The Chicago Bears threw numbers at their defensive problems.
Whether they actually improved a defense that ranked last against the run and 30th overall with effective numbers remains the real question. It's one they may not immediately find an answer to in training camp, and may not know for certain until they begin live hitting in preseason games.
At least on paper, adding defensive ends Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston to replace veterans Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton looks like it addressed the need to be more stout against the run while also improving the pass rush.
"The best defenses play tough and physical," coach Marc Trestman said. "And games are won -- we talk about it every week -- there's a lot of different ways to win, but you seldom win a game if you don't win the line of scrimmage.
"There's seldom a game you win where you can't at least somewhat run the ball effectively and stop the run. It all starts with the line of scrimmage. That has been a big point of emphasis."
In one sense, the Bears have failed to do defensively what they promised when general manager Phil Emery said a goal was to get younger on defense.
The projected starting defensive line is older (33) at three-technique tackle than last year with Jeremiah Ratliff starting instead of former Bear Henry Melton. While Allen is a year younger than Peppers was last year, Houston is a year older than Wootton was. Only at strong-side linebacker, where either Shea McClellin or Jonathan Bostic replace James Anderson, are the Bears decidedly younger. If the Bears wind up starting rookie safety Brock Vereen, the secondary will be younger -- and far less experienced. As it stands now, the starting secondary is older than last year, as well.
However, the coaches see a defense coming into camp that plays younger.
"The addition of Lamarr and Willie and of course Jared, there's an element of energy and focus and maturity in there and that's not even inclusive of the guys who have been with us," defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "And then we've got some young guys obviously some new guys who bring some young legs and life to the room.
"I think they're all doing a good job of working together and when you watch practice, they never stop working, from start to finish."
It's also one they think will be more physical.
"We're putting a premium on toughness and being rugged and being stout," Tucker said. "And having tremendous anchor in our D-line and being able to control blockers."
Much was made of the defense changing tactics to include possible two-gap approaches or even 3-4 looks, but ultimately they are going to take the same approach and hope for better results both against the run and the pass.
"I think we're going to be better one-on-one with a four-man rush, obviously," Tucker said. "But then when you add guys to the rush I think you have more opportunities.
"I think we'll be able to win (one on one). I think we'll have good coverage behind it. We've added a couple different schemes and packages, and a couple fronts, and things like that, that are going to help, but at the end of the day we need to be able to get pressure with four guys, and we're going to work to do that. But when we call guys numbers, add someone to the rush, in the run game or in the pass game, it's for a reason - we're not going to do it just to do it."
Regardless of strategy and emphasis, it appears Emery at least achieved his goal of fortifying the defensive depth in the line.
"We were at least one defensive lineman short," he said when last year ended, and blamed himself.
The defensive front enters camp so deep that they felt comfortable cutting former Bear Israel Idonije after OTAs.
Now the question is whether all the numbers add up to better play by a defensive front that looks to improve at least to middle of the pack to complement one of the league's most explosive offenses.
Players report: July 24.
First practice: July 25.
Camp ends: Aug. 13.
--The late June signing of five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson fits in largely as potential depth as general manager Phil Emery took a flyer on an aged veteran safety (35 in October) who is recovering from a torn Achilles.
At the worst, Wilson is someone who can help show the other safeties how to be more physical and even blitz better. The Bears' safeties have never blitzed much, but some of the defense's tactical changes this season may call more for this.
Although a safety, Wilson has 25.5 career sacks, which is more than any Bears player except defensive end Jared Allen (128.5) and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff (28.5)
--Quarterback Jimmy Clausen's experience probably made it possible for him to be retained as the team takes four quarterbacks to camp.
"No. 1 is how he handled the (quarterback) room," coach Marc Trestman said. "As I've said many times, that room is hugely important, the chemistry, the karma, whatever you want to call it, the communication has got to be good. Jimmy has done a very good job, very maturely fit in and taken the place of trying to learn and work to learn the offense.
"He's grinding at it, as well. He's spent long hours here. He's had help from the guys in the room to get him where he is today."
Clausen by far has the most starting experience of the backups on the roster. He started 10 games and played in 13 with Carolina as a rookie in 2010, but hasn't played since then.
Clausen has at least one "fan" in starter Jay Cutler.
