Outlook for the 2011 Chicago Bears

Outlook for the 2011 Chicago Bears
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Rookie OT Gabe Carimi is going to be the man that proctects quarterback Jay Cutler’s blind side
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Rookie DT Stephen Paea is going to be given the tough task of replacing Anthony Adams and Tommie Harris.

The Chicago Bears won the NFC North Division in 2010 with an 11-5 record, despite giving up a league-worst 56 sacks last season and having one of the worst offenses in the league. Once in the playoffs, the Bears would beat the Seattle Seahawks 35-24 in the Divisional round, but would lose to the Green Bay Packers 21-14 in the NFC Conference Championship game.

In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Bears addressed their left tackle issues by selecting Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin) with their first-round pick. In the second round, the Bears addressed their needs at defensive tackle by selecting Stephen Paea (Oregon State). Throughout the rest of their draft, the Bears added depth to their roster.

With the addition of their rookies, let’s take a look at the Bears’ current roster and see what positions are still in need of upgrades.

Quarterbacks (4)

Jay Cutler, Caleb Hanie, Nate Enderle, Matt Gutierrez

Jay Cutler completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 3,274 yards, 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season. In his first season under Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz, Cutler was no longer allowed to freelance outside the pocket and as a result Cutler grew as a quarterback and made quicker reads, but his current protection and weapons around him are preventing him from reaching his full potential.

Caleb Hanie will have to compete with Nate Enderle to be Jay Cutler’s backup in 2011. Hanie apparently doesn’t have the support of Mike Martz who criticized Hanie for his two interceptions in last year’s NFC Championship game, despite the fact that Hanie was the only Bears quarterback to effectively move offense in that game. It appears that Hanie will be allowed to hit the free agent market in 2012, and a change of scenery might be good for him at this point.

Rookie Nate Enderle (Idaho) was an excellent game manager in college and has NFL size at 6’4’’, 240 pounds. Enderle has a solid arm, but his accuracy is very average and he has poor mechanics. Mike Martz handpicked Enderle and believes he can improve his fundamentals and turn him into a capable backup. In fact Martz has said that “Enderle was not drafted to be the third quarterback.” Expect The Bears to give Enderle every possible chance to unseat Caleb Hanie as Jay Cutler’s backup.

Matt Gutierrez spent last season on Chicago’s practice squad and signed a reserve/future contract. Gutierrez isn’t going to make the Bears opening day roster unless one of the quarterbacks goes down with an injury, or Mike Martz convinces the Bears to cut Caleb Hanie.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago is set at quarterback, but depending on Nate Enderle’s development, they might need a backup quarterback in 2012.

Halfbacks (4)

Matt Forte, Chester Taylor, Kahlil Bell, Harvey Unga

Matt Forte is entering the final year of his contract and is said to be looking for a huge contract. “Look at the stats over the last three years,” said Forte. “I’m among the top five running backs in all-purpose yards and touchdowns and all that stuff. So hopefully we can do something.” Forte hasn’t missed a game in three years, and was only one of five backs to top 1,000 rushing and 500 receiving yards in 2010, so he certainly deserves a raise from the $555,000 he’s set to receive in 2011.

Chester Taylor averaged 2.4 yards per carry last season, and despite rumors of his potential release, the Bears are expected to hold onto Taylor. Taylor will make $1.275 million in 2011, but needs to produce more on third downs or this could be his last season as Bear since his contract will rise to $1.75 million in 2012 and $2.425 million in 2013.

Kahlil Bell average 5.5 yards per carry in 2009, but didn’t receive a carry last season because Garrett Wolfe beat him out for the third-string half back job last season. With Wolfe heading into free agency, Bell is expected to step up and take over Wolfe’s role. The former undrafted running back could potentially be the No. 2 halfback, if Chester Taylor struggles again in 2011.

