Juggernaut Index No. 9: The Chicago Bears

For many years, the Chicago Bears addressed the wide receiver position by signing castoffs, kick-returners and other lower-tier talents. The team has existed since 1920, yet its all-time leader in career receiving yards, Johnny Morris, ranks just 237th in NFL history — behind such luminaries as OJ McDuffie, Qadry Ismail and Yancey Thigpen. This franchise's single-season record for receptions belongs to Marty Booker. The Bears' single-season yardage mark belongs to Marcus Robinson.


Or at least they aren't the names you'd expect to find in the record book of a 92-year-old team.

But things are changing for the better in 2012. Chicago's front office finally recognized that the NFC North is an arms race, so they acquired Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Marshall from the Dolphins via trade. He is, by orders of magnitude, the most talented receiver to ever wear a Bears uniform. Just six seasons into his NFL career, Marshall is already more than 1,000 yards ahead of Morris in the all-time yardage ranks. He has three 100-catch campaigns on his resume and he's topped the 1,000-yard plateau in five straight seasons.

Simply put, Marshall has been reliably great. Last year, Chicago's receivers were reliably unreliable. Few teams in the NFL upgraded an area of weakness as substantially as the Bears did with their receiving corps this offseason. Well done, GM Phil Emery.

Marshall won't struggle to find his way in the Chicago offense, as he has preexisting rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler, established over three seasons together in Denver. As great as their Broncos years were — Marshall finished as the No. 11 fantasy WR in '08, Cutler as the No. 3 QB — there's no reason to think this pair has peaked. Marshall is just 28, Cutler 29.

Here's the receiver describing the relationship he's forged with Cutler, via the Chicago Sun-Times:

''If you look at our history, we definitely have some chemistry there, and I think it's going to be more special this time around because of where we're at understanding the game, our maturity level,'' Marshall said. ''Honestly, when we look at film from a few years ago, I don't think it was really good. But we have another opportunity to fix those mistakes and put ourselves and our teammates in better positions on the field. We're excited about that.

''I'm just one of the Indians. I'm just following suit. Jay's our leader and I think we have a great one. Now, Jay knows how to manipulate defenses with snap count, body language and hand signals, so it's exciting to see him work.''

Marshall is accustomed to seeing max-attention from defenses, yet he's consistently produced useful fantasy stats. His presence on the field should benefit every other skill player in the Bears offense. Fantasy owners are drafting him in the early rounds as the fifth receiver off the board (ADP 25.2), and deservedly so. Assuming good health, Marshall is basically a lock to rank among the NFL leaders in targets, catches and receiving yardage.

The most interesting supporting players in Chicago's receiving corps are Alshon Jeffery (6-foot-3 rookie, Marshall-like potential), Earl Bennett (slot guy, Cutler favorite), Devin Hester (gadget-play specialist, home run hitter), and Kellen Davis (gigantic tight end, underutilized under Mike Martz). Johnny Knox seems unlikely to appear in a game this season, following last year's horrific back injury.

Jeffery has had little trouble beating man-coverage throughout the preseason. His combination of size, strength and sure-hands will make him a problem for most of the second-tier DBs he'll face. He's particularly interesting in keeper formats, but he'll see enough targets to help fantasy owners in 2012. Davis is an interesting deep-league sleeper, although his position is loaded with talent. The tight end will surely be more than a rumor in the Bears' offense now that Martz is out of town, exiled to a broadcast booth. With Marshall, Jeffery and Davis, this team has a few enormous red zone options. Fourth-round TE Evan Rodriguez has long-term fantasy potential, too, so he belongs in the dynasty conversation. He's seen some preseason work with the first-stringers.