"I watched Jimmy when he was at Notre Dame. Liked him," Cutler said. "He was in a tough situation out there in Carolina. Offensive line was pretty rough; he was getting hit a lot. The system turned over on him.
"He throws the ball well. I didn't have any input on bringing him here though."
--Trestman refuses to tab Marquess Wilson the No. 3 receiver yet, largely because of the experienced competition he has for the spot.
"Certainly, I think Jay feels comfortable with him out there," Trestman said. "They communicate well together. And we're excited. But we're going to wait and see.
"We're not going to be easy on guys when they get these opportunities. They don't want to be anointed and I certainly don't want to anoint them. They've got to earn it."
Chris Williams, Josh Bellamy, Josh Morgan and Eric Weems are the other players who've been looked at for No. 3 and 4.
Two other players who signed on later as possible return replacements for Devin Hester, Anthony Spurlock and Armanti Edwards, also will get shots with the receiver group.
"They catch the ball well," Trestman said. "They haven't had a lot of the targets the other guys have had. They're very good in the meeting room, they're showing the ability to learn the offense and they're going to compete. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do in camp."
--Trestman won't give a nod to the backup running back leader, just as he won't at backup receiver.
Rookie Ka'Deem Carey has competition from Michael Ford, who was impressive in preseason last year. And a few other players figure in, like former Louisville back Senorise Perry, Shaun Draughn and undrafted rookie Jordan Lynch, the former Northern Illinois quarterback.
"I think Michael Ford has really progressed," Trestman said. "I'm going to be curious obviously to see what Ka'Deem does, everybody knows what he did at the college level, and where he'll be in these (preseason) games."
--Team strength: Starting wide receivers.
Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery combined for 2,716 receiving yards last year during Jeffery's breakout year, and unlike last year both enter training camp 100 percent healthy. Marshall last year was coming off hip surgery and took until at least a month into the season before he felt at or approaching 100 percent. Jeffery now has two years experience.
Few teams have one receiver with the combination speed and athletic ability of one of these two, and with two the Bears always seem to have an open option. With tight end Martellus Bennett and with Marquess Wilson starting to assert himself, it's possible one or both could have fewer catches. However, if this happens, it's possible the big-play threat will increase and their yards-per-catch average will go up. If Jay Cutler is able to go the entire season, their touchdown totals could increase, as well.
--Breakout player: Linebacker Jonathan Bostic.
The second-year linebacker has Shea McClellin for competition on the strong side, and because of his speed and last year's starting experience at linebacker, he could be the odds-on favorite to be a nickel package starter alongside Lance Briggs. Last year, Bostic seemed so fast he overran plays and didn't understand the nuances of the defensive scheme from the middle linebacker spot. His speed-size combination may make him a better fit on the outside; actually he might be a better Will than Sam backer, but isn't taking Lance Briggs' spot yet. Coaches have been working with him more on breaking down and getting the tackle, and on recognizing his lane of responsibility. Also, play from the outside is less complicated. Without veteran James Anderson in the mix, Bostic should get more of a shot at regular playing time and develop quickly.
--Fantasy football reality check: Running back Ka'Deem Carey.
He could be a late-round or pick-up type player who could greatly benefit a fantasy player. The rookie from Arizona is an all-purpose type, but his real strength is getting into a hole and through it quickly. The Bears have been looking for an effective short-yardage and goal-line back for years because Matt Forte is viewed more as a long strider and big-play threat who often comes out in short yardage. Carey could get to finish many drives that Forte makes possible.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Cutler enjoys a benefit rare during his nine-year career by starting in the same offense in successive seasons. He brings this advantage and one of the league's strongest arms together with what seems to be a more mature approach as he attempts to be known as both a team leader and exceptional athlete. Whether Cutler can get rid of the ball quick enough to stay healthy appears to be the biggest question he faces heading into the season. The Bears have put a trio of passers with questionable arms and even less experience behind him after losing Josh McCown. Clausen has started, but not since 2010, and he lacks a big arm. Palmer might have a better arm, but no career starts and only 15 career attempts. Fales showed little in OTAs in terms of arm strength, but ran an offense in college with a similar approach to the Bears. If Cutler knows better where to send the ball in his second year within the offense, it's good because he'll probably have to get rid of it quicker to avoid injury at all costs and keep this questionable group of backups on the bench.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Matt Forte. Backups - Ka'Deem Carey, Michael Ford, Shaun Draughn, Senorise Perry, Jordan Lynch, FB Tony Fiammetta.