Harvey Unga is currently the fourth-string halfback after spending last season on the injured reserve. Unga isn’t expected to move up the depth chart will need to make a huge impact on special teams in preseason if he’s going to make it on the opening day roster

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago could sign a proven backup halfback since the Bears didn’t get enough out of their backups last year. Chicago relied heavily on Forte last season, and might be inclined to find a better backup to relieve some pressure off of their star halfback. Potential Free Agents include: Michael Bennett, Ladell Betts, Kevin Faulk, Julius Jones, Mewelde Moore, Fred Taylor, Brian Westbrook, Cadillac Williams, and Ricky Williams

Fullback (1)

Eddie Williams

Eddie Williams signed a reserve/future contract, but could make the Bears’ opening day roster. Williams is a versatile fullback prospect with H-back type skills and soft hands. The Bears really don’t use a fullback in their offense, so Williams is going to have to compete with Harvey Unga to make the 2011 roster

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago doesn’t really use the fullback position in Mike Martz’s system, but when they use the I-Formation, they put a tight end there.

Wide Receivers (5)

Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Andy Fantuz, Onrea Jones

Johnny Knox was criticized by NFL Network’s Marshall Faulk for not fighting for passes in traffic and playing without physicality last season. “Every time I see Johnny Knox run a slant he goes behind the defender and you see an interception go the other way and everyone looks at Jay Cutler and says, ‘How did he throw that?,’” said Faulk. Knox had 51 receptions for 960 yards and 5 touchdowns, but led the league in most targets that were picked off. At this point in his career, Knox is better suited to be a No. 2 receiver because of his deep threat abilities.

Earl Bennett is expected to have a bigger role in 2011 after catching 46 receptions for 561 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. “We didn’t throw it to him enough,” Mike Martz said. “That will be remedied … He established himself as a guy who needs to get a lot more balls than he did.” Martz plans to use Bennett outside more, but that could change if the Bears bring in a possession receiver that could allow Bennett to stay in the slot.

Devin Hester played in just 66 percent of the Bear’s offensive snaps, but Head Coach Lovie Smith wants him to have more of an impact in the offense than the 40 receptions for 475 yards and 4 touchdowns that he had in 2010. “I would like to see us find a way to get him the ball more, maybe in certain situations,” said Smith. That idea could get thrown out the window if the Bears can land a better receiver via free agency.

Andy Fantuz used to play in the CFL for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Fantuz has good size at 6’4’’, 221 pounds, and has shown impressive athletic ability and good hands in the Bears player-organized workouts. If Fantuz can continue to showcase his talents in preseason, he could emerge as a receiver in a role similar to what Ricky Proehl had in St. Louis under Martz’s system as a possession, third-down type.

Onrea Jones was signed to reserve/future contract, but isn’t likely to make the opening day roster. The Bears are going to bring in a couple of free agents, which will move Jones further down the depth chart to the point that the Bears won’t need his services.

Free Agent Analysis:

Jay Cutler needs a physical go-to receiver to fight for his often wild throws and the Bears currently don’t have on their roster. Potential Free Agents include: Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Vincent Jackson, Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens. Edwards and Jackson would be a long-term solution whereas Houshmandzadeh, Moss and Owens would have to sign a one-or-two-year contract.

Tight End (3)

Greg Olsen, Brandon Manumaleuna, Kellen Davis

Greg Olsen had 41 receptions for 404 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2010. Olsen finished 21st in the league in tight end targets, behind the likes of Kevin Boss, Tony Scheffler, Tony Moeaki, and Jermaine Gresham. Under Mike Martz’s system, the tight end position is often overlooked, but given his Olsen’s talent, it’s going to be hard for Cutler not to look in his direction in 2011, considering it’s a contract season for Olsen.

Brandon Manumaleuna is a blocking specialist tight end, but was slowed down by a left knee scope last season. Manumaleuna had just five receptions for 43 yards and a touchdown in 2010, and probably won’t be much of a factor in the passing game in 2011, especially since he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in the offseason.

