OFFENSIVE LINE (B+) With four new starters around C Roberto Garza — including rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills — the O-line was steady if not spectacular and laid the groundwork for 2014. Jermon Bushrod was a big upgrade. Matt Slauson was better than ex
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Updated: September 3, 2013 1:57PM
It remains to be seen if the Bears are a better team than they were in 2012 when they went 10-6 but did not make the playoffs. But they already have accomplished one offseason goal — on paper, they have brought their offense into the 21st century, with a rebuilt offensive line, a tight end who can catch the ball and a coaching staff that looks like it will accentuate Jay Cutler’s strengths instead of waiting for opportunity to develop.
But don’t take it from me. Take it from Bears long-snapper Pat Mannelly, who in his 16 seasons with the Bears has seen three head coaches and seven offensive coordinators come and go. He sees things looking up.
‘‘The biggest thing I see is just our talent on our offense and just having an offensive-minded head coach is just different,’’ Mannelly told me. ‘‘It is what it is. With a defensive-minded head coach, that’s his specialty. You can kind of sense that a little bit, just around here that we’re going to score more points.’’
Mannelly’s testimony is one reason why Marc Trestman-over-Lovie Smith is one of the top 10 Bears upgrades from last season. It might turn out that Lovie remains a more accomplished head coach than Trestman. But for now, as Mannelly implied, Trestman gives the Bears a better chance to maximize the one area that was holding them back the most.
With the Bears having set — but not finalized — their 53-man roster, here’s a look at the top 10 upgrades from last season. It’s no surprise that all of them involve the offense.
1. Martellus Bennett over Kellen Davis at tight end: Bennett is not Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, but he’s not a project the Bears are crossing their fingers hoping he’ll become what they envision in their dreams. Before last season, Lovie Smith said he thought Davis could become the big-play tight end teams like the Patriots and Saints had. ‘‘Great size. Great in-line blocker. Skilled enough to move outside and do some things. I really like him,’’ Smith said at the scouting combine in 2012. Davis reportedly will be cut by the Browns, who were 25th in the NFL in total offense last season.
2. Jermon Bushrod over J’Marcus Webb at left tackle: Webb wasn’t as bad as many thought last season — according to Pro Football Focus he was tied with Lance Louis as their most effective linemen, though still with an overall negative grade. But he wasn’t good enough and he wasn’t getting any better. Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler, might not be the best left tackle in football, but he looks like he’s done this before. And Jay Cutler respects him — not an insignificant point with the Bears quarterback running the show.
3. Matt Forte over Matt Forte at running back. The Bears could have a lot of these kinds of upgrades in Trestman’s offense. But Forte already has shown that he’ll be more productive in Trestman’s offense than he was last year, when he had 44 receptions for 340 yards and one touchdown. Forte has averaged five touchdowns a season with the Bears. He could double that in this offense.
4. Matt Slauson over Chris Spencer at left guard: This upgrade shouldn’t be overlooked. Spencer was a center and right guard who was playing left guard for the first time in his career last season. (And judging by Roberto Garza’s obvious preference of right guard over left guard in 2010, there is a difference in the positions). Slauson has been almost exclusively a left guard in his three seasons as a starter with the New York Jets. Already he looks like a better fit.
5. Marc Trestman over Lovie Smith: Not to disparage the accomplishments of Lovie, who took the Bears to the Super Bowl and won 10 games or more four times, but Trestman gives the Bears a chance to maximize an offense that ranked 28th in the NFL with Pro Bowl-caliber skill position players in Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte.
6. Kyle Long over Lance Louis at right guard: A tougher call because Lance Louis was the Bears’ best offensive lineman last season. Still, Long has been such a hit in the preseason that apologies are already coming from experts who either said Phi Emery reached with the pick or simply got the wrong guy. It’ll be interesting to see how Long adjusts when the real bullets start flying, but if he learns as quickly as he has in training camp, it won’t be a problem.
7. Jay Cutler over Jay Cutler at quarterback. Sure it’s too early to know for sure, but unless Cutler completely self-destructs, it’s pretty evident he’ll be a better quarterback under Marc Trestman than he was under Mike Tice and Mike Martz. The biggest question is whether he’ll be better at the right times. Cutler was third in the NFL in passer rating when his team was up or down by 14 points or more (111.2, eight touchdowns, one interception), but 33rd when his team was within two touchdowns (71.4, 11 touchdowns, 13 interceptions).
8. Marquess Wilson/Joe Anderson over Devin Hester at wide receiver: Neither of the young guys has proven anything in the NFL yet, but Cutler believes in both of them. Cutler’s inability to connect with Hester on several levels was a detriment to the whole Hester experiment.
9. Jordan Mills/Jonathan Scott over Gabe Carimi at right tackle. Not sure if Mills won the job by injury default or not, but Carimi was the Bears’ lowest-rated offensive linemen when he played right tackle last season, according to Pro Football Focus — a positive in the running game, but a bigger negative in the passing game. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and a scheme that is supposed to get rid of the ball quickly might deserve the most credit if this indeed turns into an upgrade. But Mills looked pretty good in the preseason.
10. Devin Hester over Devin Hester at kick returner: This is mostly a presumption, since Hester didn’t do much in the preseason. But Hester’s history is that he’s been a better kick returner when he hasn’t been as big a part of the offense. The biggest question of course is whether he’s still got it at 30. The second biggest question is whether the Bears will be good enough on special teams to give Hester the chance.
It’s worth noting that none of these upgrades is on defense. The Bears made fewer changes on defense and most of the possible upgrades might take some time to develop. It’s hard to say Jon Bostic (or D.J. Williams) will be an upgrade over Brian Urlacher in the season opener. But by the end of the season — when Urlacher was less effective and then out with an injury in 2012 — either one of them almost has to be.
The other changes are all question marks at this point: James Anderson for Nick Roach at strongside linebacker; Isaiah Frey for Kelvin Hayden at nickel back. Can Cheta Ozougwu or rookie Cornelius Washington replace Israel Idonije? Right now it appears Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin will have to be that much better this season. And there are other question marks on defense: Will cornerback Tim Jennings still play at a Pro Bowl level even if he doesn’t lead the NFL in interceptions as he did in 2012? Will Chris Conte be better in his third year than he was in his second year at free safety? And all that assumes that 30-and-over stalwarts Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman will maintain their Pro Bowl level.
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