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10 observations on offseason priorities for the Bears

 
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Bears quarterback Jay Cutler leaves field following Bears 33-28 loss Green Bay Sunday December 29 2013.  | JessicKoscielniak /

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler leaves the field following the Bears 33-28 loss to the Green Bay, Sunday, December 29, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak / Sun-Times

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Updated: December 30, 2013 10:35PM



Of the seven new coaches in the NFL this season, the Bears’ Marc Trestman and the Browns’ Rob Chudzinski were the only ones whose teams had worse records than last season. And the Browns, who dropped from 6-10 in 2012 to 4-12 this season, were so disappointed with Chudzkinski they didn’t even wait until Black Monday to fire him. They announced it Sunday night.

Trestman, of course, isn’t going anywhere after the 10-6 team he inherited from Lovie Smith finished 8-8 with a 33-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Soldier Field. But his first season with the Bears might have been even more disappointing than Chudzinski’s. The Browns never were a contender. The Bears were in first place or tied for first place for 12 of the 17 weeks of the NFL schedule.

Most of all, they had two opportunities to clinch the NFC North title and blew both of them — a spectacular prime-time failure in a 54-11 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia last week; and the dreaded home loss to the Packers on Sunday.

‘‘You have to give the Packers credit,’’ Trestman said, ‘‘they came back, were able to convert on three fourth downs. And Aaron Rodgers made the play that a player like him can make. He found a way to win the game with a great play.

‘‘Very disappointed for our players. Very disappointed for our fans. But really proud of the effort they put in [against the Packers].’’

The disappointing finish casts a more critical light on Trestman, whose intellect, demeanor, straightforward approach with the media and apparent impact on his players seemed like a breath of fresh air at Halas Hall. Now, his choice of Mel Tucker as defensive coordinator appears dubious; his curious decision to have Robbie Gould attempt a 47-yard field goal on second down in overtime against the Vikings looks like an even more disastrous move; and all those one-hour practices and extra days off make him look too much like Lovie Smith.

With an offense that figures to get better and a defense that can’t get any worse, the Bears are likely to improve from here. But the way this season ended, Trestman has even more to prove now than when he arrived. The Bears wouldn’t have done any better if they had kept Lovie Smith. But with Bruce Arians — Phil Emery’s runner-up to Trestman who just went 10-6 with the Arizona Cardinals and nearly beat the 49ers at home on Sunday? After Sunday’s loss to the Packers, that is a question worth asking. After a disappointing 8-8 season that left them out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, the Bears certainly could have done better. And they’ll have to next season.

Be that as it may, it’ll be a busy and interesting offseason right from the start. Here are 10 of the biggest issues confronting Trestman and general manager Phil Emery heading into 2014:

(1) Mel Tucker

Unless Emery steps in, it’s unlikely that Marc Trestman will fire Tucker after one season as defensive coordinator, but the notion no longer is off the table after a disastrous finish to a difficult season.

It became more and more clear as the season ensued that this was more than just a case of injuries for Tucker, who lost Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Charles Tillman and Kelvin Hayden to sesaon-ending injuries and Lance Briggs for half the season.

Even relative to the injuries, this was an embarrassing defensive season for the Bears — one that left Briggs, the so-called leader of the team, to exit the locker room without a word and leave his teammates to explain dreadful performances in the final two games.

Tucker was expected to at least stem the tide with teaching and motivation and technique, but failed on every count. Players consistently were in the wrong position. Tackling was worse than it ever was under Lovie Smith. And the failure to pick up a fumble against the Packers — turning a would-be Bears touchdown into a Packers touchdown — was the most damning indictment of all. You didn’t need Melton or Tillman on the field to make that play, just a well-coached defense where even the greenest rookie or any off-the-street player is conditioned to instinctively pick up any loose ball. Nobody did.

It’s unlikely a change will be made. But you could argue that the situation Tucker faced was actually even better than the one that got offensive coordinator Terry Shea fired after his first season in 2004 — when a Rex Grossman injury left Shea with Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel and Jonathan Quinn at quarterback and the Bears finished 32nd and last in points and yards.

(2) Jay Cutler

While Cutler clearly is one of the biggest offseason issues, his should be one of the easiest. There is no doubt at all that both sides are better off staying together after a promising 2013 season.

In fact, you can argue that Cutler needs the continuity even more than the Bears. The Bears threw Josh McCown — he of the 71.0 career passer rating — and were as productive as they ever were in 2013. But Jay Cutler with his sixth offensive coordinator in seven seasons has problematic writtin all over it — and Cutler seems to understand that. All thing considered, it’s a good bet the two sides will come to an agreement that, like Robbie Gould’s deal, gives Cutler his due but is not a salary cap-killer.

(3) Julius Peppers

With all the free agents the Bears have — 28 of them — Emery’s trickiest decision will be with the eight-time Pro Bowler who took a huge step back in 2013. Peppers still has two years left on the six-year, $84 million deal he signed with the Bears in 2010, but there is no way the Bears are going to take the reported $18 million cap hit for 2014.