The elevation of Mike Tice to offensive coordinator (from O-line coach) should free Cutler from the rigidity and occasional inanity of Martz's system. The quarterback should have more pre-snap responsibilities, which is presumably a good thing — Cutler had little latitude to make changes at the line in 2010 and 2011. Expect to see play-calling that better suits both Jay's skills (mobility, cannon arm) and the team's personnel, with shorter drops, moving pockets, and assistance for Chicago's not-so-impressive offensive line. Cutler's old position coach from the Denver years, Jeremy Bates, has been added to the coaching staff as well. The Bears are basically doing anything they can to recreate the conditions that led to a 4,500-yard season for Jay in 2008.

If I sound bullish about all this ... well, yeah, I am. For the first time in his Chicago career, Cutler has the weapons necessary to maximize his talent, plus he'll be playing in a scheme that doesn't seem designed kill him. I've invested in Cutler in multiple leagues this season. There's top-8 (top-6?) upside here, provided he remains upright and unbroken. And if he does break, at least the team has upgraded its back-up situation at QB, from Caleb Hanie (a walking plague) to Jason Campbell (meh).

After signing Michael Bush to a four-year deal during the offseason, the Bears have an excess of talent at running back. Matt Forte figures to lead this backfield in touches and should again be a solid PPR contributor, but Bush will have a legit role — in fact, apparently part of the sales-pitch to Bush was the notion that this offense could produce a pair of 1,000-yard backs. That's a lofty objective, one that should terrify fantasy owners, but I can't really see Forte and Bush in a full committee, with a 50/50-ish split.

Before suffering an MCL injury in Week 13 last year, Forte was having an absurd season in terms of total yardage. He gained 1,475 scrimmage yards over Chicago's first 11 games, a pace that would have resulted in a 2,145-yard campaign. He's an excellent receiver and an all-terrain runner, a guy who can be dangerous between the tackles or on the edges. He shouldn't fall far beyond the Round1-Round 2 turn in fantasy drafts, regardless of format. Bush is a threat to poach carries for sure, particularly in short-yardage and goal line situations, but he's not Forte's equal.

We should note that Forte's targets will almost certainly dip this season, so you shouldn't forecast 70-something receptions. (He was on pace for 75 last year, pre-injury). These were Cutler's recent comments about Forte's usage, via the Chicago Tribune:

"He is not going to get as many catches," Jay Cutler said. "I think that is fair to say. We would want to limit that. We have so many guys outside. There are going to be times when we get some coverages that are favorable for him but more importantly we have to get him going in the running game. That is his bread and butter and that is what he is good at and that is what we have to focus on."

You should still expect Forte to catch 45-plus passes for 400-plus yards, so he remains a nice PPR weapon. He and Bush will both benefit from the stresses that Cutler, Marshall & Co. place on opposing defenses.

The Bears' D is an aging group, though it's still full of play-makers. And of course if your league awards points for special teams TDs, this defense gets a Hester bump. Lovie Smith has always focused not merely on generating takeaways, but scoring off turnovers, so Chicago has generally been a fantasy-friendly DEF. The condition of Brian Urlacher's left knee has been a worry this summer, as the eight-time Pro Bowler has apparently undergone multiple procedures, and isn't a lock to play in Week 1. DE Julius Peppers is dealing with plantar fasciitis, but it hasn't sidelined him (or even slowed him) during the preseason. Both Urlacher and Peppers belong on your IDP draft board, along with Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.

And that's that, gamers. This is the first top-10 appearance for Chicago in Juggernaut Index history, and it's only the second time the team has placed in the upper-half. You can't accuse me of hometown bias. (Well, you can, but it's tough to support the claim with old JIs). Please help celebrate the 2012 Bears in comments, maybe with a song. Or you can go full body-paint, like these heroes...

2011 team stats: 22.1 PPG (NFL rank 17), 125.9 rush YPG (9), 209.1 pass YPG (24), 25.02 yards/drive (29), 0.149 turnovers/drive (23)

Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati, 16. Denver, 15. Tennessee, 14. San Diego, 13. Pittsburgh, 12. Baltimore, 11. Dallas, 10. Carolina