By Steve Silverman
(CBS) It’s the middle of May and training camp is still 2-plus months away.
That means it’s the perfect time to look at the Chicago Bears and assess their prospects for the 2012 season.
There’s every reason to believe that the Bears are going to be contenders for a playoff spot this season and may be able to push the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. But to call the Bears favorites in the NFC is off-course.
The Bears have done a lot of heavy lifting in the offseason by bringing in a talented wide receiver like Brandon Marshall and a power running back in Michael Bush. The drafting of Shea McLellin appears to be a boom-or-bust move that could pay dividends if he is strong enough to take on blockers and cast them aside. General manager Phil Emery believes he is; many NFL scouts question whether he will be able to compete in this area. Rookie Alshon Jeffery has major-league hands and must show he can stay in shape and get open.
But there are a couple of specifics that the Bears have to be concerned about as they prepare for the upcoming season. One of those areas has been a concern for a long time – the offensive line. Jay Cutler talked about those concerns recently and it’s something that has probably kept Emery and the Bears’ coaching staff up many nights. They probably wouldn’t admit it because that’s not the Bears’ way, but it’s hard to look at the offensive line and think that it’s a unit that will be able to keep Cutler upright and open huge holes for (holdout) Matt Forte and Bush.
Start with J’Marcus Webb at left tackle. This is supposed to be your best blocker and offensive coordinator Mike Tice has expressed confidence in Webb’s ability to become a dependable player. However, that confidence is not based on anything Webb did during last year’s 16-game season. He often appears anxious with happy feet and he’s not the kind of physical player who will dominate with his power. At his best, Webb may give you a standoff against average defensive linemen, but there’s no reason to think he’s going to win the battle against established players.
Gabe Carimi is penciled in at the right tackle spot after an injury-plagued rookie season. Carimi has to prove he is healthy and show he can handle the workload. If the answers to both of these questions are affirmative, he should be a positive asset to the team and may even be able to handle the left tackle responsibilities. But to count on Carimi for a full season at this point is not responsible.
Guards Lance Louis and Chris Williams have issues as well, but they are not as pronounced as the two tackles. You have to be impressed with Louis’s work ethic and hustle, but he often has to block more talented players on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. Williams won’t be the stud tackle that the Bears were hoping for when they drafted him with their first-round pick in 2008, but he’s passable at left guard. Roberto Garza got the job done at center last year and should be ready for another solid season.
The other area to be concerned about is defense. If the Bears don’t get enough of a pass rush this season, the secondary is likely to be exposed. While that’s often the case with most NFL teams, the Bears ability to cover receivers is a problem. They ranked 28th against the pass last season, giving up 254.1 yards a game through the air.
However, the real problem on defense is seniority.
The Bears are aging on the defensive front and there were signs in 2011 that Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher were slowing down. Peppers, Urlacher and Lance Briggs are all on the wrong side of 30. If they are starting to lose their footing, it will likely show in the second half of the season. Aging players may be able to muster strong games here and there, but consistency becomes the issue. Urlacher may have a good game in Week 10 against the Texans and then slow down the next two weeks against San Francisco and Minnesota before showing up again in Week 13 against the Seahawks.
That’s no knock on Urlacher; it’s just the aging process impacting his ability to put his signature on a professional football game.
The best defenses have at least two great players who punish opponents and kick ass. The presence of Urlacher, Peppers and Briggs gives them three players who all had the ability to dominate. It’s fair to question whether they still have that ability.
The Bears are banking on their big-name defensive players to give them at least one more good year. If they are right, those championship dreams may be legitimate. If they are wrong, the defensive difficulties will multiply this 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.