By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The Bears were on track for a playoff season until Jay Cutler’s broken thumb left them high and dry after a victory over the Chargers with a 7-3 record.
They were forced to play an incapable backup in Caleb Hanie and the Bears suffered loss after loss and fell out of the playoff picture. Backup quarterback is one of the Bears offseason needs that new general manager Phil Emery will have to address. Here’s a look at the Bears needs as well as the rest of the NFC North:
In addition to finding a backup quarterback who won’t fall apart if Cutler gets hurt, the Bears need a big-time wide receiver who can give Cutler a competent target. The horrific back injury suffered by Johnny Knox may keep him from playing again. Earl Bennett is a competent receiver but not a go-to guy. Roy Williams is stealing money and the Devin Hester experiment should be considered over.
As always, the Bears need help on the offensive line. First-round picks like Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi are still unproven and that’s not acceptable. The Bears need to select offensive linemen who are not injured.
The Bears could also use a big-play tight end. Under Mike Martz, the Bears eschewed the tight end who could go down the field and make plays. That strategy worked well for the New England Patriots with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. New England had two tight ends who could spread the defense but Mrs. Butterworth would have none of it. No wonder he was shunted off into retirement.
The Green Bay Packers were the best team in football for nearly all of the season before it fell apart in the playoffs against the Giants.
Clay Matthews is one of the league’s best outside linebackers, but the Packers are barren on the opposite side. Erik Walden was not good in the second half of the season so they need to fill this position.
The cornerback spot could be a big trouble spot. Charles Woodson has lost a step as he returns for his 15th year in the NFL and may be a better safety than corner at this point in his career. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields were much better in 2010 than they were last year. This position needs to be replenished.
It appeared that the Packers might need to go after a tight end since Jermichael Finley had reached the end of his deal. The two sides agreed to a new deal Feb. 22 that will pay Finley $14 million in 2012 and 2013. The Packers debated before making the move because he had some key drops in the playoff loss to the Giants.
The Lions made a huge move up the standings in 2011 and became a playoff team. They look like they will remain a contender for many years, thanks to the strong arm of improving quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The Lions need to get Stafford better blocking, a solid running game and a defense that can take the ball away from opponents consistently.
Left tackle Jeff Backus will likely move on as a free agent. That means the Lions will need a new anchor on the left side because right tackle Gosder Cherilus would not be able to protect Stafford’s back side. They also need depth at the guard position.
The Lions were hoping rookie Mikel Leshoure would give them a top-notch running game last year, but an Achilles injury ruined his season. Speedy Jahvid Best suffered two concussions and that makes it difficult to count on him. That makes both of these running back positions an important need this offseason.
The Lions get great pressure from their defensive line but the secondary needs to get better, particularly at the safety position. Louis Delmas is talented at free safety but he has injury issues. Amari Spievey is not good enough at strong safety because he seems to be overwhelmed by coverage responsibilities.
The Vikings have more needs than any other team in the division. They probably feel secure at quarterback because they believe in Christian Ponder, but they must get him a strong blocker who can handle the left tackle position.
After that priority, they also need a game-changing wide receiver. Percy Harvin has the talent but he is injury prone.
On the defensive side, middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is likely gone through free agency so they will need a smart and aggressive player in the middle.
Cornerback must also be addressed since Antoine Winfield is now an older player who has slowed down and Cedric Griffin can’t run the way he once did because of two injured knees. If the Vikings don’t improve their coverage, they will struggle again next year.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.