Yet at times, the Bears played like the worst team in the NFL. The offense consistently failed to live up to expectations, while the defense finished near the bottom of the barrel in every statistical category, including total defense (30th) and points allowed (31st).
Not only was the product on the field disappointing but the Bears were also a mess off the field. The team had more headline-grabbing distractions than wins last season by at least a 2-to-1 margin. From Martellus Bennett body slamming his teammate in training camp, to Brandon Marshall constantly embarrassing the team at every turn, to coordinator Aaron Kromer calling out Jay Cutler through the media, it was amateur hour.
Not surprisingly, GM Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman were immediately terminated, as well as the majority of the coaching staff.
In steps Ryan Pace, the youngest general manager in the NFL, and John Fox, an NFL head coach the past 13 seasons, to lead the Bears into the future.
Over the next six months, Fox and Pace will attempt to repair a roster that was nearly torn apart last season. There are serious needs at numerous positions and many believe wholesale changes are necessary on the defensive side of the ball.
The new brain trust has their work cut out for them.
Arguably, the most important element in the upcoming rebuild is the 2015 NFL Draft. In this league, the easiest way to build constant contenders is to draft well and develop from within. QUOTE
With that in mind, let’s first outline a number of factors that will impact our draft analysis over the next few months.
New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has run a 3-4 defense for most of his extensive career as an NFL coach. It’s the system he engineered the past four years in San Francisco, with unparalleled success over that time span.
Throughout the 95-year history of the franchise, the Bears have never run a 3-4 defense, so this is a substantial change. Every personnel decision in both free agency and the draft will be in an effort to fill multiple needs within Fangio’s system.
Not only that but it’s the criteria by which current contracted players will be judged. Those defenders that don’t fit the 3-4 mold could be playing elsewhere this season, creating even more holes in a roster that already resembles Swiss cheese.
Future of Cutler and Marshall
Phil Emery’s regrettable decision to sign Jay Cutler to a seven-year, $127.6 million contract last offseason has put the team in a serious bind. Cutler’s inconsistencies last season played a big part in the ineptitude of the offense, as did his league-leading 28 turnovers.
Yet he’s guaranteed $15.5 million next season, with another $10 million that kicks in on the third day of the league year. Even the teams most desperate for QB help will balk at taking on that contract. And with a $19.5 million dead-money hit next season, it’s hard to foresee the team cutting Cutler outright, especially with no legitimate Plan B option.
The Bears may be forced to hang on to Cutler but that isn’t the case with Brandon Marshall, who has worn out his welcome in Chicago. There are rumors ownership is tired of his off-field antics, while the team would clear $3.95 million in cap space by waiving the mercurial wideout.
As we move into this draft process, the nebulous futures of both Cutler and Marshall must be taken into consideration.
The Bears will have $30 million - $40 million in cash to spend this offseason, meaning they’ll be active in free agency. By April, some current positions of need will be filled, which could alter the team’s priorities heading into the draft.
Positions of Need
Taking into consideration all those factors, here are the biggest positions of need on the current roster, prioritized from top to bottom.
1. Outside Linebacker – The Bears addressed their edge-rush needs last offseason by signing Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young in free agency. Yet Allen appears on his last leg, Houston is coming off an ACL tear and Young may not play next year due a torn Achilles suffered in the season finale. The club now must start from scratch, meaning outside linebacker becomes the top priority heading into the offseason.
2. Inside Linebacker – Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams have very likely played their last snaps in the Windy City. Jon Bostic improved last year but still looks like a work in progress. Shea McClellin will likely slide outside to OLB, leaving just Christian Jones, a UDFA last year, and Khaseem Greene, who could be looking for work in a few months. This is arguably the thinnest position on the roster.
3. Offensive Tackle – Jordan Mills has struggled for two straight years at right tackle, while Jermon Bushrod was wildly inconsistent last season. Mills doesn’t appear to be a long-term option. Bushrod will be 31 this year and is trending downward. Getting younger and stronger on the edges will help improve the run game and keep Cutler upright in the pocket.
4. Safety – Ryan Mundy was decent last year, yet Chris Conte can’t stay on the field. In addition, Brock Vereen didn’t stand out as a rookie and may be nothing more than a core special teams player. The Bears have been searching for competency at safety for more than a decade. That search continues this offseason.
5. Wide Receiver – If the Bears part ways with Marshall, wide receiver jumps two spots on this list. Yet even now there’s the need for a speedy wideout who can add another element to the passing attack.
6. Center – Chicago extended the contract of Roberto Garza in the final week of the season, yet the deal doesn’t include any guaranteed money. Garza will be 36 and his backup, Brian de la Puente, did not live up to expectations. The Bears would be wise to invest in a young pivot player who can anchor the offensive line going forward.
7. Defensive Tackle – Ego Ferguson is a solid fit for Fangio’s 3-4, yet the same can’t be said for Will Sutton and Stephen Paea, who will soon become a free agent. Jeremiah Ratliff still has value but he can’t stay on the field.
8. Quarterback – Even if Cutler stays under center in the Windy City, it won’t be for long. The team has to start planning for a future without Cutler, which includes getting a young passer in the pipeline.
Bear Report Top 10 Big Board
Here are the 10 players, ranked in order, the Bears should consider drafting with the seventh overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft (this is a fluid list that will be updated each week leading up the draft):
1. Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson
2. Alvin Dupree, OLB, Kentucky
3. Shane Ray, OLB, Missouri
4. Danny Shelton, DT, Washington
5. Dante Fowler, OLB, Florida
6. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford
7. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
8. Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa
9. Landon Collins, S, Alabama
10. Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi St.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.