Bears Season Preview
Now that the preseason is over and the roster is set it's time to take a serious look what the defending NFC champion Bears are putting on the field for 2007. The Bears are fortunate to return 20 of 22 starters from last years unit. The only defections occuring at RB with Thomas Jones being traded to the Jets and at DT with Ian Scott / Tank Johnson leaving through free agency and pure stupidity respectively. The acquisition of run-stuffing safety Adam Archuleta and the return of captain Mike Brown from injury look to strengthen the defensive secondary. On offense, the biggest changes will be Cedric Benson getting the workload at RB, Devin Hester taking reps at WR and rookie TE Greg Olsen combining with Desmond Clark to give the Bears two options at TE to stretch the field. The Bears also had some turnover at the coaching level with defensive coordinator Ron Rivera leaving to take a demotion to LB coach in San Diego. Ironically, our own LB coach Bob Babich was promoted to replace him.
The Bears face a tougher schedule than last year, but thanks to the cupcake soft NFC North it is easier than most super bowl teams get. Tough matchups against the Chargers, Cowboys, Eagles, Broncos and Saints should provide a clear barometer for the team this year. The Bears should be a lock to win the NFC North and a solid favorite to repeat as Conference champs. The AFC certainly has better teams at the top and "at this point" the Chargers, Patriots and Colts all look slightly better than the Bears but I wouldn't be surprised to see a dark-horse team like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or Jacksonville emerge from the AFC this year. I look for the Bears to post a solid 12-4 record and return to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl if they can stay healthy.
Let's take a look at the Bears by position and hand out some preseason grades.
Quarter Back - Grade C+
The trio of Rex Grossman, Brian Griese and Kyle Orton all return in the same depth as last year. This grade would be even lower except the Bears have much better depth than most teams with three QBs that have started in the league. The biggest question on the offense is can Grossman limit his bad games this year and avoid turning the ball over after racking up 20 INT and 8 fumbles last year. It's likely that Rex will improve on last years numbers with another year of maturity but it's doubtfull he will ever get down to franchise QB turnover numbers with his tendency to play aggressively and take chances. If Rex plays poorly and the Bears are losing after 4 weeks, look for Lovie Smith to give Brian Griese the nod at starting QB by week five. Griese may not be the answer though as he has shown a tendency to turn the ball over throughout his career as well.
Kyle Orton seems to have taken advantage of the offseason to give up beer-pong and instead focus on football. He came into camp in the best shape of his career and showed much-improved fundamentals and understanding of the game. His size and arm strength are better than Grossman's and if can mature and develop the rest of his game, he has a legitimate chance to be the future QB for the Chicago Bears.
Running Back - Grade B-
#4 overall draft pick Cedric Benson finally gets his opportunity to be the workload back he has always wanted to be for the Bears. Benson has shined in this role throughout his pre-NFL career and he seems to be running as strong as ever. His speed has always been a question, but his top gear is as good if not better than Thomas Jones' by most accounts. If the OL holds up well, there's no reason Benson won't crack 1000 yards this year. Benson will be spelled by the durable Adrian Peterson and the sprightly Garret Wolfe. Peterson is a solid backup but has no big-play ability. Wolfe is an electric runner who may be lucky to survive in the NFL at only 185 pounds, but this guy knows how the squirt through holes that field mice would find claustrophobic. Look for Wolfe to develop into a third down specialist at some point during the year.
Offensive Line - Grade B+
The Bears return five veteran lineman in 2007 including probowlers Olin Kreutz, Ruben Brown and John Tait. Fred Mitchell and Roberto Garza fill out the other two starting positions. Age seems to be the biggest concern with this group as with the exception of Garza, they are all over 30 years old. This group did a good job opening holes for Thomas Jones last year but never developed into a true road-paving unit. Their pass protection was usually solid, but often broke down against complicated blitzing defenses. They need to improve their blitz pickups if they want to help Grossman eliminate the stupid interceptions this year. This unit has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL if they can stay healthy and improve on last year. Terrence Metcalf, John St. Clair and Josh Beekman form a respectable , though not impressive, depth pool.
