The NFL off-season is a fun time for fans and members of the front office alike to dream of a new beginning.
The Chicago Bears have not made the playoff since 2010 and have since been through two general managers and two head coaches. They haven’t had a winning season since Lovie Smith’s final year, a 10-6 campaign in 2012.
So why should anyone believe the Bears are finally on the right track and ready to compete for a playoff spot in 2016?
Strength of Schedule
Last year, the Bears finished at 6-10. On the surface, it looks like a one-game improvement over the previous season but looking deeper, the facts tell a different story.
In 2015, the team had the league's hardest strength of schedule (SOS) at .547 (140-116). Even more telling was their strength-of-victory, at .469 (120-136), which ranked second in the NFC ahead of the Super Bowl representatives, Carolina Panthers, and tied for fourth overall.
This year’s projected SOS looks to tell a much more optimistic story for the Bears. Based on 2015 records, they rank tied for 31st, or .461 (118-138), with is just one game behind the Green Bay Packers for the easiest overall slate.
Margin of Loss
In 2015, 12 of the team’s 16 outcomes were decided by eight points or less. Digging deeper, nine of those games were decided by four points or less.
Much is made about the “talent gaps” in the NFL but even for a team like the Bears, who were projected to finish 3-13 by USA Today, it’s not hard to see why many call this a “game of inches."
In the upcoming draft the Bears hold nine picks overall, with five of those coming in the first 127 picks.
The last time the organization held nine picks or more was in 2009. Within that draft, the Bears did not have any first- or second-round picks and had to wait until the 68th overall pick to take DT Jarron Gilbert, who lasted just one year with the team before being claimed off waivers by the New York Jets.
Since 2009, the Bears have had two years with no first-round picks and five of six years without at least seven picks.
With nine picks and their 2015 seventh overall pick making his NFL debut, it’s clear that a young talent infusion will soon take place.
Eliminating Replacement-Level Talent
Over the past few years, a lot has been made about the lack of talent and depth on the roster. GM Ryan Pace came in with an obvious plan: Make the team younger and ultimately better.
Last season was his “weed out” year, which made it easy for him to add stop-gap talent and conduct the draft using the best-player-available strategy. He was able to rid the team of locker-room problems like Brandon Marshall, while adding cornerstone pieces such as Pernell McPhee.
Pace was also able to find long-term pieces through six picks in the draft and shrewd one-year deals in free agency.
This off-season, Pace had a much better understanding of the roster and far more cap space. As such the second-year general manager was able to identify multiple holes and upgrade them through free-agent acquisitions Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman at inside linebacker, right tackle Bobby Massie - whose presence at right tackle allows All-Pro offensive lineman Kyle Long to slide back inside to right guard - and beefing up the defensive line with former Patriots 5-technique Akiem Hicks.
Holes on the roster still exist but Pace has made a conscious effort to upgrade the team’s weakest areas in the defensive front seven and offensive line, and has once again set himself up to go best-player-available in the draft.
To put it into perspective, they have been able to replace Shea McClellin and Jarvis Jenkins with two well above average players in Freeman and Hicks for approximately $2.5 million more per year - based on what all players received on the open market this year.
Improving the Biggest Weaknesses
Of all of the issues the Bears had last year, their biggest weakness was against the run, where they ranked 22nd in the league, allowing a sub-par 121 yards per game.
The team’s front office wasted very little time to improve that glaring weakness with the additions of Freeman - who ranked 1st (97.9 grade) against the run last season among all non-pass rushing linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus - and Trevathan, who ranked 12th (87.8 grade) and Hicks, who is a versatile 3-4 defensive lineman, with ideal size and (6-5, 324) and good length.
Another glaring weakness has been the special teams units. Head coach John Fox highlighted team speed as a main issue. Through retaining mid-season acquisition Deonte Thompson as their primary kick returner, it signaled a step in the right direction.
The unit has also struggled to find a replacement at long snapper, as they have been through multiple names since the retirement of Patrick Mannelly, yet the signing of ex-Bronco Aaron Brewer should solve that issue.
Speaking of former Broncos, the team also plans to bring in explosive return specialist, gunner and defensive back Omar Bolden, for a visit this week and is expected to sign the 27-year-old if the meeting goes well.
On top of that new additions to the unit Sherrick McManis, Josh Bellamy and Chris Prosinski will all be returning on new deals and played a large part in the unit's second-half turnaround last year.
So why not the Bears?
We're still a month away from the draft but it’s obvious the Bears have improved drastically within the first month of the off-season. With more than four months before the start of training camp, it’s not unrealistic to see an even larger improvement to put them on the radar for their first playoff bid since 2010’s NFC Championship letdown.
Each year, an average of four new teams make it into the playoffs. With a competitive division, an easier schedule and a drastically improved roster, why not the Chicago Bears in 2016?