Forte has few equals as an all-purpose, game-breaking type. Even Adrian Peterson can't measure up to him as a receiver, and playing in a more diverse, multi-dimensional, more talented offense last season made Forte even more dangerous as some of the opposing defense's focus finally shifted away from him. His short-yardage and goal-line struggles have been somewhat overexaggerated, but his long-striding style is probably better out of spread formations than in the tighter formation near the goal line. More effective run blocking could make him a threat to break some short-yardage carries for long touchdowns. So it works both ways. Regardless, he'll likely receive fewer attempts in short yardage if Carey displays the type of skills he had in college as a dependable tackle breaker. Ford's style seemed more along the lines of Forte's last year, and in preseason. Draughn is a veteran who flashed versatility before being cut in Baltimore and Kansas City. He's averaged 3.7 yards a carry but hasn't displayed breakaway potential. Lynch is a long-term project and the Bears may not have the time for this. An all-around athlete and Northern Illinois quarterback, he would fit in as a gimmick player that could throw a pass out of running formations, run a wildcat or even be a blocker and receiver. Perry is an undersized speed-type back with potential as a return man and as a receiver. Fiammetta probably can handle a bit more diverse role than he was given last year when he was just a blocker.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Martellus Bennett. Backups - Dante Rosario, Matthew Mulligan, Jeron Mastrud, Zach Miller.
Coming off the second-best year in terms of catches (65) of any Bears tight end ever, Bennett appears to have put his name in among the league's best at a position being used more than ever for big plays. Bennett's speed and reach as a 6-foot-6, 265-pound player make him a good complement to Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. His strength and size allow him to set an edge on stretch or toss plays, and the Bears sometimes use his blocking skills well with counter-toss plays to Forte. Last year the Bears got through without much backup help. Rosario is an H-back type and not an in-line blocker at 242 pounds. He was an effective backfield blocker who has more potential than the one catch he made last year. Mulligan, Mastrud and Miller all fit the same mold as possible special teams-blocking-short catch types who could be a third tight end if the team decided to keep a third player at that spot.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery. Backups - Marquess Wilson, Josh Bellamy, Josh Morgan, Terrence Tolliver, Eric Weems, Chris Williams, Armanti Edwards, Micheal Spurlock.
The Marshall-Jeffery threat for receiving, athleticism and ability to run with the ball afterward is difficult for any team to match. Only Houston's Andre Johnson (221) has more catches among NFL receivers than Marshall (218) has had since he became a Bear in 2012. The expectation for Marshall and Jeffery both in a second year within this offense is more open catches downfield and less reliance on their ability to make leaping catches in a crowd. Much of this will depend on Cutler and his offensive line. Beyond these two, the Bears are in trouble. Wilson has added 10 pounds and is much stronger, but has one career catch and no idea how to beat NFL defensive backs consistently. He's also more a long strider and not the choppy-stepped, good-hands, power type who seems a better fit in the slot. Between those three, there is no Olympic-speed class of receiver, although all three have good speed. Morgan, Bellamy and Williams have shown some ability, but none are sure-handed. Edwards and Spurlock are on the roster more as special teams players. Weems often looks the best among all those fighting for the No. 3 and No. 4 spot in practices because of his experience in the league and the system.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Matt Slauson, C Roberto Garza, RG Kyle Long, RT Jordan Mills. Backups - G/T James Brown, G/T Eben Britton, C Brian de la Puente, C Taylor Boggs, G James Dunbar, G Ryan Groy, T Cody Booth, T Charles Leno Jr., T Joe Long, T Michael Ola.
