Behind Enemy Lines: The Bears

Our division experts join forces for this four-part series, continuing with last year's NFC runner-ups. Our insiders discuss the criticism of Jay Cutler and the team's needs at wide receiver, plus much more!

Free agents

Based on the assumption that players with four-plus years of experience will be unrestricted and players with three years will be restricted.

Unrestricted: C Olin Kreutz, DT Anthony Adams, S Danieal Manning, CB Corey Graham, LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, LB Nick Roach, RB Garrett Wolfe, LB Brian Iwuh, P Brad Maynard, TE Desmond Clark, WR Rashied Davis, LB Rod Wilson, S Josh Bullocks, QB Todd Collins.

Restricted: QB Caleb Hanie, WR Devin Aromashodu.

Overview: Kreutz and Adams are the top priorities for the Bears, as both serve as the anchors of their respective line units. The club will most likely try to re-sign Roach or Tinoisamoa, or both. Manning would be welcomed back but may choose to sign elsewhere; the same goes for Graham. Davis and Iwuh may get re-signed so as to shore up the coverage units.


Transactions

Franchise player: None.

Transition player: None.

Players re-signed: None.

Players acquired: QB Matt Gutierrez: FA, terms unknown; NT Tank Tyler: FA, terms unknown.

Players lost: DT Tommie Harris (released); LB Hunter Hillenmeyer (released); OT Kevin Shaffer (released).


Five burning questions

As asked by BearReport.com's Jeremy Stoltz and answered by RoarReport.com's Nate Caminata, PackerReport.com's Bill Huber and VikingUpdate.com's Tim Yotter.

Jay Cutler took a lot of heat for his exit from last year's NFC Championship game. In your opinion, was the criticism warranted and could that have an affect on him heading into next season?


Jay Cutler exits last season's NFC Championship loss.
Rob Tringali/Getty
Yotter: It all depends on the severity of the injury. Some players have different tolerances to pain and there are some injuries that obviously can't be "played through." But I think the issue is his history and the vibe he gave off on the sideline. He didn't appear to be struggling with pain on the sideline and I'd think a hard-core competitor would battle through a lot of pain to finish a big game like that. It's harder to give a free pass in that situation.

Huber: No, absolutely not. All of those knuckleheads out there criticizing Cutler apparently were able to worm their way inside his body to test his pain threshold. Absolutely ridiculous. What's worse is that current and former players were piling on. If anyone should know better, it is those guys. I'd think any affect would be a positive one, just one more thing to drive a really talented quarterback.

Caminata: Absolutely not. Cutler makes himself a target for criticism because of his wayward attitude, but he's managed to build a respectable career while battling diabetes -- and previous to his NFC championship exit, he only missed one previous game since joining the league. Beyond that, he seemed to have the support of his teammates, which is all that matters.

One area of the team that many feel needs improvement is wide receiver. What are your thoughts on Chicago's pass catchers and does the team need to pursue a big-name free agent?

Yotter: : It seems to me that the Bears have a few No. 2 and No. 3 receivers but no surefire No. 1 to draw the game-planning attention of defenses. If they could find a big, physical target on the outside, Devin Hester might be more viable, Greg Olsen could be even better than he has been and Cutler would finally have a full complement of weapons.

Huber: I'm not sure if Plaxico Burress has anything left but he's an intriguing option. All of those small, fast guys make the Bears' passing attack a quick-strike force. But at some point, you need someone who can get open on third-and-7 and overpower the defender for an 8-yard gain. I just don't see that guy. Plus, Burress provides a nice bailout option when the line parts like the Red Sea for blitzers to stream through and hit Cutler.

Caminata: I continue to be perplexed by Chicago's avoidance of a receiver, especially given offensive coordinator Mike Martz's toy box obsession with players that can catch the football. But given the availability of receivers (Braylon Edwards, anyone?), perhaps the Bears plan a free-agent splash. I don't see how they can be successful in their offensive scheme without at least one quality addition to the receiving core.

Last year, Chicago's defense was ninth in the NFL in yardage against, and fourth in points allowed. How will your team's offense look to counter the Bears' defense, which boasts three Pro Bowlers?


