Last season, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler didn't have Brandon Marshall. The Bears also received only partial seasons from wideout Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett, and moving Kyle Long from guard to tackle wound up resulting in downgrades at two positions. This is all worth mentioning because it somehow didn't matter.
Despite all that upheaval, Chicago's offense exceeded expectations in every way. The Bears finished tenth in offensive DVOA—and considering that it includes a one-game cameo by Jimmy Clausen, that may even underrate how good they were. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase did something special last season, and he was rewarded with a head-coaching gig in Miami.
What held the Bears out of contention last year was bad defense. Very bad, in fact: Chicago finished 31st in defensive DVOA, and while they weren't out-of-this-league bad like the Saints, they earned it. Chicago hasn't been able to stop the run at all over the past three seasons. It's almost like sticking failed edge-rushing prospect Shea McClellin at middle linebacker was a bad idea.
Chicago leaves the early stages of the offseason with a bunch of upgrades at need positions. There were a grand total of three middle linebackers on the market who could cover and tackle, and Chicago got two of them: Danny Trevathan from Denver and Jerrell Freeman from Indianapolis. The price was surprisingly low, all things considered. The Bears only had to guarantee $18 million between the two of them—or about half a Brock Osweiler.
In a league where linebackers being able to play the pass and the run is paramount, the Bears went from having one of the worst situations in the league to one of the best. Nobody would confuse Trevathan and Freeman with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, but they'll at least put Chicago in the upper tier of the league again, which is a damn sight better than they were last year.
The end of the Kyle Long experiment is nigh. — Photo by Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Chicago hasn't done as much with the offense, but bringing over Bobby Massie from the Cardinals undoes last year's mistake with Long. Massie is better as a run blocker than a pass blocker, but he should be the best right tackle the Bears have had since—well, for a while. Moving Long back to guard will be a huge upgrade on Patrick Omameh. Total guaranteed cost: $6.5 million.
Beyond resolving the contract drama with Bennett, the offense could use another good receiver. Last year's first-rounder, Kevin White, missed the entire season with a stress fracture. Having him back on the field should help Chicago, but having more of a sure thing would be nice. Zach Miller re-upping makes losing Bennett less of a concern, but this is a depth chart that could use a talent injection. Still, it's impressive how much the Bears have managed to do.
I'm not one to applaud teams for simply getting the best bargains in free agency. It's more important that the player is good than that the player is cheap, but I think fans can lose sight of this given the way in which the NFL pushes the idea of players as cap space numbers.
That said, the Bears brought in, by my count, four good players in free agency, and they did it cheaply. Chicago paid slightly more guaranteed money to Hicks, Freeman, Trevathan, and Massie than the Giants did for average-at-best corner Janoris Jenkins. This is a complete sea change from the All Hat, No Cattle Phil Emery Bears, who made big splashes to compensate for not having depth. In a market that looked to be in favor of the few good players out there, the Bears hit big and paid relatively little for the privilege.
No rational person is going to put Chicago over Green Bay when they start ranking NFC North favorites. Aaron Rodgers is a big obstacle to overcome. But if the Vikings keep getting cute on offense, Chicago could steal their thunder. The Bears were a defense away from being competitive last season. They've added enough talent to make that a reality in 2016—and we haven't even watched how the draft plays out yet.