Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, the second- and fourth-round picks, respectively, could represent the Bears’ future at linebacker. Williams injured his calf early in training camp, which provided even more reps for Bostic, who could end up the starter by Week 1.
Tillman’s running mate, feisty little Tim Jennings, also made the Pro Bowl last season on the strength of an NFL-best nine interceptions. Ninth-year veteran Kelvin Hayden is back to play the nickel, but for now, the only proven depth consists of Zack Bowman, who has started only four games since 2009.
The safety position showed an uncharacteristic continuity last season. Strong safety Major Wright and free safety Chris Conte both started every game, until Conte missed the finale with a hamstring injury. In the previous eight seasons, the Bears had made a combined 54 lineup changes at the safety position. There is plenty of depth with veterans Tom Zbikowski and Craig Steltz and youngsters Brandon Hardin and Anthony Walters.
Up front, 3-technique tackle Henry Melton went to his first Pro Bowl, partly due to his six sacks, and 2010 fourth-round pick Corey Wootton had a breakout season, winning the left end job at midseason and contributing seven sacks. Shea McClellin, the 2012 first-round pick, played in the end rotation and showed pass-rush potential. Stephen Paea started 14 games at nose tackle but doesn’t have the ideal size for the position and is best playing in a rotation. There is very little depth inside.
Placekicker Robbie Gould missed the final three games of 2012 with a calf injury, but he’s as reliable as they come, ranking sixth in NFL history in field goal percentage. His kickoffs have gotten longer every season, as has his proficiency at long field goals. Punter Adam Podlesh allowed just 84 return yards on 81 punts. The Bears are counting on a return to form in the return game from Hester, who slumped badly as a punt returner last season but was solid on kickoff returns. Hester failed to score on a return for the first time in three years.
Final Analysis: 3rd in NFC North
The Bears have an almost-all-new coaching staff, and a lot of the personnel also has changed. But Tucker’s 4-3 scheme is not expected to look much different from the defenses of the previous nine years. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and Trestman will run their version of the West Coast offense with a priority on getting rid of the ball quickly. This was a 10–6 team last season that barely missed the playoffs, so anything less than postseason participation will be considered a disappointment.
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New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
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San Francisco (9/3)