The Chicago Bears begin training camp later next month as a 6-10 team looking to take a major step forward in their second year under head coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace.
The Bears have overhauled certain parts of the roster, while other positions appear sketchy at best. With so many areas of concern, many of which have considerable upside, it's hard to gauge whether the Bears this year will again mire in mediocrity or elevate to a playoff-caliber team.
While football is the ultimate team game, certain players on each roster carry extra weight in terms of how substantially they will impact the end result. If said players shine, the Bears will earn a postseason berth for the first time since 2010. If said players falter, another disappointing Bears season is on the horizon.
With that in mind, Aaron Leming and I identified the top five most important players for the Bears in 2016.
I'll go first:
JS Top 5 Bears
LT Charles Leno
In reality, quarterback is the most important player on every roster. Yet a quarterback will get nowhere if his offensive line doesn't allow him time in the pocket to do to his job. There are question marks all along Chicago's offensive line but none are more important than left tackle, where third-year player Charles Leno will enter his first season as the full-time starter. Leno, a former seventh-round pick, was up and down in 11 starts last season. He gave up 32 QB hurries, which is sub-par, but only 4 sacks, which is acceptable. If Leno develops further and is more consistent protecting Jay Cutler's blind side, then Cutler should continue his late-career improvement. If Leno falters, Cutler will get happy feet and turnovers will quickly follow.
WR Kevin White
The Bears invested the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Kevin White, who then sat out his entire rookie campaign after surgery on his shin. That's one year wasted, so White is under intense pressure to produce this season. His grace period is over and he must prove he was worth the heavy investment. With Alshon Jeffery's future with the Bears in doubt, the team has put almost all of its eggs in White's basket. For a passing attack that lost both Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte in the off-season, White is going to be relied upon from Week 1 to be a major player in Chicago's aerial game. If he's not up to the task, Jeffery will see constant double teams and the passing attack will stall.
OLB Leonard Floyd
The Bears traded up in this year's draft to grab Floyd, a 235-pound outside linebacker. Floyd has quickness, burst and explosiveness for days but there are serious concerns about his size and potential lack of strength. Floyd must demonstrate his ability to hold the point of attack, otherwise he'll be relegated to third-down-only duties -- and you don't typically trade up into the top 10 to select part-time players. Yet more than that, Floyd needs to get to the quarterback. He is the pass-rush future for the Bears and they'll be looking for immediate returns. If he approaches double digit sacks, and proves he's capable of holding his own on 1st and 2nd down, then he'll have the type of impact Chicago needs from its first-round pick.
DE Akiem Hicks
A lot has been made of the free-agent additions of ILBs Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. While they are key cogs to the defense, they won't be able to do much if offensive linemen are in their face every snap. Chicago's run defense has struggled for years and a player like Akiem Hicks can make those issues a thing of the past. Hicks is massive (6-5, 328) with good power and explosiveness. If he can occupy blockers at the point of attack, that will not only clog lanes but also keep Freeman and Trevathan clean at the second level. The front seven is going to carry the defense this year and Hicks will arguably be the most important piece in that effort.
TE Zach Miller
Of all the questionable positions on the roster, tight end is the weakest. That said, Zach Miller is a viable No. 1 option. He showed last season he can be a weapon in the passing attack and he's been a big part of the offense during practice this off-season. He should be highly productive but only if he's healthy. If Miller, who has a long history of injury, can't stay on the field, you can pretty much write off the tight end position in the passing game. Miller needs to produce this year but, more than that, he needs to stay on the field.
Here now are Aaron's top five Bears in 2016:
AL Top 5 Bears
QB Jay Cutler
Like every year for each team, the quarterback is the most important player on the field. Cutler had arguably his best season as a Bear last year, even with a banged up receiving group, and much of that can be credited to the coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is much more vocal and it could lead to some confrontations on the sidelines with the volatile Cutler, so let’s hope that relationship is as strong as we've been led to believe.
CB Kyle Fuller
Really, you can make an argument for any of Chicago's cornerbacks but I’ll take Kyle Fuller due to his age and past draft status (14th overall pick in 2014). Fuller struggled early last year but impressed over his last 10 games, even if he wasn’t targeted nearly as much as he'd been previously. The secondary as a whole is a question mark for the Bears, so getting Fuller to produce at a high level could be the difference between an average defense and a Top 5 product.
LT Charles Leno
Since quarterback is the most important position on the field, left tackle slides in directly after that. The team’s offensive line troubles are clear but what seems to have gone unnoticed is how solid Leno truly was last year. The Bears have put their trust in Leno, who is going into his third year, so in order to have a consistent offense, he will need to continue to improve.
ILB Danny Trevathan
As for Trevathan, you could stick fellow newcomer Freeman in this conversation and say close to the same thing. Inside linebacker was without question the weakest position on the roster for the Bears last year and, after just one off-season, it may now be their biggest strength. Trevathan’s ability to run the defense and, most importantly, cover the middle of the field will greatly improve this defense’s status in the coming year.
K Robbie Gould
Yes, a kicker has made the list. Why? It’s pretty simply. Gould was 33-39 in field goal attempts last year but had multiple critical misses that could be credited as the main reason for at least two Bears losses. Not only was he mildly inconsistent in that department, his lack of leg strength, particularly on kickoffs, has cost his team sizable field position, sometimes in critical spots. Gould, who will be 34 this season, needs to regain his previous form and again perform like the reliable kicker he was earlier in his career.null