Only Mills last year displayed a big need for improvement, as one of the least effective pass blockers at tackle in the NFL according to the stat geeks at profootballfocus.com. Still, he was light years ahead of past tackles. Bushrod proved to some skeptics that he was an effective left tackle after coming over from New Orleans. Slauson was good enough at guard to warrant a new contract and Long made the Pro Bowl, albeit as a reserve. Garza is 35 and the unquestioned leader of the line. It would seem that signing de la Puente gave them an insurance policy in case age catches up with him. Garza never has been a standout short-yardage blocker, but is dependable to very good in the regular running game and in pass blocking. This line has more depth than some other recent Bears lines, as de la Puente, Brown and Britton all have played before. Britton, Ola and Leno Jr. could be challengers for Mills if he slips. Overall a weak short-yardage and goal-line blocking group that needs to become more consistent in the running game. Much improved as pass blockers, but the scheme also allows for shorter pass drops and helps them here.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DRE Jared Allen, DLE Lamarr Houston, DT Stephen Paea, DT Jeremiah Ratliff. Backups - E Willie Young, E Cornelius Washington, E David Bass, E Austen Lane, E Jamil Merrell, E Tracy Robertson, E Trevor Scott, T Nate Collins, T Ego Ferguson, T Will Sutton, T Brandon Dunn, T Lee Pegues.
The addition of Houston on the left side immediately makes the defense more stout against the run, although it doesn't do a lot for the pass rush. However, the Bears are turning back to the well-proven belief that you must earn the right to rush the passer first by stopping the run. Last year they earned nothing as run-stoppers and then finished last in sacks, as well. Young figures to come in as a situational pass rusher after some moments of brilliance in Detroit. The Bears think they will be energized on the line by Allen, whose greatest pass-rush strength is a high motor. The talk about being more stout on the edge by coaches is well and good, but the defense couldn't stop the run up the middle last year, either, and it's difficult to see how they've improved much with a 33-year-old Ratliff and often-injured Paea playing tackles. The rookie duo of Ferguson-Sutton is likely to get plenty of playing time. Collins also could make ths team, depending on his surgically repaired knee. Coaches could keep a 10-man defensive line, maybe 11. At worst, this is a much deeper group than last year and that was a major fault with an 8-8 team.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Lance Briggs, MLB D.J. Williams, OLB Jonathan Bostic. Backups - Shea McClellin, Khaseem Greene, Jerry Franklin, Christian Jones, DeDe Lattimore, Conor O'Neill, Jordan Senn.
Briggs appears back in form at age 33 after a shoulder injury cost him half of last year, while Williams' return from a torn pec muscle is expected to strengthen a run defense that was still above average before he went on injured reserve. Bostic has been working at all three positions after struggling as a rookie to take on a veteran's responsibilities. McClellin has been a linebacker before -- in college -- so dropping off the line and rushing the passer or covering receivers is not new. It's just going to take some adjustments. In OTAs, his ability to drop deep with tight ends appeared questionable. Greene got pressed into a starting role part of last year, but struggled even more than Bostic. Senn is an outstanding special teams player taking the role Blake Costanzo had. It's a linebacker group with talent, but the same problems as last year are there: relying on older starters with young, unproven backups.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Charles Tillman, CB Tim Jennings, S Ryan Mundy, S Chris Conte. Backups - S Craig Steltz, S M.D. Jennings, S Brock Vereen, S Adrian Wilson, CB Kelvin Hayden, CB Kyle Fuller, CB Isaiah Frey, CB Demontre Hurst, CB Al Louis-Jean, CB Sherrick McManis, CB Derricus Purdy, CB C.J. Wilson.
Although getting up in age, the cornerback group is among the team's strengths. Bringing in Fuller in the first round, with Hayden still on the roster behind Tillman and Jennings makes corner easily the deepest position on defense and will make the outsides tough to reach for passers and receivers. They can go three deep with starters at nickel, with Frey also possessing a year experience at this spot, where it appears Jennings will play. The middle should be far more open for opposing offenses with Conte no sure thing to be a starter following shoulder surgery. He may not even be ready by training camp. Mundy was not regarded a high-quality starter when the Bears signed him and Jennings wasn't wanted in Green Bay. Vereen's speed and athletic ability make it possible he'll win a starting spot despite his lack of experience. The pass rush better be effective because covering the deep middle of the field could be a problem.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Robbie Gould, P Pat O'Donnell, LS Chad Rempel, PR Eric Weems, KOR Armanti Edwards, P Tress Way, KOR Micheal Spurlock, KOR Chris Williams, LS Brandon Hartson.