The concern not only is the salary cap — Peppers already agreed to rework his deal earlier this season — but whether Peppers has any gas left in the tank. He had 7 1/2 sacks this season, four tackles-for-loss, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception. And his impact was intermittent — he never had two good games in a row. And unlike previous years with the Bears, when Peppers was quiet he was invisible.

Still, that’s production the Bears can live with, but at a much lower salary cap number. It’s up to Emery to sort it all out.

(4) The safeties.

It’s hard to believe, but Chris Conte and Major Wright were improving players in Lovie Smith’s final season. Just starting almost every game (Conte missed Week 17 at Detroit with an injury) gave the Bears a stability back there they had been lacking.

But the young safeties were the whipping boys for the Bears demise under Mel Tucker — missing tackles in the run game and too often getting to balls in the air too late. With a pass rush in 2012, Conte and Wright were at least passable defenders. Without one in 2013, they were exposed as below-grade NFL players.

Their play in 2013 screams for an offseason upgrade in free agency and/or the draft. But Conte and Wright have shown enough in previous seasons that Emery might think they can upgrade themselves with a better overall defense. It’s not as hair-brained as you might think.

(5) Shea McClellin

After two seasons, it’s time for Emery to make a move on his first first-round draft pick. Even McClellin admitted that the idea he’s a hand-on-the-ground, every-down defensive end is in question after two unimpressive seasons.

The question is what to do with him. McClellin still has closing speed and NFL-level football skill that can be utilized. But how? At worst, he’s a third-down pass rusher. The Bears could get inventive and use him as a hybrid rover on passing downs. But it might be time — especially considering Jon Bostic’s own unimpressive play as a rookie middle linebacker — to let McClellin play somewhere at the linebacker level and see what happens. At this point, anything but what he’s doing now can only help.

(6) Henry Melton

With all due respect to nickelback Kelvin Hayden, this was the injury that started it all. Even with Melton playing very average in the first three games, the Bears at near full strength (with Isaiah Frey in for Hayden) were ninth in the NFL against the run and good enough on defense to let the offense win all three games.

Melton is a free agent and coming off major knee surgery. That should make him easier to sign — and the Bears are the only NFL organization he’s known. But the Bears also have a dubious record of players with major surgeries — rarely if ever are they the same player. Like almost every other offseason deal with their own free agents, this is one the Bears will do only at their price.

(7) Tim Jennings

Coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2012, Jennings had the best season of any Bears defender in 2013, with four interceptions, including two he returned for touchdowns. Unfortunately for him — and fortunately for the Bears, perhaps — the Bears’ overall poor defense impacts his marketability. Still, except for jay Cutler, Tillman is likely the Bears’ most valuable free agent on the open market. And with Charles Tillman’s future in doubt on multiple levels, Jennings is one player the Bears might have to pay the market price to keep. With the current state of the defense, he — or a player of his caliber who is likely to cost more — is a must for 2014.

(8) Matt Slauson

He was the Bears’ highest rated offensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus — for whatever that’s worth. Regardless, he was part of an offensive line that made huge strides in 2013 and was the key to the Bears’ eighth-ranked offense. Continuity is valued most on the offensive line and while guard might be the most plug-and-play position on the line, Slauson was so effective that he has to be a high priority.

Slauson, who played his first four seasons with the New York Jets, enjoyed his first season in Chicago and is hoping he’ll be back. The Bears might have to pony up more than they can afford to keep him.

‘‘I want to stay. I would love to be there,’’ Slauson told the Sun-Times after the game. ‘‘But I understand the financial game of it. I know there are cap issues. But if I have an opportunity to stay, I’m going to stay.’’

(9) Josh McCown

Bringing the backup quarterback might not be as easy as it looks. McCown flourished in Trestman’s system, has no ego, is Jay Cutler’s best friend on the team and at 33 seems to be happy with his current lot in life as an NFL backup. But after posting a 109.0 rating in eight games (five starts), it only takes one team to change the entire dynamic.

Assuming Cutler returns, his recent injury history — he has been injured in five of his last 27 starts — makes the backup quarterback more than a clipboard role. McCown was as close to a perfect backup quarterback as any NFL team could hope for — productive, but set in his role as a No. 2.

McCown has at least earned premium backup quarterback money — Jason Campbell earned $3.5 million in that role in 2012. The Bears would be wise to negotiate with Cutler and McCown as an entry. It likely would get them the best deal for both.

(10) Devin Hester

The most prolific kick returner in NFL history will be another tricky decision for Phil Emery. Hester finished strong with a 49-yard punt return and 39-yard kickoff return against the Packers. Hester as third in the NFL with a 14.2-yard average on 18 punt returns. He had one touchdown and another called back. He was fifth in kickoff returns with a 27.7-yard average and a long return of 80 yards without a touchdown.

At 30, he’s not the dynamic threat he was in his prime. He’s no longer the must-have guy he was. But he still has it, enjoys being a Bear and is a great guy to have on your team. Unless the Bears totally low-ball him, he should be back in 2014 — but again, at the Bears’ price.



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