It's strange when a major-market NFL team has a successful season and nobody hears about it, but that was the story of the 2015 Chicago Bears. Essentially left for dead in the preseason, with some outlets picking them to finish with the No. 1 pick in the draft, the Bears outperformed expectations. They didn't get that pick, but they do have some hope.
Under Adam Gase, who has since been hired to coach the Miami Dolphins, Jay Cutler had one of the most efficient seasons of his NFL career and turned the Bears into a downright frisky team, in spite of an ugly defense that featured little in the way of NFL talent. This was general manager Ryan Pace's first year running the show in Wrigleyville. What tricks does he have up his sleeve for year two?
Coach and Quarterback Confidence Rating: 5/10
Jay Cutler and John Fox are two individuals who aren't quite as bad at their jobs as their detractors would have you believe. Fox, of course, has developed an extremely conservative persona over the years. His most notable moment of 2015 was probably this:
Cutler, meanwhile, is the quarterback you love to hate. He doesn't care about you, his fans, the sanctity of America, the playbook, anything. He sure as hell doesn't care whether his 50-yard bombs are intercepted or not. He doesn't want the public's love, really, and he doesn't seem to mind the hate.
But, leaving aside the memes, Cutler's a pretty decent quarterback. And Fox is a good defensive-minded head coach—the Andy Reid of defensive coaches.
Let's celebrate this beautiful pairing while we can, because it's amazing they're being forced to co-exist.
Key Offseason Decision: How can the Bears fix their awful run defense?
Over the past three seasons, the Bears have finished 32nd, 21st, and 31st in rush defense DVOA. Phil Emery's 2014 Draft and Pace's 2015 Draft focused on beefing up the front seven. DTs Eddie Goldman, Ego Ferguson, and Will Sutton were all selected in the first three rounds—and you can, uh, see how much that helped.
So maybe it's time for Chicago to spend a little in free agency on this gig. Nose tackles Damon Harrison and Ian Williams are both set to be free agents, which could help solidify things. It's hard to imagine the Kansas City Chiefs letting Derrick Johnson walk, but the Bears have needed a real middle linebacker since they let Brian Urlacher leave.
No matter what, the Bears can't just keep running out the same guys at this point. They know it doesn't work. The grace period is over.
Major Free Agents: RB Matt Forte, WR Alshon Jeffery, ILB Shea McClellin, CB Alan Ball, S Ryan Mundy
On Friday, Forte announced on that he wouldn't be returning to the Bears, which makes sense with Jeremy Langford playing more and more down the stretch. While Forte is an aging running back, he's still got a bit of pep in his step and three-down ability. I think his free agency goes somewhat similarly to Frank Gore's, in that a team that's close enough to contention might try him as a missing piece. Houston and Dallas are both interesting fits. He's been an important player for the franchise, but emotions seldom have much to do with decisions like these.
And in a practical sense, Jeffery is the most important player here. He's surely going to draw most of the actual coverage of free agency chatter. Jeffery's young, and he's been productive; other than a habit of getting slightly overweight, he has no real downside. In other words, this guy is getting the franchise tag. Let's move on.
The defensive backs are fine players, but nobody will be in a rush to sign either of them. McClellin is more part of the problem than the solution at this point. It would be surprising to see him emerge as anything more than a backup reclamation project next year.
Cap Situation: $51,603,041—fourth in the NFL
The Bears will likely axe Jermon Bushrod, the tackle who lost his job to Charles Leno last season, for extra savings. A pre-June 1 cut would save $4.3 million, and a post-June 1 cut would take it to $6.5 mil.
Martellus Bennett's return is an open question at this point. He was placed on IR and feuded with the coaching staff all season. Cutting him would save another $5.1 million.
The Bears, though, are at the stage of the game where they need to be accumulating assets rather than cap space. They have enough of the latter and not enough of the former. If the Bennett relationship can be healed, they'd probably be better off making it work.