Peppers, one of three Pro Bowlers on the defense.
Joe Robbins/Getty
Yotter: I will be especially curious to see how long the Bears defense can hold up to that standard. I thought Brian Urlacher was at the end of his career, but his performance last year surprised me, and I'm still not convinced Lance Briggs is worth the investment. So, that said, I think the Vikings' best method to attack most defenses this year is with a renewed commitment to Adrian Peterson and the running game, which should be aided by a new offensive line coach.

Huber: If I had that answer, Mike McCarthy probably would offer me a job. Seriously, I haven't a clue. Aaron Rodgers' season passer rating was 101.2. In three games against Chicago, he had ratings of 92.5 (Week 3 loss at Chicago), 89.7 (10-3 win in Week 17) and 55.4 (NFC Championship Game). Rodgers and McCarthy seemed to have things figured out early, when Green Bay took control, but by game's end, Lovie Smith and the Bears' defense had it all figured out. I will say a healthy Jermichael Finley would help, but X's and O's wise, I'm clueless.

Caminata: The Lions were competitive in both games against Chicago, and in both they were without starting quarterback Matthew Stafford. Given the array of weapons, and provided Stafford can stay healthy, it's difficult to imagine many league defenses that can stifle Detroit's output. Certainly, they won't run roughshod over the Bears, but having two kinetic forces within the NFC North adds intrigue to a division already featuring the defending Super Bowl champions.

The Bears have always put a lot of stock into its special teams, with the unit annually one of the best in the league. How do you think the new kickoff rules will affect Chicago, and in particular, Devin Hester? Will he be able to have as big of an impact on the outcome of games as he did before?

Yotter: Hester can still be one of the best punt returners in the league – those rules won't affect that. His effectiveness on kickoffs will largely depend on the kicker he is facing, but ultimately he will either have to accept that he can't bring as many out of the end zone or he'll have to take more risks. I expect every kick returner will see a drop in the number of attempts.

Huber: The kickoff rules are going to be a killer for half the season. Never mind that moving the ball up 5 yards will mean kickoffs will go 5 yards deeper. It goes well beyond that. Green Bay, with a horrendous coverage unit, frequently popped the ball up or squibbed it — anything to disrupt the blocking. With the ball moved forward 5 yards, kicker Mason Crosby — who has a strong leg — can just bomb away. That'll be a big deal, especially when the weather is nice. As the season goes on and the weather gets cold and the fields get slick, Hester will be a force again.

Caminata: Considering each team is affected by the rule, I'm not so sure the Bears will lose any previous leverage; team's that adapt and understand the importance of special teams will make it work. As for Hester, I've felt his expanded role in Chicago's offense has already diminished his impact on special teams. Furthermore, very few return men have longevity; with his skillset, perhaps featuring him primarily on offense, and finding another return guy will be more of a benefit to both him and the team.

Chicago hosted the NFC Championship last season despite having arguably the worst offensive line in the league. Was last year a fluke, or could some upgrades along the front five propel the Bears to the next level?

Yotter: : I was surprised how much the running game, especially Chester Taylor, struggled last year. They definitely need an upgrade on the offensive line if they want to contend again. The Bears defense and special teams has done enough with big plays to make up for an inconsistent offense, but a good running game would do a lot to help keep leads and keep the defense fresh.

Huber: Maybe "fluke" is a strong word but I don't see the Bears getting back. Teams that get to a conference title game one season typically slip back the next. Not until the Bears can protect Cutler and give him a big option in the receiving game will that offense be of championship-caliber. Gabe Carimi is a nice piece, but can he play the all-important left tackle position? I just think the Bears have too many problems on offense to solve in a race against the clock with their aging defense.

Caminata: Fluke's don't get you to the NFC championship game; rather, the team simply overcame deficits via the strengths in other areas. However, that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement, which I believe they sought in the draft with Gabe Carimi. The only catch is that the rest of the division has also made improvements, and like Green Bay, the Bears will have to improve upon their 2010 performance.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.


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