Josh Gordon has been the breakout star of 2013, but he's not the receiver who has shown the most improvement throughout the year. We look at whose fortunes have changed this season, plus the best passers, runners, and receivers of Week 14.
22 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
Once again the Bears find themselves acclimating to a new offensive system. In the spirit of their seemingly annual playbook overhauls, maybe they should have re-signed journeyman backup Jason Campbell. New head coach Marc Trestman was last seen in the NFL as an assistant head coach with the 2004 Dolphins, but his main mark came in the three years before that when he was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in Oakland. The Raiders ran a West Coast offense back then. Trestman figures to reproduce that in Chicago, though likely through a fairly heavy dose of modern spread concepts. In that case, the Bears will have to get better play out of their front five and from every receiving target not named Brandon Marshall.
QB: Jay Cutler, Josh McCown; Lost: Jason Campbell
RB: Matt Forte, Michael Bush, Evan Rodriguez (H-Back); Lost: Kahlil Bell
Talent-wise, Cutler is as good as they come. However, he goes through bouts of sloppy mechanics and recklessness, seemingly spurred by his distrust -– both warranted and unwarranted -– in teammates and play-callers. One guy Cutler can trust is Forte, a methodical but smooth three-down back who has a way of stabilizing this offense. Forte should be a good fit in Trestman’s short-pass oriented system. (Remember in 2002 when a 30-year-old Charlie Garner had 941 receiving yards for the Raiders?) The question with Forte, as well as with Bush (a solid all-around No. 2) is whether he can avoid the minor injuries that have hindered him at times over the past two years. At H-back, when former general manager Jerry Angelo drafted Rodriguez, he said the fourth-rounder could become Chicago’s version of Aaron Hernandez. But through one year, Rodriguez seems on track to become a more dynamic version of Jim Kleinsasser. That’s not a slight, just a commentary on his style of play. He’s more of a short-area contributor, not a multidimensional downfield route runner.
WR: Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett, Alshon Jeffery, Devin Hester
TE: Martellus Bennett, Kyle Adams, Steve Maneri; Lost: Kellen Davis, Matt Spaeth
Statistically, the gap last year between Chicago’s leading receiver, Marshall, and their second-leading receiver, Forte, was the biggest any NFL team had last season. This has to change in 2013. Great as Marshall is, he can’t be the only guy Cutler trusts. Earl Bennett is a decent short-area route runner who would be a good No. 3, but he's stretched as a No.2, and he has to figure out how to stay on the field. Jeffery must become more polished, and Hester must be kept in a more-fitting gadget role. (Trestman has said the veteran will be used almost exclusively in the return game this year.)
At tight end, the signing of Marcellus Bennett excited Bears fans. Indeed, he’s an upgrade over the lethargic and slippery-handed Davis. Just keep in mind that there’s a reason the Cowboys and Giants both let the mercurial tight end leave scot-free.
LT: Jermon Bushrod LG: Matt Slauson C: Roberto Garza RG: Gabe Carimi RT: J'Marcus Webb
Backups: Edwin Willams, Eben Britton, James Brown; Lost: Lance Louis, Chilo Rachal, Chris Spencer
Bushrod is the latest major investment the Bears have wishfully made in an effort to turn around their awful offensive line. The ex-Saint showed admirable improvement last season but, overall, he still must be described as an above-average athlete with below-average pass-blocking acumen. He’s very good when moving forward and very iffy when moving backwards. Which means, in all likelihood, the Bears will have to give him help in a lot of third-and-long situations. Is Bushrod really worth $22.4 million guaranteed?
Inside, Garza can suffice, but there are concerns about the guys flanking him. Outside, Webb should be better on the right than he was on the left, but a change in position does not denote a change in talent. With slow, heavy feet, he will still need help in pass protection. There's not much depth here either; Britton brings position versatility, but he was bad wherever he lined up in Jacksonville last year. That was likely the function of injuries, but those injuries have been the defining mark of his career.
The sad conclusion: despite continued changes, the Bears are liable to still have a lot of the same blocking issues and play-calling restrictions that have hindered them in recent years.
Last season illustrated how the Bears are almost utterly dependent on creating turnovers. This defense was explosive early on when live balls were bouncing around, but it often wasn’t able to line up and simply stop teams down the stretch. Many think of the Bears as a classic Tampa-2 team. Indeed, after firing Tampa-2 aficionado Lovie Smith, they hired long-time Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Tucker, as many know, is another traditional Tampa-2 guy. That said, don’t be surprised if Chicago changes things up a bit in 2013. That’s what they did fairly often and successfully in 2012, using more single-high coverages and even playing some man-to-man with blitzes on certain third downs.
DE: Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton, Shea McClellin, Turk McBride; Lost: Israel Idonije
DT: Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, Nate Collins, Andre Fluellen; Lost: Amobi Okoye, Matt Toeaina
The Bears did a great job commanding one-on-one matchups for Peppers last year by moving him all over the defensive front. They were particularly fond of playing him inside in nickel sub-packages. That lent more freedom to how they used first-round pick McClellin (a poor man’s Clay Matthews at this point). It’s a new staff now, but expect the same approach. Even if the Bears were to keep everyone in their traditional spots, this will still be a tough line to handle. In addition to firepower on the edges, Melton is a tremendous one-gap shooter, both with strength and quickness, inside. Paea can be a beast when it comes to shedding blocks. Behind him, Collins shows very intriguing upside with uncommon movement skills for a man with his lanky build.
OLB: Lance Briggs, James Anderson, J.T. Thomas, Jerry Franklin; Lost: Geno Hayes, Nick Roach
ILB: D.J. Williams, Blake Costanzo; Lost: Brian Urlacher
Age and injuries took a toll on Urlacher, but not enough to make him a liability. Still, the Bears chose to cut bait a year too soon rather than a year too late. That decision was validated by the signing of Williams, a ferocious athlete who can run down the middle in coverage, which is a vital trait in this scheme. But can Williams offer awareness that’s even close to the preternatural zone instincts of Urlacher? Many don’t realize how much those instincts did to hold this unit together. On the outside, Briggs is a bit long in the tooth but doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all. He has a great understanding of his responsibilities in the flats. Anderson was a good pickup given his similarities to the speedy Roach.
CB: Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Kelvin Hayden, Zack Bowman; Lost: D.J. Moore
S: Major Wright, Chris Conte, Tom Zbikowski, Craig Steltz, Brandon Hardin
Tillman somehow keeps getting better with age. He’s an ideal corner for this scheme. So is Jennings, whose under-appreciated tackling is nearly as impressive as his play-making prowess. Nickel corner was a major concern ... until Hayden was re-signed. His return means Jennings won’t have to play inside, and Bowman, who hasn’t been able to hold on to a significant job over the years, will only have to play bit snaps. At safety, Wright and Conte are both on the cusp of being classified as green. Their improvements in all phases have allowed this defense to become more diverse. The addition of Zbikowski lends versatility to the secondary. In fact, don’t be surprised if the Bears come up with some new dime blitz packages to take advantage of his downhill prowess.
K: Robbie Gould; P: Adam Podlesh
Gould is above-average on kickoffs with the typical inconsistency on field goals. Podlesh is about as average as it gets.
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