31 Days, 31 Teams: Chicago Bears
No NFL team was more active in free agency than the Chicago Bears. With no picks in the first two rounds of this year's draft the Bears had to rely on free agents to improve the team. Now the veterans must jell quickly for Chicago to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
It is Year Two of the Jay Cutler era but for the Bears to improve Cutler needs to do better than his first year. Cutler threw for 3,666 yards and 27 touchdowns however he was sacked 35 times and fired 26 interceptions. The problems for Cutler were twofold. One, Chicago did not have an established wide receiver last year. Tight end Greg Olsen led the team with only 60 receptions followed by receiver Devin Hester with 57. With Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu the Bears have a pair of up-and-coming receivers and someone will need to become a reliable target for Cutler. The 35 sacks underscored the problems with Chicago's offensive line. It also didn't help that running back Matt Forte averaged only 3.5 yards per carry while the Bears would end up 29th in rushing offense. Chester Taylor was signed in the offseason to bring depth to the backfield but the Bears did not address the offensive line in free agency.
Defensive end Julius Peppers was the biggest fish in the free agent pool and the Bears reeled him into to complement Adewale Ogunleye. Thanks to consistent pressure on quarterbacks the Bears improved drastically in passing defense, going from 30th in 2008 to 13th last year. The addition of Peppers along with Chicago's usually solid set of linebackers should only help Chicago's pass rush. Where the Bears need improvement is in stopping the run. The Bears ranked 23rd against the run after yielding 126.4 rushing yards per game in '09. In three particular losses the Bears gave up 189 yards to Cedric Benson, 137 to Ryan Grant and a combined 149 yards to Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells. in 2010 the Bears will face Grant twice, Adrian Peterson twice as well as solid run teams like Dallas, Carolina and the New York Jets.
It's hard to tell just where the Bears will finish this season. The additions of Taylor and Peppers were big and should help a team that finished 7-9 last year. However, the offensive line has to be more consistent, otherwise the Bears offense will remain sluggish. On the other side the Bears should be good against the pass but shaky against the run. If Peppers doesn't produce and Chicago can't stop the run seven wins may be difficult to duplicate.