Every year, for every NFL team, a handful of players exceed expectations, while a number of players fall short of their potential.
Such will be the case for the Chicago Bears in 2014. Surely a few players will “come from nowhere” to have a positive impact on the club. At the same time, at least a couple of guys will have Bears fans banging their heads against a wall on game days.
With that in mind, let’s break down three potential breakout candidates, as well as three players that could fail to meet expectations.
Wilson caught just two passes for 15 yards as a rookie but he’ll be a big part of the passing game this season. In three-receiver sets, Wilson will work alongside Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, as well as tight end Martellus Bennett. Those players will command most of the attention from opposing defenses, which will leave Wilson with plenty of one-on-one opportunities.
Wilson has good size and put on more than 10 pounds this offseason. He currently weighs 205, which should help him fend off defenders and make catches in traffic. He displayed good focus and concentration during the offseason programs and appears poised to put his stamp on the offense this season.
As the club’s No. 3 receiver last year, Earl Bennett caught 32 passes and four touchdowns. Expect Wilson to eclipse those numbers this season.
Bostic was put in a tough position last season, thrust into the starting middle linebacker role as a rookie. He struggled in his keys and reads, and failed to consistently fill holes in the run game. Additionally, he lacked awareness in coverage.
The Bears this offseason gave Bostic an experienced position coach in Reggie Herring, whose presence alone should give him added confidence on the field. In addition, coordinator Mel Tucker is installing a system in which Bostic will be asked to play inside-out, a scheme similar to that in which he played at Florida.
Bostic will likely start the season on the strong side, which should help him two-fold. He’ll no longer be responsible for making all the defensive calls, allowing him to focus on his job and his job alone. Second, he won’t be asked to play sideline to sideline. Instead, he’ll be asked to cover half the field and use his athleticism to break up plays at the point of attack.
Fuller is an extremely athletic and physical cornerback. He has great length and size, which should serve him well against the league’s bigger wide receivers. Additionally, he’s extremely confident on the field and won’t be overwhelmed when asked to cover some of the league’s best wideouts man-to-man.
Yet beyond his skill set, the biggest benefit for Fuller is the fact he squares off against Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall every day in practice. There are very few receivers in the NFL at the same level as those two Pro Bowl pass catchers. When Fuller finally gets on the field in a game that matters, he won’t be pressing receivers of the same caliber as his teammates. In essence, the games should be easier than practices.
Fuller will initially be inserted out wide on passing downs, with Tim Jennings sliding inside. This should keep the rookie fresh and limit his responsibilities. It’s an ideal scenario for a talented first rounder to have an immediate impact.
Forte is coming off his best season as a professional, one in which he posted career highs in rushing yards, receiving yards and receptions. He finished with the second most yards from scrimmage in the league and is poised to be a focal point of the offense once again.
Yet Forte will turn 29 this season, the age NFL running backs historically begin to decline. He’s also had multiple knee injuries during his career, which always puts an “aging” running back at risk.
We also have to consider Forte’s workload. For six seasons he’s averaged 23 touches per contest (19 carries, four catches). Last season only two runners in the league had more carries than Forte’s 289, while his 74 receptions were third most at the position.
With Forte, we’re mixing a potentially dangerous cocktail of overuse combined with bad knees and an aging body. Marc Trestman is aware of this situation, which could result in rookie Ka’Deem Carey eating into Forte’s touches, particularly in short-yardage situations. If he stays healthy, Forte won’t be a disappointment this year but all signs point to a drop off in production.
Briggs will turn 34 in November, he’s coming off a year in which he missed seven games due to injury and he’ll be playing with a shoulder harness this season. The seven-time Pro Bowler was far from dominant last year and just didn’t appear the same after hurting the shoulder.
There is no doubt Briggs will bring full effort on game days but you have to wonder how long his body is going to hold up. He’s played 165 games during his 11-year career, which is a ton of wear and tear.
He’ll still be solid when on the field but it’s unlikely he’ll ever again play at a Pro Bowl level. It’s also doubtful he’ll play 16 games this year, so temper your expectations for Briggs in 2014.
Like Briggs, Tillman’s biggest hurdle will be avoiding injury. He was a mess last year – leg injuries hampered him and limited his snaps through eight games before a triceps injury ended his season – and he’s now 33 years old.
Tillman was effective when on the field last season, racking up six pass breakups and forcing six turnovers – three interceptions, three forced fumbles – in just eight games played. He’s still a quality cover corner who has the size and strength to match up with today’s stallion receivers.
He surely has one more good year left in him but the odds of Tillman playing the entire year are very slim. He has 154 NFL games under his belt and his body is wearing down. Don’t expect him to participate in a full campaign this season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.