Kellen Davis should make the Bears’ opening day roster given his willingness to improve his blocking and the fact that Brandon Manumaleuna has injured both of his knees over the last two seasons.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago needs to see how healthy Brandon Manumaleuna is. Assuming they have their concerns, the Bears could look for another blocking specialist tight end. Potential Free Agents include: John Gilmore, Bo Scaife. Given the scarcity of blocking tight ends, Mike Martz might need to shift his philosophies.

O-Line (10)

Gabe Carimi, Chris Williams, Edwin Williams, Robert Garza, J’Marcus Webb, Frank Omiyale, Lance Louis, Herman Johnson, Johan Asiata, Levi Horn

Rookie Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin) polished his technique as a four-year starter at left tackle in college and will be given the opportunity to start there in his first season. Carimi has the ideal size to be an NFL tackle (6’7’’, 314 pounds) and should instantly upgrade the Bears pass protection. As a senior in college, Carimi won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top offensive lineman and has drawn comparisons to former Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan.

Chris Williams will start at left guard in 2011 despite rumors that the Bears might try to convert him as a center. Williams originally was the starting left tackle in 2010, but eventually was moved to left guard because the Bears wanted to get bigger in the interior of their line.

Edwin Williams was waived by the Washington Redskins before the 2010 season because he struggled with their zone-blocking scheme. Williams joined the Bears practice squad a few days later and a few weeks later was promoted to the active roster. The Bears’ power-blocking scheme proved to be perfect for the 6’3’’, 313 pound center and Williams is now being “groomed” as free agent Olin Kreutz’s eventual replacement at center.

Robert Garza originally started the 2010 season as the Bears starting left guard, but had to have arthroscopic knee surgery. Once Garza recovered, he re-entered the starting lineup as a right guard and as a result the Bears offensive line showed tremendous improvement and allowed fewer sacks in the second half of the season.

J’Marcus Webb is entering his second season with talks of him possibly being the starting left tackle. Webb has great athleticism, but putting the former seventh round pick at Jay Cutler’s blind side would be a huge gamble. The Bears would be better off letting him develop at right tackle and letting the rookie Gabe Carimi take over the left tackle spot, since Carimi won the Outland Trophy last year in college.

Frank Omiyale gave up 13 sacks and had 7 penalties in his first season as the Bears’ starting left tackle. Only four starting left tackles gave up more than 10 sacks last season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Omiyale will find himself on the bench behind rookie Gabe Carimi in 2011.

Lance Louis won the starting right guard job on opening day, but couldn’t hold onto it for long as Roberto Garza eventually slid over from the left guard position to take it from him. Louis struggled with run-blocking and the Bears had to take him out of the starting lineup. Louis won’t start in 2011, but should be the top backup guard for the Bears this season.

Herman Johnson is going to be a backup tackle and could surpass Frank Omiyale at some point. The man they call “House” used to play guard/tackle with the Arizona Cardinals, but will be asked to play tackle because his 6’7’’, 360 pound frame suggests that he’ll be good backup for J’Marcus Webb. Johnson has the potential to start, but needs to show up to training camp in better shape.

Johan Asiata and Levi Horn were signed to reserve/future contracts, but likely won’t make the Bears’ roster on opening day. The Bears are expected to resign Olin Kreutz and look for free agents, which will make both players expendable.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago needs to resign center Olin Kreutz because the team is in year two of a new system and needs Kreutz to mentor his eventual replacement Edwin Williams. The Bears addressed their left tackle issue by selecting Gabe Carimi and their right tackle position should be fine, assuming J’Marcus Webb develops better pass protecting skills. At the guard position, Roberto Garza is a safe bet, but Chris Williams needs to be replaced. Potential Free Agents include: Justin Blalock, Harvey Dahl, Trai Essex, Robert Gallery, and Adam Goldberg

D-Line (9)

Julius Peppers, Stephen Paea, Matt Toeaina, Israel Idonije, Corey Wootton, Henry Melton, Marcus Harrison, Nick Reed, Tank Tyler

Julius Peppers had 8 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles in his first season as a Bear. It wasn’t quite the season that the Bears had imagined when they signed Peppers to a six-year $84 million dollar contract, but they’ll take it. Peppers had zero sacks in the Bears’ two playoff games though, so the Bears need to be concerned about getting more production out of him when it matters most. However, many analysts believe that Peppers will be more effective in 2011 because he’ll be more comfortable in his second season and can afford to be more aggressive.

