**This article was written by Dave Jenis**
Management for the Chicago Bears wasted very little time this past offseason when it came to making a decision on Jay Cutler and a contract extension. Despite the strong play as a backup by Josh McCown, the Bears are committed to the guy they traded for five years ago. When you look at the statistics, it is hard to argue with his productivity. In fact, a healthy Cutler could make the Bears the most efficient offense in fantasy football in 2014.
Last season, Chicago finished 5th in the NFL in passing yards, and 16th in rushing. They return all their key pieces from a season ago, and at the beginning of the season, they will be healthy as well. Cutler has only led the Bears to the playoffs in one of his first five seasons with the club, but he will have his best supporting cast in his career heading into 2014.
People in fantasy football already know about established veterans like wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte, but others stepped up in 2014 as well. Alshon Jeffery actually had more receiving yards than Marshall in 2013, despite only finding the end zone seven time. Martellus Bennett had his best fantasy football season of his career as well at tight end, catching 65 passes for 759 yards and five touchdowns.
Throughout the history of the team, defense has been a calling card. With the current roster setup, it is going to be hard to get that reputation back any time soon. They are decent at stopping the passing game, but they finished last in the NFL with their rush defense in 2013, giving up 161.4 yards per game.
Cutler missed five games last year, and the play of McCown had some people wondering if he would ultimately lose his job in Chicago. Management has faith in him, and fans should do. He has the weapons to have a monster season in 2014.
Once word got out that Matt Forte and the Bears had finally agreed on a long-term contract (four years worth roughly $32 million with roster bonuses and incentives), it felt as if the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. It scared the living shit out of me that the most important player in our offense (other than Cutler) was just hours away from holding out. With him, we’re a Super Bowl contender. Without him, we’re not. It’s as simple as that. And to the people who previously thought that Forte’s presence is overrated and that Michael Bush can easily carry the load: stop talking. Right now.
Forte’s uncanny athleticism and versatility are what separate him from today’s mediocre running backs and make him one of the best in the biz. I understand that the last two Super Bowl champions had gotten less production out of their backfields than the Bears have gotten from their offensive line (Giants ranked dead last in 2012, Packers ranked 24th out of 32 in 2011), indicating that the NFL has rapidly transitioned into a passing league, but why does that matter? Without Forte, this is an offense without a true identity. ESPN Chicago’s Michael C. Wright did him justice in coming up with these stats:
Since entering the league in 2008, Forte ranks sixth in the league with 6,218 yards from scrimmage and is the only player in NFL history to gain 900 yards rushing and 400 receiving in each of his first four seasons. Forte is also one of four Bears to gain at least 4,000 rushing yards (4,233) and 1,500 receiving yards (1,985) in his career.
Those numbers, by themselves, should indicate how impactful Matt Forte is on the football field. His incredible ability to protect Jay Cutler, catch 50, 60 or even 70 balls out of the backfield, and his knack for breaking off long runs (especially last season) will ultimately be the offense’s biggest assets yet again. Except this time, there will be more playmakers to help this team score points and no Mike Martz to call atrocious plays. The additions of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett’s great health will force defenses to pick their poison with this offense. No more worrying about whether or not Roy Williams, Johnny Knox and Devin Hester can run the correct routes and hold on to the football anymore. The threat of Forte opens up the field for our everyone and vice versa, putting less pressure on Jay Cutler and much more pressure on opposing defenses. The legitimate balance in our offense should also keep the defense off the field more, giving them the opportunity to make stops more efficiently, and allow the punting unit to stay on the sidelines longer, meaning that opposing offenses won’t have as many short fields to work with. One little thing Forte does on the field can positively impact a number of different facets of the game.
The deal Forte signed was great for both sides. The Bears locked up one of their most valuable players for four years, and Forte gets insurance and nearly $18 million guaranteed until the age of 3o, which is known to be the age in which great running backs lose whatever ability they used to have and become backups or platoon candidates at best. Some may argue that Forte got shafted and deserves more money (which he very well may), as he was originally seeking a contract comparable to that of Darren McFadden ($10 million/year, $26 million guaranteed) or Chris Johnson (9.17 million/year, $30 million guaranteed). But, given the amount of leverage the Bears had in this negotiation (Forte was more than likely going to be franchise tagged again next season), this is probably the best deal that he could have gotten. It makes him one of the six (or so) highest paid running backs in the league, ahead of the likes Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner and in the same ballpark as Ray Rice, Steven Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. Not too shabby of a list, that’s for damn sure.
After the way last season ended in such disappointing fashion, the only way for this team to go is up. Locking up Forte was a major step in the right direction and should give Bears fans the optimism we’ve lacked since Cutler broke his thumb. Not only is Forte a great player, but he’s also a great teammate and professional. He couldn’t have handled this situation any better by playing out his contract and doing what was best for the team, unlike what many football players would do. Forte’s presence alone should put the Bears in position to make a run in the playoffs next winter, and I’m confident he’ll live up to the expectations of his contract and then some. September 9th can’t come any sooner.
