It’s finally that time of year football fans. The NFL regular season is right over the horizon and it’s gearing up to be just as fun and interesting as ever.
It’s been a long off-season for fans and teams alike. With free agency, the draft, training camp and the preseason in the rearview mirror, rosters are finally taking shape in preparation for a grueling 17-week regular-season slate. All teams hope for success and good health at the start of every season, and the Chicago Bears are no different.
It’s been a tough six years for the Bears since making it to the NFC Championship game in 2010, with no playoff appearances since. Like most seasons, fans ask themselves “Is this finally the year?”
While nothing is guaranteed in this game, all signs point to a vastly improvement Bears team in Year 2 under head coach John Fox.
- ILB Danny Trevathan
- OT Bobby Massie
- ILB Jerrell Freeman
- DL Akiem Hicks
- G/C Ted Larsen
- OG Josh Sitton
- QB Brian Hoyer
- OLB Leonard Floyd
- OL Cody Whitehair
- DL Jonathan Bullard
- ILB Nick Kwiatkowski
- S Deon Bush
- CB Deiondre Hall
- RB Jordan Howard
- S DeAndre Houston-Carson
- WR Daniel Braverman
General manager Ryan Pace and his front office had a busy off-season. They started out with just more than $60 million in cap space and were able to land at least four starting players through free agency, along with nine highly graded picks in the draft.
One of the team’s biggest weaknesses going into the offseason was inside linebacker, which Pace addressed with two top-level free agent signings in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, plus a high-upside rookie in third rounder Nick Kwiatkowski.
Pace put most of his resources into the defensive side of the ball, which saw a substantial influx of talent, especially along the front seven with Trevathan, Freeman, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd and Jonathan Bullard.
The offensive line has received a facelift, with Kyle Long back at right guard and Bobby Massie at right tackle. Charles Leno will again start at left tackle, while the team made a late off-season acquisition of two time All-Pro Josh Sitton at left guard. At center, Cody Whitehair will replace Hroniss Grasu, who was lost in training camp to a torn ACL.
- RB Matt Forte (FA)
- TE Martellus Bennett (Trade)
- LB Shea McClellin (FA)
- LG Matt Slauson (Cut)
- S Antrel Rolle (Cut)
- OL Jermon Bushrod (Cut)
Others: DL Jarvis Jenkins, CB Alan Ball, S Ryan Mundy, C Will Montgomery, OL Patrick Omameh, G Vladimir Ducasse, OL Tayo Fabaluje.
Matt Forte signed with the New York Jets early in free agency, while Martellus Bennett was shipped off to the New England Patriots for a 5th-round pick.
The team also cut veterans Antrel Rolle, Jermon Bushrod, and Matt Slauson, with the latter being a head-scratcher.
On the positive side, Pace cut bait with former first-round bust Shea McClellin. It's clear the Bears' new regime has embraced a newer, younger future.
Retained Free Agents
- WR Alshon Jeffery (Tag)
- TE Zach Miller
- CB Tracy Porter
- DL Mitch Unrein
Others: CB Sherrick McManis, WR Deonte Thompson, S Chris Prosinski, OLB Sam Acho
The Bears made it obvious early on that they were looking to move in a different direction from the majority of their own free agents.
Jeffery will play the year on the franchise tag after not reach a long-term deal. It could be Jeffery's last year in Chicago, especially if second-year receiver Kevin White is the player they expected him to be when making him a first-round pick last year.
Zach Miller, who in 2015 had his first healthy season in three-plus years, was rewarded with a new two-year deal but his age (31) and overall durability makes him a bit of a concern, as there is little depth behind him.
Tracy Porter was a nice surprise last season, especially after signing late in June and seeing very little preseason action. Mitch Unrein will start at defensive end, while Sherrick McManis is a core special teams player.
Three Reasons for Optimism
John Fox’s track record in Year 2
The Bears are Fox’s third team as an NFL head coach and if history is any indication, this club will make a big jump in Year 2. In Carolina, the Panthers jumped from 7-9 to 11-5, while the Broncos went from 8-8 to 13-3 in Year 2.
Strength of Schedule
In 2015, the Bears finished with the league’s hardest schedule by record at .547 (140-116). Even more telling was their strength of victory at .469 (120-136), which ranked second behind only the Carolina Panthers in the NFC.