Rookie Stephen Paea (Oregon State) will primarily play the three technique, but will switch over to nose tackles on passing downs. Paea is a two-time Morris Trophy winner as the Pac 10’s top defensive lineman and racked up 29.5 career tackles for loss, 14 sacks, and nine forced fumbles in 36 career games. Paea fell to the second round because he suffered a torn meniscus during Senior Bowl practices. Paea had arthroscopic surgery to repair his knee, but apparently his injury scared away other teams. Paea should be healthy though and ready to start on opening day.

Matt Toeaina started 10 of the 16 games he appeared in at defensive tackle, and put up a career high 24 tackles and 2 sacks. Toeaina had only appeared in 5 games prior to the 2010 campaign, so the Bears should be pleased with the production they got from him. Toeaina figures to rotate in and out of games with Henry Melton, but both players will compete for the starting job in 2011.

Israel Idonije had 8 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in his first season as a starter and proved to the Bears that he’s deserving of starting in 2011. If Idonije can prove last season wasn’t a fluke, the Bears could have one of the top defensive end tandems in the NFL.

Corey Wootton showed improvement in a limited role at the end of last season but will need a big preseason if he’s going to take snaps away from Israel Idonije. Wootton finished the 2010 campaign with only 5 tackles and 1 sack.

Henry Melton has added 30 pounds of muscle this offseason in an effort to help his chances of starting at defensive tackle this season. Melton appeared in all 16 games in a limited role, but still managed to get 16 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. Matt Toeaina might have gotten all the attention from the coaches last season, but it will be hard for them to overlook Melton in 2011. Melton figures to rotate in and out of games with Toeaina, but the starting job will be up for grabs once the Lockout is lifted.

Marcus Harrison was once viewed as “Chicago’s nose tackle of the future”, but was only active for five games in 2010 and was a healthy scratch for the final six games, including the playoffs. Harrison will one of the Bears’ “on the bubble” players entering 2011.

Nick Reed and Tank Tyler signed reserve/future contracts, but neither is expected to make the Bears’ opening day roster.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago doesn’t need any more defensive lineman, since there defensive ends were successful in 2010 and they drafted defensive tackle Stephen Paea in the second round to make up for the loss of Anthony Adams.

Linebackers (5)

Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, J.T. Thomas, Chris Johnson, Patrick Trahan

Lance Briggs dealt with an ankle injury since training camp last season and opted to miss the Pro Bowl as a result. Briggs finished second on the Bears with 89 tackles and also had 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Briggs is one of the top weak-side linebackers in the NFL and should be able to produce another Pro Bowl caliber season in 2011.

Brian Urlacher was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2006, but opted to take the week off after making 10 tackles, 1 sack and 1 interception in a losing effort in the NFC Conference Championship. For the whole season, Urlacher led the Bears with 125 tackles and also had 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Urlacher was crucial to the Bears’ success in 2010 and will be counted on in 2011 as well.

Rookie J.T. Thomas (West Virginia) is only listed as a starter because the Bears aren’t allowed to negotiate a contract with Pisa Tinoisamoa during the Lockout. Thomas will be Lance Briggs backup and have a role on special teams

Chris Johnson and Patrick Trahan signed reserve/future contracts and both have a chance of making the Bears’ opening day roster because the Bears are thin at linebacker.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago is going to resign Pisa Tinoisamoa once the Lockout is over and reportedly wants to resign Nick Roach as well. If the Bears resign both players as expected, they won’t need to look through free agency.

