Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
To judge the Chicago Bears on their 2013 defense is a mistake.
That unit was terrible. The main reasons were a shoddy defensive line, two rookie linebackers pressed into action because of injuries making typical rookie mistakes in diagnosing plays, lack of depth at cornerback and really bad safety play. This year's defense will look a lot different.
Last year's rookie linebackers, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, will be better. And if they're not, the Bears aren't relying heavily on them. Veterans D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs are back from injury-plagued seasons. Check.
The Bears used their first-round pick on cornerback Kyle Fuller, who got rave reviews in the first days of training camp. The team also brought back veteran cornerback Charles Tillman. Check.
At safety, well, the team is hoping something works out. Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Adrian Wilson were added. Brock Vereen was drafted in the fourth round. This is still a work in progress, at best, but it can't get worse than last year.
The Bears understood their situation very well after last season. The offense, now entering its second year with brilliant head coach Marc Trestman, is going to be as good as it gets in the NFL. The receiver tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery is the best in the NFL. Matt Forte is a great back. Martellus Bennett is a dangerous tight end. Jay Cutler has the physical ability to be very good. The offense is no problem at all.
What the team needed was defense, and between smart free-agent signings, players returning from injuries and a defensive-heavy draft class, the Bears will be much better on that side of the ball.
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Nobody would argue that the Bears blew a chance last year, including that incredible fourth-and-8 touchdown they allowed to Green Bay's Randall Cobb in Week 17 to lose the division. That won't happen this year. The Bears are ready to make a big jump.
2013 review in less than 25 words: The Bears lost four of their last six games, including a heartbreaker in the finale to the Packers, to finish 8-8.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Much better, for all the defensive help. If the Bears get at least reasonable contributions from most of the first four defensive players selected (Fuller, Ferguson, Sutton and Vereen) and have a little better injury luck on that side of the ball, the improvement in the depth on the defense will be startling. The Bears knew the offense was in good shape, so they invested a ton of resources into the defense. That was smart.
Best offseason acquisition: Houston was a fine two-way end with the Raiders and just turned 27. He won't be a pass-rushing menace, but that's why the team signed Allen and Young. The defensive line needed an anchor, and Houston will fill that role spectacularly. He should have a big year in Chicago.
Achilles heel: While the Bears added three defensive ends in free agency, the tackle spot is a little concerning. If Ferguson and Sutton play like rookies, the depth could suffer. Among the veterans asking to shoulder most of the load, Jeremiah Ratliff will turn 33 before the season starts, and Stephen Paea and Nate Collins dealt with injuries last year. Between all these players you'd figure that a few play well in 2014, but it's worth monitoring to see who steps forward.
Position in flux: The Bears seem serious about giving Vereen a shot to start at safety. No matter how good Vereen has looked this offseason, starting a fourth-round rookie draft pick is rarely ideal. But when the other option is starting Jennings, who was not a very good safety in Green Bay, you can see why the Bears are intrigued by the rookie. Mundy is penciled in as the strong safety, and he was a special teams player for four seasons in Pittsburgh before a decent season with the Giants (10 starts) last year. The Bears were unspeakably bad at safety last year, but we'll see if it's much better this season.
Ready to break out: Shea McClellin fits the bill of a former first-round pick who is getting every chance to win a starting job, this time at strong-side linebacker, but I'm not sure that ship is ever coming in. Instead I'll go with Bostic, who doesn't even have a starting job right now. I like Bostic's talent and think the Bears figure out a way to get him in the lineup. He was spectacular last preseason, and that's hard to forget. There were times he looked totally lost last regular season, but he was a rookie. I think he'll be a starter for most of the season, and he'll have a pretty good second year, too.
Stat fact: Jay Cutler, who signed a seven-year, $126 million contract this offseason, has never posted a quarterback rating of 90 or better in a season. The much-maligned Tony Romo, for comparison's sake, has posted eight ratings of 90 or better in eight seasons as Dallas' starter. Cutler has made one Pro Bowl, in 2008, when he had a big year for Mike Shanahan in Denver and one of his fellow AFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks was Kerry Collins. So it has been a while. Cutler has also made just one playoff appearance. He's 31, so he's not still a young player. And last season, journeyman Josh McCown outplayed Cutler in just about every statistical way – in the same offense with the same teammates – when McCown started five games because Cutler was out. That might say way more about Cutler than McCown, who had 10 forgettable seasons before 2013.
Say what you will about Cutler's physical skills, and they're tremendous (I saw him make a breathtaking throw to Javon Walker in Arizona as a rookie that most human beings could never make, so I'm aware), but at some point results matter too, and he's been an average or maybe an above-average quarterback most of his career. However, Cutler could have a big year this season. His supporting cast is so good, he might even be a MVP candidate. But if he does, it will be a complete breakthrough, because despite all the (admittedly true) noise about his unbelievable arm and great athleticism, he has never been a great quarterback. And we're working with an eight-year sample size by now.
Schedule degree of difficulty: The Bears start off with four of six on the road, but if they can survive that, they'll be rewarded at the end of the season. Chicago has a stretch of five home games in six weeks, from Week 11 to Week 16. If they're in a good spot after a Week 10 game at Green Bay, they could start to make their move to win the NFC North in those six weeks.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: It's the NFC North title, and it's a first-round bye. There's no reason the NFC North champs can't beat the East and South champs for a bye, or even beat the West champs for a top seed if that division beats up on each other all year (which it might). If the changes on defense boost it from one of the worst in the NFL to an average or above average unit, and everything comes together for Cutler (finally) and he has that MVP-type season for the first time, the Bears can go a long way ... though it's still tough to see them beating the NFC West champ.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Maybe the defense just doesn't mesh. If the rookies play like rookies, there was a good reason Allen didn't get a ton of buzz on the free-agent market, the safeties aren't any better than last year's sorry crew, then the defense might again be among the worst in the league again. No matter how good Trestman's offense is going to be, it's hard to win without a defense.
The crystal ball says: The only reason I'd pick Green Bay over Chicago in the NFC North is Aaron Rodgers. While that's no minor reason, I think the Bears defense will improve a ton and the offensive talent is pretty ridiculous. I think Trestman will be even better in his second year, and while I'm a bit skeptical on Cutler, I do think this is his big season we've all been waiting for. They win the NFC North, although matchups will dictate how far they go in what will be an incredibly competitive NFC playoffs.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. Green Bay Packers
8. Indianapolis Colts
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