A year ago Bears general manager Phil Emery and new coach Marc Trestman spent the offseason rebooting an offense that was one of the NFL’s worst.
The results were impressive. The Bears jumped from No. 28 to No. 8 in total yards, from No. 28 to No. 3 in yards per play, from No. 29 to No. 5 in passing yards and from No. 27 to No. 4 in sack percentage allowed.
This year the attention of the front office and the coaching staff was focused on a defense that was an embarrassment in 2013. No defense in the NFL was worse last year in rushing yards, average gain per rushing play and total yards per play allowed. The Bears also allowed a franchise-worst 478 points. The problems began up front, so the top three free-agent signings were all defensive ends, and four of their first five draft picks addressed defensive weaknesses.
The goal was to keep intact a unit that scored more points than any team except the Broncos. Mission accomplished. Quarterback Jay Cutler was given a seven-year, $126 million extension, guaranteeing that he’ll be running the attack for the foreseeable future. The hope is that with the security of a lucrative long-term deal, in addition to the most productive wide receiver tandem in the NFC and a multi-talented Pro Bowl running back, Cutler will finally join the elite class of quarterbacks. Not that Cutler was bad last year. His 89.2 passer rating was the highest of his eight seasons. But 12 players had higher passer ratings, including his backup, Josh McCown, who was almost 20 points higher at 109.0. McCown is the only significant contributor from last year who is gone, signed by the Buccaneers. That leaves veterans Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen and sixth-round rookie David Fales to compete for backup roles.
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In Trestman’s first year, the Bears threw the ball 94 more times than they did in Lovie Smith’s final season. That shouldn’t change with targets like 6'4", 230-pound Brandon Marshall and 6'3", 216-pound Alshon Jeffery creating mismatches all over the field. Both players were voted to the Pro Bowl, and deservedly so. Marshall caught 100 balls for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jeffery piled up 1,421 yards on 89 catches with seven touchdowns and 16.0 yards per catch. Matt Forté had career bests of 74 catches, 594 receiving yards and 1,339 rushing yards. Throw in tight end Martellus Bennett’s 65 catches and 759 yards, and it makes sense that the Bears will continue to chuck it all over the lot. Last year’s No. 3 receiver, Earl Bennett, was cut, but the team was hopeful 2013 seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson would emerge during training camp to claim that role. Unfortunately, Wilson fractured his left clavicle and he is expected to miss a few games, at minimum. The Bears signed veteran Santonio Holmes, who will compete with journeymen Josh Morgan and Domenik Hixon for the remaining wide receiver spots.
The rebuilt O-line played a major role in facilitating the aerial circus. With new starters in four of five spots, the sack total dipped from 44 to 30 despite the increase in pass attempts. It helped tremendously that the Bears started the same five players at the same positions for all 16 games. That included first-round pick Kyle Long at right guard and fifth-round pick Jordan Mills at right tackle. The other new starters were free-agent additions Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and Matt Slauson at left guard. They all merged impressively under the leadership of center Roberto Garza, who re-signed for one year, his 14th. Versatile Eben Britton saw extensive playing time as a sixth offensive lineman in an alignment the Bears used frequently. If the 35-year-old Garza starts to show his age — he hasn’t yet — Brian de la Puente was signed in free agency to step into that role.
The Bears waived good-bye to eight-time Pro Bowl end Julius Peppers, who signed with the rival Packers after showing up on film only occasionally last season — not nearly enough to justify has $18 million price tag. Tackle Henry Melton is gone as well. But the Bears’ D-line should be improved this year. They signed three starting-caliber ends in free agency, including former Viking Jared Allen, who had 11.5 sacks last season. Allen is 32, but that’s two years younger than Peppers, and he’ll be paid about half of what Peppers would have made. Allen has traditionally played a higher percentage of snaps than almost every NFL D-lineman. But he won’t have to carry such a heavy load, since the Bears also signed former Raider Lamarr Houston, one of the NFL’s best run-defenders among ends, and ex-Lion Willie Young, who still has upside at 28. Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea are the probable starters inside, but the Bears hope to use a rotation, which should include Nate Collins and rookies Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson.
Emery has said that seven-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs is the only linebacker guaranteed to start. D.J. Williams was signed a year ago to succeed Brian Urlacher, but a chest injury ended his season after six games. He was re-signed for one more year but will have to hold off a challenge from 2013 second-round pick Jon Bostic, who got nine starts last year and showed flashes but also was prone to rookie mistakes. Last year’s 16-game starter on the strong side, James Anderson, was not re-signed. But Shea McClellin is moving from end to linebacker, and the hope is he will provide another pass-rush threat from his new spot.
The Bears hope to get another year at cornerback from the tandem of Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. The 6'2" Tillman is invaluable for his ability to handle the league’s biggest receivers, while the feisty 5'8" Jennings plays bigger than his size. Both players are tough in run support, but Tillman missed half of last season with a triceps injury and he’s 33. That’s why the Bears used their first-round pick on cornerback Kyle Fuller, who should be the nickel until taking over for Tillman. Safety was a mess last year. Strong safety Major Wright was allowed to leave in free agency. Free safety Chris Conte, who may not be 100 percent healthy for the start of training camp after shoulder surgery, will have to play a lot better than he did last year to keep his job. The Bears added four safeties in free agency — Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Adrian Wilson and Danny McCray — but fourth-round pick Brock Vereen could wind up starting.
There are several candidates to replace Devin Hester, maybe the greatest return specialist of all time, including receivers Hixon, Chris Williams, running back Shaun Draughn and Darius Reynaud, who was signed halfway through training camp. The Bears will also have a new punter after Adam Podlesh was cut. The favorite is sixth-round draft pick Pat O’Donnell. Robbie Gould is the third-most accurate placekicker in NFL history and has hit 16-of-19 from 50 yards or farther in the past five years.
If the remaking of the defense comes close to matching the success that similar efforts had on the offense last year, the Bears will be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and just the second time in eight years.