Cornerbacks (5)

Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, D.J. Moore, Zackary Bowman, Joshua Moore

Charles Tillman was relatively injury-free in 2010 and played in all 16 games for the first time since his 2003 rookie year. Tillman was third on the Bears with 82 tackles and for the team lead with 5 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. If Tillman can stay healthy in 2011, the Bears can feel assured that the right side of the field will be taken away from their opponents as Tillman is playing at an elite level.

Tim Jennings took the starting job away from Zackary Bowman in Week 4 and never gave it back. Jennings had 56 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble in 2010 and will battle again with Bowman for the starting job opposite Charles Tillman.

D.J. Moore was superb as a nickel corner last season with 42 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1sacks, and 1 forced fumble. Moore ran 4.6 forty in the 2010 Scouting combine but is a perfect fit for the Bears’ cover 2 zone scheme and should play the same role in 2011.

Zackary Bowman was replaced as a starter by Tim Jennings in Week 4, but according to Lovie Smith, Bowman is finally out of his doghouse. “Size, speed, hands – he has all those things.” Smith said. Bowman’s competition, Tim Jennings, was burnt on a regular basis in Indianapolis, but had a surprisingly stellar first season in Chicago. Obviously Jennings is the favorite heading into training camp, but Bowman could reclaim the starting job if he has a strong preseason.

Joshua Moore landed on the practice squad last season despite putting a nice preseason together and dramatically improving his coverage. Moore has talent and potential, but needs to get stronger before he gets a chance to have a role on special teams and eventually move up the depth chart.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago will bring in undrafted free agents to fill out their roster. The Bears only have 5 cornerbacks and most teams carry more going into preseason.

Safeties (4)

Major Wright, Chris Harris, Craig Steltz, Chris Conte

Major Wright is expected to be the starting free safety and had it not been for an early-season hamstring injury, Wright might have been a starter last season. After his injury, the Bears eased Wright into games, but with Danieal Manning searching for a big contract, the Bears are going to let Wright take over.

Chris Harris was fifth in tackles with 70, and tied for the team lead with 5 interceptions last season. Harris is a good coverage safety, but needs to work on getting more involved with stopping the run game especially if he’s moving into the strong safety role.

Craig Steltz was the Bears’ starting safety in their first preseason game, but suffered a high-ankle sprain and became a backup the rest of the season. Steltz won’t be a starter in 2011, but he will get more playing time and eventually earn a starting job with the Bears or another team since his contract is up after this season.

Rookie Chris Conte (California) was a seventeen-game college starter and will see a limited number of snaps in 2011. There’s no way that the Bears would give Conte a big role with such limited experience, but he should receive a special teams role since he ran a 4.5 forty.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago doesn’t need to resign Danieal Manning because Major Wright is ready to step into the starting safety role and the Bears would be wise to spend their money upgrading other positions.

Kicker (1)

Robbie Gould

Robbie Gould converted 83.3 percent of his field goals in 2010 which is very good because the conditions at Soldier Field are among the worst in the league. Gould is regarded as one of the best kickers in the NFL and he converted 3 of 4 field goals from 50+ yards.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago has Robbie Gould under contract until 2013 and he has yet to have a bad kicking season so far. The Bears do not need to look for a kicker, since Gould is also good at kickoffs and had 16 touchbacks in 2010.

Punter (1)

Richmond McGee

Richmond McGee signed a reserve/future contract but could become the Bears next starter with Brad Maynard heading into free agency. McGee was the Bears’ camp leg in last years’ training camp because Maynard was injured. The Bears must think highly of McGee’s leg if they decided to bring him back.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago appears willing to let Brad Maynard go and let Richmond McGee start in his place. Don’t be surprised though, if the Bears bring in a camp leg though.

Long Snapper (1)

Patrick Mannelly

Patrick Mannelly is 36 years old and in his thirteenth season as the Bears’ long snapper. He is currently the Bears longest tenured player and was resigned for two more years back in December.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago won’t need to worry about this position until the 2013 season, since Mannelly will probably be mulling over retirement by then. Mannelly is highly regarded in the organized and is a proven long snapper in the NFL.

