By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Mandatory minicamp kicks off for the Bears today, yet another sign that football is right around the corner. This is the first in a two-part series, taking a look at the Bears roster by position group. Offense is up first.
Projected starter: Jay Cutler
Others: Josh McCown, Matt Blanchard
Analysis: From coaches to personnel, every major move the Bears made this offseason has ties to Jay Cutler. Cutler’s heading into the final year of his contract, so prior to making a major investment, the Bears need to be certain he’s their guy. Providing better coaching and more talent not only helps the team, it helps the front office with their evaluation process of Cutler.
Cutler is a “see it, throw it” guy, who relies on his rare arm strength to fit passes into tight windows. That’s a high-risk, high-reward way to play quarterback in the NFL. Cutler will be learning his fourth system in five years, which can’t be understated.
Biggest question: At this stage in his career, how open is Cutler to fine-tuning his mechanics?
Final thoughts: With no viable backup, or developmental prospect on the roster, it’s Cutler or bust for the Bears in 2013.
Projected starter: Matt Forte
Others: Michael Bush, Armando Allen, Tony Fiammetta. Harvey Unga, Michael Ford (Rookie)
Analysis: Matt Forte wasn’t properly utilized in Mike Tice’s offense. For the first time in his career, he was targeted under 70 times, which hindered a Bears offense that already lacked playmakers in the passing game. Under Trestman, Forte will be featured on swing passes and hot reads.
Michael Bush was also underutilized last season, but at the same time, he didn’t make the most of his opportunities to justify his pay grade. Bush needs a stronger showing in 2013, or his days in Chicago could be shorter than expected.
It’s disappointing that fullback Evan Rodriguez’s maturity never caught up to his skill set. The NFL is all about matchups, and Rodriguez presented problems against linebackers, but that will never come to pass in Chicago. Tony Fiammetta is simply a blocker, who offers little as a ball carrier or receiver.
Biggest question: Forte is the unquestioned starter, but will Bush revert back to his 2011 form?
Final thoughts: With two starter-quality tailbacks on their roster, running back is the deepest position on offense. However, the Bears need Bush to contribute in order to keep Forte fresh for a potential playoff run.
Projected starters: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett
Others: Marquess Wilson (Rookie), Devin Aromashodu, Eric Weems, Joe Anderson, Brittan Golden, Jerrell Jackson, Terrence Tolliver, Josh Lenz (Rookie), Marcus Rucker (Rookie)
Analysis: Brandon Marshall was a revelation for the Bears last season. Prior to last season, I maintained he was the Bears best weapon since Walter Payton, and he proved to be. Despite constant double (and sometimes triple) coverage, Marshall rose above and delivered elite production.
Outside of Marshall, the Bears have potential, but not much production. Earl Bennett has not lived up to the lucrative extension he signed, Eric Weems is fighting for a roster spot, and Alshon Jeffery is being counted on to take a big step. With great size and deceiving speed, rookie Marquess Wilson was one of my favorite receiver prospects, whom I’ll be keeping a close eye on in Bourbonnais.
Biggest question: Will Jeffery become the No. 2 receiver this offense desperately needs?
Final thoughts: The Bears have added size at the position, but still lack a true burner that can stress the top of a defense.
Projected starter: Martellus Bennett
Others: Kyle Adams, Fendi Onobun, Steve Maneri, Brody Eldridge, Gabe Miller
Analysis: While the rest of the league has experienced a renaissance at the tight end position, the Bears have been laggards. Mercifully, the offensive tackles masquerading as tight ends that Mike Martz deployed are gone.
The Bears struck early in free agency, signing three-down tight end Martellus Bennett. Bennett is a willing and effective run blocker, who can also press the seam and make teams pay for doubling Marshall.
After Bennett, there are far more questions than answers. Steve Maneri was brought in to be the blocking tight end, Kyle Adams was ineffective last season, and Fendi Onobun is a great athlete, but he’s already on his sixth team in three years.
Biggest question: Who will emerge as the best option in two-tight end sets?
Final thoughts: Bennett has an opportunity to make an impact this season, but will he lapse after signing a big free agent deal? This group is very thin on proven talent.
Projected starters: Jermon Bushrod, J’Marcus Webb
Others: Jonathan Scott, Cory Brandon, Jordan Mills (Rookie),
Analysis: Like the Bennett signing, the Bears acted quickly to fill the chasm at left tackle bringing in Jermon Bushrod. Bushrod was a guy I linked the Bears to early on, given his ties to new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer.
J’Marcus Webb moves to the right side, where he will compete with Jonathan Scott, and the loser will become the swing tackle. Jordan Mills is a right tackle prospect, but may end up getting kicked inside to guard down the road.
Biggest question: Will Bushrod be the left tackle anchor the Bears paid him to be and justify the big payday?
Final thoughts: Shoddy tackle play forced the Bears to use max protect, which kept eligible receivers in rather than out in routes. In New Orleans, Bushrod was often on an island, which is exactly what the Bears need from him. Webb, a free agent after this season, has a chance to show he belongs as a right tackle for the Bears and the rest of league.
Projected starters: Matt Slauson, Kyle Long (Rookie)
Others: James Brown, Eben Britton, Edwin Williams, Derrick Dennis
Analysis: No position on offense has undertaken a bigger overhaul than guard, and justifiably so. Gone are Lance Louis, Chris Spencer, Chilo Rachal, and former first-round pick Gabe Carimi. The writing was on the wall for Carimi all offseason, and the selection of Long was the final nail in the coffin.
Slauson is a proven starter, who will be working at left guard. Pairing Slauson next to Bushrod gives the Bears an experienced set of players to protect Cutler’s blind side. Brown has an upside, but struggled last season with his assignments, frequently being beaten across his face. Britton, a former second-round pick, has been a disappointment, but gives the Bears a backup with starting experience.
Biggest question: Already short on collegiate experience, how much will missing the offseason program affect Kyle Long’s learning curve?
Final thoughts: Locking Long in at one position will be critical to his success, as they’re expecting him to learn a voluminous playbook while refining his technique. Long’s long arms, strength and balance should allow him to be effective in pass protection, but at 6-foot-7, can he keep a low pad level and chop his feet to control his gap in the run game?
Projected starters: Roberto Garza
Others: PJ Lonergan (Rookie), Taylor Boggs
Analysis: Roberto Garza has been a great leader for the Bears, but there’s no way to put a positive spin on his performance in 2012. Garza struggled to anchor at the point of attack, losing leverage battles, and no longer has the ability to get to the second level of the defense.
PJ Lonergan and Taylor Boggs are unproven commodities, so it makes me wonder if Edwin Williams would be the first man up should something happen to Garza.
Biggest question: Who is the backup center on this team?
Final thoughts: Given Garza’s poor performance last season, and the fact he’s entering the last year of his contract, I thought the Bears would put more of an effort into improving at center. Perhaps Kromer sees something in Lonergan that he saw in Bryan De La Puente, who was also undrafted, and has turned into a solid NFL center.
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