As an organization, the Bears made swift moves this offseason to improve their defense. Jared Allen and LaMarr Houston were swiped in free agency to bolster the pass rush, Shea McClellin was moved back to the linebacker group to add depth and a pair of big defensive tackles (Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton) were drafted. Additionally, Charles Tillman was re-signed, Ryan Mundy found his way via free agency and rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Brock Vereen (brother of Shane) were drafted to stabilize what became a shaky secondary. All told, the Bears should have five or six new starters for Week 1 compared to Week 1 last season.
Of course, the Bears were able to focus on the defensive side of the ball because the offensive side of the ball was sensational. The arrival of head coach Marc Trestman along with a much improved offensive line proved to be the magic combination to turn the Bears offense from good to great. The Bears tied for second in the NFL in points per game (27.8), finished fifth in the league in passing (267.6 yards per game) and 16th rushing (114.2 yards per game, most of which went to Matt Forte). They also set seven franchise records including most net passing yards in a season (4,281) and passing touchdowns (32).
So while the Lions are tinkering a little bit and the Vikings are rebuilding their offense, the Bears are upping the ante in their arms race with the Packers in the NFC North. The biggest focus they have is staying healthy. It's no secret that the Bears' offense did so well because the O-line did its job and kept Matt Forte motoring for 15 games. Cutler's health is also a priority -- he's put on more weight in an effort to become more durable. He was sacked just 19 times last year, 1.7 times per game on average, the best he's done since arriving in Chicago. The better protection he gets, the better this offense will be. To that end the team added center Brian De La Puente via free agency to compete for a starting job. After protecting Drew Brees for years, De La Puente should come in handy as at least quality depth. Just another very good player on a very good playoff contending team.
Top 10 Fantasy receiver ... Alshon Jeffery
Remember when Chicago used to be Fantasy Siberia for wide receivers? Holy cow, the Bears now have two Top 10 Fantasy receivers worth your consideration. Brandon Marshall is a gimme but Jeffery deserves attention after he led the Bears in receiving yards, posting 126 more than Marshall on 11 fewer grabs. But what about the Marshall-Cutler bromance that could take targets away from Jeffery? In a detailed dig into the Bears' stats, Cutler attempted exactly 89 passes in Jeffery's direction with the wideout catching 50 of them (56.2 pct. conversion) for 773 yards and three touchdowns. It's not amazing but it certainly suggests that Cutler knew to throw to Jeffery, a trend he should continue doing in 2014 (he wants to win games, right?). Jeffery had eight or more targets in seven games with Cutler. He knows he's there. Jeffery should be there for you in Round 4 of your drafts.
Not a Top 12 tight end ... Martellus Bennett
September's a great month for Bennett. Over the last two seasons he's tallied 36 catches for 412 yards and six touchdowns in eight September games. Then he's been lousy, combining for 973 yards and four touchdowns in the other 24 games in October, November, December and January. Maybe Cutler can be a difference-maker for Bennett's post-September stats but even with Cutler he didn't do a lot over the course of 2013, snaring 46 passes on 65 targets for 555 yards and those three early-year scores. Bennett has ultimately disappointed over the past two seasons and it feels like there's just not a lot of upside with him. That's why the smarter Fantasy pick on Draft Day is on a younger tight end with a more optimistic outlook. Eric Ebron, Zach Ertz and even Ladarius Green all have more to hang your hat on than Bennett. If anything, Bennett is a desperation pick late to start the season with, but get rid of him before the Bears' Week 5 game in (gasp!) October.
Great mid- to late-round value ... Jay Cutler
You've already read up on just how prolific the Bears passing offense was last year. You might have even heard us spout off that if Cutler had received all of Josh McCown's stats in 2013 that he would have been last year's third-best Fantasy quarterback. But perhaps the most inspiring stat we can give you from the past season is that Cutler's rate of getting 20-plus Fantasy points was at 60 percent, good for ninth-best among all quarterbacks. So it's safe to say that had Cutler stayed healthy he would have had another big year. The problem? Cutler's track record for staying on the field is about as healthy as a slice of stuffed sausage Chicago-style pizza, which is to say it's not very good (but delicious nonetheless). Drafting Cutler as a starting Fantasy quarterback in 2014 is a grand idea, particularly because you can find him after Round 8 or 9. But he can't be your only quarterback because of that injury history, and that means committing to two passers on your Fantasy roster. Pairing Cutler with Philip Rivers or Cam Newton or Russell Wilson or Carson Palmer is a fine plan, even if you're bound to mess up starting the right one from week to week.
|Matt Forte||363 (289 car., 74 rec.)||46.7%|
|Alshon Jeffery||105 (89 rec., 16 car.)||13.5%|
|Brandon Marshall||100 rec.||12.9%|
|Michael Bush||67 (63 car., 4 rec.)||8.6%|
|Martellus Bennett||65 rec.||8.4%|
It's a tale of two halves for the Bears. Their first eight games are tough including their first three road games over Weeks 2 through 5 against the 49ers, Jets and Panthers with a home game vs. the Packers mixed in. They also play at New England in Week 8 which should be an absolute chess match between Trestman and Belichick. After their Week 9 bye, though, they're in awesome shape. Five home games in their last seven and the toughest matchup in the second half of the season might be at Detroit. Overall the schedule-makers wanted to put the Bears in front of a national audience as they have six such games (five in prime time, one on Thanksgiving afternoon). They're also one of two teams to play two Thursday games, though they're in consecutive weeks. If several Bears players begin the year slowly, do not panic. In fact, trade for them since the second half of the year should be great.
Training camp battles
Who's backing up
Who's the third receiver? This is more of a Bears roster thing than a Fantasy thing since the total number of receptions for receivers not named Marshall or Jeffery last season was a massive 35. If you're in a dynasty league keep an eye on how second-year receiver Marquess Wilson looks in camp. The 6-foot-3, 207 pounder is the odds-on favorite to win that third job and could be a decent stash for down the line.
Who's backing up Cutler? In what might be the least anticipated camp battle in the history of the National Football League, Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen headline a four-man race to back up Cutler. Exhilarating. One of the names in the chase is rookie David Fales, who should get the backup job by this time next year. It's important to note who's backing up Cutler since the starter hasn't played 16 games in a season since 2009.
Everyone has come to love Matt Forte in Fantasy. The 28-year-old is entering his seventh NFL season with an excellent track record that reached new heights last season in Trestman's offense. Forte totaled over 1,900 yards in 16 games with 12 total scores, all career-bests.
And he's going to do it again.
In time, the Bears will have to reel in Forte's workload -- he has over 1,500 career carries and 300 career catches already. But unless the rookie Carey plays like a Forte clone, the Bears won't be comfortable going with an inexperienced rusher in an offense that asks so much from them. Forte has a huge advantage being where he is without a single challenger to his throne. And so long as he stays healthy, he'll continue to rack up over 20 touches from week to week. Throw in that pretty second-half schedule and we should see Forte get real close to matching his totals from 2013.
In Kansas City, Jamaal Charles lost a number of offensive linemen but still will dominate the workload there like Forte. But in Philadelphia, the Eagles added Darren Sproles and got bigger and brighter at receiver, potentially taking a little bit too much off of LeSean McCoy's plate. That's enough of a reason to call Forte a better candidate for the No. 2 overall pick in Fantasy drafts this summer instead of McCoy. Count on him to finish very, very well once again -- better than McCoy.