Kick/Punt Returners (2)

Devin Hester

Devin Hester is one of the most electrifying kick/punt returners in the NFL. Hester averaged 35.6 yards per kick return in 2010 in the 12 attempts that he had. Hester also averaged 17.1 per punt return and scored 3 touchdowns.

Free Agent Analysis:

Chicago should let Hester return kicks in 2011, since he was much more successful than Danieal Manning who averaged 24.7 yards per kick return. Manning is an unrestricted free agent and the Bears can just plug Hester back in as a kick returner instead.

Bears Unrestricted Free Agents (13)

Anthony Adams, Devin Aromashodu, Josh Bullocks, Rashied Davis, Corey Graham, Tommie Harris, Brian Iwuh, Olin Kreutz, Danieal Manning, Brad Maynard, Nick Roach, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Garrett Wolfe

Anthony Adams is expected to receive interest from “several” teams because of his willingness to play nose tackle. The Bears are expected to try to resign Adams, but he needs to decide if he wants more money or stay where he’s comfortable

Devin Aromashodu is a poor route runner and blocker and after only having 22 receptions for 282 yards last season, he’s unlikely to receive much interest in the free agent market

Josh Bullocks helped out on special teams in 2010 and was active in every game. Bullocks will be looking for an opportunity to start and it’s not very likely that he’d get it in Chicago. Bullocks made 49 starts in his first four seasons with the New Orleans Saints, but made only 4 starts in his two seasons with the Bears

Rashied Davis helped organize workouts for the Bears’ receivers and quarterbacks during the Lockout. Davis is hoping that being a leader in the offseason will help his chances of staying on the Bears’ roster. If Davis were to be resigned though, his contributions would be limited because he’ll be 32 before the 2011 season begins and only had 9 receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown in 2010.

Corey Graham was a special team ace in 2010 but wants an opportunity to start in 2011. Graham was passed over by Tim Jennings when a starting spot at cornerback opened up.

Tommie Harris is coming off two consecutive disappointing seasons. Harris has lost some lower-body strength that made him a force to be reckoned with early in his career because of multiple knee injuries and a serious hamstring tear. Harris won’t rule out resigning with Bears, but will likely have to settle for an incentive-laden one-year deal. Harris could sign with the Indianapolis Colts because if he’s healthy, he’d be a natural fit in Indianapolis’ Cover-2 scheme.

Brian Iwuh had ten special teams tackles last season, but the Bears didn’t feel that Iwuh was worth signing a $1.2 million contract and will only resign him if he is willing to accept a minimum salary that is incentive and bonus laden.

Olin Kreutz has spent all 13 years of his career in Chicago, but given his experience, he could be an attractive free agent. Kreutz is 34 years old and this should be his last chance to receive a major contract. Kreutz could be back with the Bears though as both sides have expressed interest.

Danieal Manning wants to check out his options in the free agent market. He’s a dynamic kickoff returner with outstanding speed and athleticism and reportedly turned down an extension attempt from the Bears before the 2010 season was over.

Brad Maynard and special teams’ coordinator Dave Toub had disagreements about directional kicking last season and as a result the Bears are expected to move on from Maynard. Maynard ranked 29th in net average (35.2 yards) and could be headed for a downfall since he turned 37 back in February.

Nick Roach is expected to be resigned by the Bears because the Bears are thin and aging at linebacker. Roach is also a strong special teamer, and the Bears don’t want to lose all their free agents

Pisa Tinoisamoa missed 18 games over the past two seasons, but when healthy, he is an outstanding run stopper. Tinoisamoa is coming off his third right knee surgery and at 30 years his market price isn’t expected to be high, and it should be expected that the Bears will find a way to resign him.

Garrett Wolfe could be resigned by the Bears, but wouldn’t be an option to replace him Chester Taylor should they cut him. Wolfe is 5’7’’, 186 pounds and isn’t big enough to pick up blitzing linebackers on third downs and his value as a special teams ace might not be a good enough reason for the Bears to resign him.