The Chicago Bears are a 6-10 team looking to take significant steps forward in the second year of a full-blown rebuild.
The team lost six games by six points or less last season, so after substantial personnel additions through free agency and the draft, the Bears have their eyes on the playoffs this season.
Yet no matter the influx of young talent and veteran additions on the defensive side of the ball, the biggest factor in the Bears' success this year - as it is for every team, every season - will again be quarterback play.
Football is the ultimate team sport, where 11 players must work in unison and run like a finely tuned engine, yet it's the quarterback who drives the car. He's the most important player on the field every snap of every football game, and the Bears are no exception.
With training camp just a few weeks away, let's break down in detail the five quarterbacks the team will bring to Bourbonnais.
Jay Cutler enters his eighth season as the starting quarterback in Chicago, and he's coming off arguably his best campaign since 2008.
In 15 starts last year, Cutler threw just 11 interceptions, which was by far the fewest he's ever thrown in a season where he's started 15 or more games. He also posted career highs in passer rating (92.3) and yards per pass attempt (7.6), while his 64.4 completion percentage was second highest of his career.
The Bears ran the ball more than all but five teams in the NFL last season, which essentially made Cutler a glorified game manager. Former offensive coordinator Adam Gase took the pressure off Cutler's shoulders and cut down his options. He cut the field in half, leaned heavily on the run game and short-passing attack, and limited Cutler's shots down the field. Everything was high percentage, with an emphasis on ball security.
Gase is now in Miami but new OC Dowell Loggains, who was Cutler's QB coach last year, hasn't altered the playbook much.
"Most of the time when you have turnover like that, it is going to be learning a whole new language. You’re back at square one," Cutler said during veteran minicamp. "With Dowell, we didn’t want to do that. The coaches didn’t want to do that, we didn’t want to do that to the players and I certainly didn’t want to do that. So we did take the kind of normal course of action from year one to year two that you would do if you had the same coordinator and that is go back and look at what you did well, look at what you didn’t do and kind of tweak some things. The majority of the offense, the backbone of what we do, is still saying the same."
If Loggains follows the path blazed by Gase, then the Bears will once again deploy a run-heavy offense, which will again make Cutler the highest paid game manager in the league.
"I’m looking forward to coaching him every day and continuing the process we’ve made and build off that where we ended last year, but we definitely could be better," Loggains said. "I think Jay made the choice to improve and work on the things that we asked him to work on. I hope that process continues.
"I will be in constant communication just like last year where I was in charge of running every meeting. I will be involved in the quarterbacks meetings and I'll be around still.”
Cutler is 33, so it's unrealistic to assume he'll suddenly develop into an All-Pro-caliber quarterback, but he can still improve - he showed that last year. Now he needs to take another small step forward, while further eliminating the back-breaking turnovers.
Last season, 12 of Chicago's 16 games were decided by eight games or less. With a run-based offense and a defense loaded with question marks, close matchups should again be the norm this year. That is why Cutler is still the most important player on the team.
He'll have 10-12 opportunities this year to rally the troops and lead the offense on game-winning drives. He led the Bears to four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter last year, which is the most he's had in a single season since 2010. Yet realistically, Cutler is probably going to need six-to-eight game-winning drives this year if the Bears are going to make the postseason.
If Cutler is a championship-caliber quarterback, then he's going to rise to the occasion and backpack his team to the playoffs. If he can't consistently come through with late-game heroics, the Bears may once again be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
The Bears opted not to draft a quarterback this year and instead signed veteran Brian Hoyer moments after the draft ended.
Hoyer started 11 games for the Texans last year, throwing for 2,606 yards, 19 TDs and 7 INTs. He completed 60.7 percent of his passes and posted a 91.4 QB rating, helping guide Houston to a playoff berth. He didn't fare well in the Wild Card matchup agains the Chiefs (136 passing yards, 5 total turnovers), which is why Hoyer wasn't offered a chance to start in free agency.
The lack of interest in Hoyer is to Chicago's benefit. Hoyer is a seven-year NFL veteran who spent three years working with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in New England. He played in a run-heavy system with the Texans last year and demonstrated his effectiveness as a game manager.
Hoyer has also worked with Loggains, who was his QB coach in Cleveland, so there's familiarity there as well.
Cutler hasn't played a full 16-game slate since 2009, so it's highly likely Hoyer will be asked to start at least one contest this season. If and when that scenario arises, the Bears will be in much better shape with an experienced veteran like Hoyer - who is arguably the best backup QB in the NFC - than Caleb Hanie, Jason Campbell or Jimmy Clausen.
If all goes well for the Bears, Hoyer won't play a snap this season. Yet when he steps under center, he'll instantly become the Bears' most important off-season acquisition.
The club's 2014 sixth-round selection, David Fales has been Chicago's "pipeline" quarterback the past two seasons. The Bears tried to stash him on the practice squad last year but elevated him to the active roster in Week 12 after it was rumored the Patriots were interested in signing him.
Fales showed well in the fourth preseason game last year, completing 14 of 18 pass attempts for 131 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. He's an accurate passer with upside in a short-passing system, yet Fales doesn't have NFL-level arm strength. He can dink and dunk with the best of them but Fales is going to struggle on deep balls and passes that require him to fit the ball into tight windows. He just doesn't have the zip to complete those passes regularly.
Fales will get another shot during camp to secure the team's No. 3 QB position but he has legitimate competition this year. If he's not up to the challenge, he could be a final-cut casualty.
Connor Shaw came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina in 2014. He was signed by the Browns and worked for a full season under Loggains. After Cleveland waived Shaw, the Bears last week signed him off waivers. The Saints and the Seahawks also put a waiver claim on him.
In one career start - the 2014 season finale - Shaw went 14-for-28 for 177 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT and 1 fumble lost. He also ran seven times for nine yards.
Shaw doesn't have elite size (6-1, 210) but he's a threat to run the football on every play.
His history with Loggains is key here. Loggains knows exactly what he's getting in Shaw, while he also knows Fales and his limitations. Loggains obviously thinks Shaw has a legitimate shot of de-seating Fales as the club's developmental passer. That's going to create a competition worth watching during training camp and the preseason.
Dalyn Williams worked out with the Bears on a tryout basis during rookie minicamp and was signed to take Matt Blanchard's roster spot in early June.
He's not a big passer (6-0, 215) but Williams showed good touch, accuracy and elusiveness playing for Dartmouth. Unfortunately for Williams, the Bears are unlikely to keep five quarterbacks during training camp, which means his tenure with the team could be very short lived.