Gould is often remembered for missing a key kick against the Vikings that eventually helped keep the Bears out of the playoffs, but he tied a career high in percentage (89.7) and is fourth in league history at 50 yards and longer. He remains among the best in the league. The punting battle, return battles and long snapper battles will likely go on throughout training camp and preseason unless someone immediately takes charge. O'Donnell seemed a sure thing until Way began booming punts during OTAs. Bears coverage and blockers on return teams should be deeper than in recent years with McManis, Senn and Steltz among those with experience filling key roles. The long snapper battle is completely foreign to the Bears after Patrick Mannelly manned the spot under four different head coaches before retiring in June. If past ties have anything to do with it, look for Williams and Rempel to win special teams spots on the roster since they played in the CFL, Trestman's former place of employment.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--DT Landon Cohen (not tendered as UFA).
--LS Patrick Mannelly (not tendered as UFA).
--T Jonathan Scott (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGNETS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--CB Kyle Fuller (1/14): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--DT Ego Ferguson (2/51): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--DT Will Sutton (3/82): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Ka'Deem Carey (4/117): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Brock Vereen (4/131): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--QB David Fales (6/183): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--P Pat O'Donnell (6/191): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--T Charles Leno (7/246): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--T/G Eben Britton: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Nate Collins: Potential UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--QB Jay Cutler: Potential UFA; $126.7M/7 yrs, $54M guaranteed.
--C Robert Garza: Potential UFA; $1.5M/1 yr, $100,000 SB.
--K Robbie Gould: Potential UFA; $15M/4 yrs, $3M SB/$8.85M guaranteed.
--CB Kelvin Hayden: Potential UFA; $855,000/1 yr.
--CB Tim Jennings: Potential UFA; $22.4M/4 yrs, $3M SB/$11.8M guaranteed.
--CB Sherrick McManis: UFA; $730,000/1 yr.
--QB Jordan Palmer: Potential UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Jeremiah Ratliff: Potential UFA; $4M/2 yrs, $600,000 SB.
--TE Dante Rosario: FA; terms unknown.
--G Matt Slauson: Potential UFA; $12.8M/4 yrs, $1.67M SB/$4.9M guaranteed.
--S Craig Steltz: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Charles Tillman: UFA; $3.25M/1 yr, $500,000 SB.
--LB D.J. Williams: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Jared Allen: UFA Vikings; $32M/4 yrs, $15.5M guaranteed.
--WR Josh Bellamy (waivers Redskins).
--QB Jimmy Clausen: Not tendered as UFA by Panthers; terms unknown.
--C Brian de la Puente: UFA Saints; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR/KR Armanti Edwards: FA; terms unknown.
--DE Lamarr Houston: UFA Raiders; $35M/5 yrs, $4.95M SB/$15M guaranteed.
--S M.D. Jennings: Not tendered as RFA by Packers; terms unknown.
--TE Jeron Mastrud: Not tendered as UFA by Raiders; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--S Danny McCray: UFA Cowboys; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Zach Miller: FA; $645,000/1 yr.
--WR Josh Morgan: UFA Redskins; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Matthew Mulligan: UFA Patriots; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--S Ryan Mundy: UFA Giants; $3M/2 yrs, $650,000 SB.
--TE Fendi Onobun: FA; $1.23M/2 yrs.
--DE Trevor Scott: FA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Jordan Senn: UFA Panthers; $795,000/1 yr.
--WR/KR Micheal Spurlock: Not tendered as UFA by Lions; terms unknown.
--S Adrian Wilson: FA Patriots; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Willie Young: UFA Lions; $9M/3 yrs, $2M SB/$3.95M guaranteed.
--LB James Anderson: Not tendered as UFA/Patriots; terms unknown.
--WR Earl Bennett (released).
--CB Zack Bowman: UFA Giants; terms unknown.
--RB Michael Bush (released).
--LB Blake Costanzo: Not tendered as UFA/49ers; terms unknown.
--KR Devin Hester: UFA Falcons; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--QB Josh McCown: UFA Buccaneers; $10M/2 yrs.
--DT Henry Melton: UFA Cowboys; $27.5M/4 yrs, $1.25M SB ($24M is in final three years).
--DE Julius Peppers (released).
--P Adam Podlesh (released).
--S Anthony Walters: Not tendered as ERFA/Cardinals; terms unknown.
--DE Corey Wootton: UFA Vikings; $1.5M/1 yr, $400,000 SB.
--S Major Wright: UFA Buccaneers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
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