Wide Receiver - Grade C-
The Bears kept 6 wide receivers in a surprise move. Moose Muhammad and Bernard Berrian return as the starters. Moose is clearly at the tail end of his career and just doesn't provide the big-play ability. Berrian has added weight this year and focused on more disciplined route running and could be a breakout surprise if it hasn't hurt his speed. The softly constructed Mark Bradley and the over acheiving Rashied Davis should both see a lot of time on the field this year but neither has shown much in their careers so far. The biggest chance for upside this year comes not from experimenting with Devin Hester at the position but from the addition of mystery man Mike Haas. Mike Haas has caught everything thrown in his zip code with whatever appendage can reach it. I wouldn't be surprised to see this guy catch a pass with his ass cheeks. He doesn't have the speed or size you like at the WR position but many Bears fans will remember white-boy-deluxe Tom Waddle picking up every key 3rd down conversion imaginable before finally succumbing to the nasty effects of getting hit in the head by 240lb line backers on a weekly basis.
Tight End - Grade A-
This might be an optimistic grade, but I think the combination of Dez Clark and Greg Olsen could create matchup nightmares for defenses. Especially if they are lined up on the same side of the field. Clark was impressive year showing the ability to get down field quickly and beat line backers in coverage. Olsen has the potential to be even better. Grossman might owe these two more than a few free dinners if they emerge as a top-tier receiving tandem. Gabe Reid fills out the position and also doubles as a backup FB.
Defensive Line - Grade A-
The return of Tommie Harris moves this group from average to elite in a hurry. Harris is one of those special players that makes an impact every play and forces teams to game plan around him. His surgically repaired hamstring has shown no problems so far and he should be back 100%. Fellow Oklahoma alumni Dusty Dvoracek will get the starting nose tackle position after sitting out his rookie year with a leg injury. Free agent pickup Darwin Walker provides great depth in the rotation at DT. At the DE position the rotation of Adewale Ogunleye, Mark Anderson and Alex Brown should generate a healthy pass rush for the Bears. Anderson gets a much deserved promotion to the starting unit after leading the team with 12 sacks last year. Overall the DL should continue to be a position of strength for the Bears.
Linebacker - Grade A
Many teams would kill to have the trio of linebackers like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer. This unit plays together as well as the New York Philharmonic during concert season. The speed and instincts of this trio allow the Bears to play an opportunistic defensive style that is designed to swarm ball carriers and generate turnovers. Urlacher is a future hall of famer and the best MLB since Dick Butkus. Briggs has put his contract dispute, and his Lamborghini, behind him in his pursuit of a super bowl and a mega payday after this season. Hillenmeyer continues to be the model role player and tenacious run defender on the strong side. Jamar Williams is generating a lot of buzz as being ready to fill Briggs shoes after this season. I'll hold off judgement for now, but that is a tall order of anybody.
Defensive Back - Grade A-
The Bears locked up their excellent corner backs tandem of Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman with long-term contracts this offseason. They complement each other well with Tillman's size and Vasher's quickness. Both provide excellent run-support, though Tillman is the better run-stopper and Vasher the better cover corner. Ricky Manning Jr. is an excellent nickel back who perfectly fits the Bears system. Backups Corey Graham and Trumaine McBride should be better than whoever was back there last year, but let's hope they are not called into regular duty this year. The Bears should be solid at safety with Mike Brown and Adam Archuleta. Archuleta is a liability in pass coverage, but blitzs well and is excellent in run-support. Mike Brown, when healthy, has that intangible ability to make big plays when they are needed most. He's the emotional leader of the defense and has excellent football instincts.
Special Teams - Grade A+
Robbie Gould, Brad Maynard and Devin Hester. Combine those three specialists with a great kick coverage unit and you have the best special teams in the league. Gould needs a little more distance before he can be called an elite kicker, but he has ice water for blood (or perhaps he's just to stupid to realize when he is kicking a potential game winning field goal) and he is super reliable from inside 50 yards. Devin Hester won't get the opportunities to score like he did last year when he broke the return TD record as teams will just not kick him the ball. Either way the Bears should enjoy excellent starting field position all year as teams kick for the sidelines.