This year, they will face a much lighter schedule on paper of .461 (118-138), which ranks just below the Green Bay Packers as the easiest schedule going into the 2016 season.
Last year the Bears lacked talent at nearly every position. They still have question marks throughout this year's roster, as many teams do, but there are legitimate talent upgrades at crucial positions.
At inside linebacker the Bears went from McClellin and Christian Jones, both of whom struggled mightily, to Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, who are two of the top players in the league at their position. Pace added more experience along the defensive line with Akiem Hicks and drafted one of the top speed rushers in this year's class, Leonard Floyd, adding him to an already stacked OLB position.
The Bears lost Bennett and Forte on offense but they've gotten younger and added a number of high-upside players. They’ve also remade an offensive line that last year started a mixture of Vladimir Ducasse, Patrick Omameh, and Hroniss Grasu at the interior positions, along with two first-year starting tackles.
In 2015, 12 of the Bears 16 games were decided by eight points or less, with eight of those 12 being decided by four points or less. All of that happened with arguably a bottom-five roster in terms of talent. Pace has added a lot of free-agent talent, plus a strong 2015 draft class going into its second year, so there’s a good chance this team will show sizable improvement.
Depth is still an issue and if recent history is any indication, the Bears will deal with a bunch of injuries this year. That could pose problems but if they somehow stay healthy we should see a much improved product on the field, which should equate to more wins.
Where They Stand in the NFC North
Last year was the first time since 2010 the Green Bay Packers did not finish first in the NFC North.
The Vikings added quality talent through free agency along with another strong draft. They will look to take the division for the second year in a row but with the loss of Teddy Bridgewater, it remains to be seen if Sam Bradford has enough to get them there.
The Packers' roster has remained nearly the same outside of the addition of Jared Cook and their incoming draft class. The Lions lost their best player in Calvin Johnson and although they made some moves to help fill those missing pieces, they look to be far off, maybe even more so than last year.
The NFC North is littered with questions but divisional games are always fierce, no matter the respective records. The big question for the Bears is not whether or not they can get out of the cellar in the division, but can they improve enough to push for a playoff spot?
History is on the Bears' side in terms of second-year turnarounds, particularly with Fox and an “easier” schedule on paper, but in such a tough division, it’s tough to see them going from last to first, or even second in just one season.
Projected Record and Final Thoughts
Over the last 10 years, there have been an average of four new playoff teams each season. That's reason for optimism for an improving team like the Bears but it’s going to be hard to secure a playoff spot unless all the starts align, which includes key players staying healthy.
The more realistic expectation for this upcoming season may be a two- to three-game improvement, which would leave them at .500 or better. That would show improvement, which would give the team confidence and could propel them into a contender with another strong off-season in 2017.
We should see an improved offense but there are concerns, particularly at a paper-thin tight end position and a re-shuffled, unproven offensive line.
The Bears have more than a few holes and will be without their starting center all season, as well as OLB Pernell McPhee and WR Marquess Wilson for at least the first six weeks of the year, which could be tough to overcome. Overall, the Bears are headed in the right direction and, with a little luck, they could sneak into the playoff race come Week 17.
Projected Record: (9-7) 3rd Place
Week 1: At Houston Texans (Loss) 0-1
Week 2: Vs Philadelphia Eagles (Win) 1-1
Week 3: At Dallas Cowboys (Loss) 1-2
Week 4: Vs Detroit Lions (Win) 2-2
Week 5: At Indianpolis Colts (Win) 3-2
Week 6: Vs Jacksonville Jaguars (Loss) 3-3
Week 7: At Green Bay Packers (Win) 4-3
Week 8: Vs Minnesota Vikings (Win) 5-3
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: At Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Win) 6-3
Week 11: At New York Giants (Loss) 6-4
Week 12: Vs Tennessee Titans (Win) 7-4
Week 13: Vs San Francisco 49ers (Win) 8-4
Week 14: At Detroit Lions (Loss) 8-5
Week 15: Vs Green Bay Packers (Loss) 8-6
Week 16: Vs Washington Redskins (Win) 9-7
Week 17: At Minnesota Vikings (Loss) 9-8null