Everyone has a different interpretation of what a draft “steal” is. Is it someone who was drafted near the end of the draft and had a serviceable career? Is it someone who was supposed to go early but ended up slipping more than he should have? Is it someone who went after the first round? Who knows. A steal, in my mind, is someone who overcame expectations and gave his team/fans more greatness than we could have ever imagined. It’s pretty much a mixture of all the questions I just posed. For instance, a player like Brian Urlacher can’t be considered a steal because he was drafted 9th overall and was projected to be a perennial pro bowl linebacker. Marques Colston, who was drafted in the 7th round out of Hofstra, is, without a doubt, considered a steal. Aaron Rodgers, who was supposed to be a top 5-10 pick at worst, was absolutely a steal at 24, even though he was still taken in the first round. You get the point. So without further ado, here is my idea of the five biggest draft steals in Chicago Bears history:
5) Matt Forte, 2nd round, 44th overall pick in 2008, Running Back, Tulane University: Putting Forte on this list may be a bit of a stretch, but I don’t care – I love Forte and highly enjoy watching him play. When Roger Goodell called his name just four years ago, I didn’t have a clue what to think. At the time, Cedric Benson was still our running back, so it was difficult for me to understand why we’d waste our second round pick on another running back after how the Jones/Benson experiment played out. The Bears passed on two guys I loved in college to draft Forte: Desean Jackson and Ray Rice. I was pretty skeptical. However, Forte was extremely underrated in college (his senior season was unheard of) and won MVP of the Senior Bowl, so I tried to be optimistic. 2 months later, Benson was let go by the Bears, and a star was born.
During his very first game in the NFL against the Colts, Forte rushed for 123 yards (including a 50-yarder) and 1 touchdown to go along with three receptions for 18 yards. Instantly, I believed we struck gold, and that has very much been the case. After an incredible rookie campaign (1,715 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns) that would have landed him Offensive Rookie of the Year had it not been for Chris Johnson’s historical season, Forte struggled during his second season, as he and the entire offense tried to adapt to playing with a new quarterback (Cutler) and a pass-first offense that contained zero legitimate wide receivers whatsoever. Since then, though, Forte managed to finish in the top 10 in yards from scrimmage in 2010 (1,616) and 2011 (1,487) even after missing four games during the 2011 season. He has totaled 6,218 yards from scrimmage through 60 career games (4,233 rushing, 1,985 receiving) along with 29 total touchdowns. Over the past two seasons, Forte has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and an amazing (for a running back) 10.1 yards per reception. He has been as valuable to the Bears offense as any running back, and almost any player, in the league.
That being said, PAY THE MAN!
4) Devin Hester, 2nd round, 56th overall pick in 2006, CB/WR/KR/PR, University of Miami: Right after the Bears drafted Hester six years ago, I watched this like 17 times in a row. No joke. I started to fantasize about how great it would be if Hester could pull off crazy maneuvers like that for the Bears. And before I knew it, that fantasy became an incredible reality.
Against the Packers in the 2006 season opener (Hester’s first NFL game), Hester took a punt 84 yards to the house. Right then and there, everyone knew he was legit. The lightning-fast speed, the ridiculous footwork and downfield awareness, the ability to break tackles – we all witnessed it with our own eyes. It was a very magical season for the Bears, and a lot of it had to do with Hester. He returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. His 83-yard punt return TD in week 6 (Grossman turned the ball over six times that game) to beat the Cardinals 24-23 led to one of the greatest rants in sports (I’ll never forget that game for the rest of my life). He returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a touchdown in week 9 against the Giants. And most importantly, he became the first player ever to return the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl for a touchdown.
Hester became such a threat that opposing teams had to start game planning around him. That the only way to beat the Bears was to keep the ball out of Devin Hester’s hands. Think about that for a second. If you keep the ball out of the kick/punt returner’s hands, you should win. It sounds insane, but it worked a lot of the time. Hester didn’t return one punt or kickoff for a touchdown during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and we finished a couple of unexciting seasons with a combined record of 16-16. That’s how important he has been to our franchise. He has made three All-Pro First-Teams and Pro Bowls, and he holds the record for most career punt returns (12) and total returns (17 punts and kickoffs) in NFL history. And that doesn’t even count his Super Bowl XLI kickoff return or 108-yard field goal return, either.
3) Olin Kreutz, 3rd round, 64th overall in 1998, Center, University of Washington: When the Bears and Kreutz decided to part ways last summer, I was legitimately upset. He stuck with this franchise through thick and thin and was our most consistent offensive player throughout the 2000s decade. It’s tough for anyone to justify how truly good a center or offensive lineman is because most people don’t understand what their statistics mean. So, if you look at the accomplishments that Kreutz made as a Bear, you should understand exactly why he’s on this list. As a six-time pro bowler (2001-2006) and a four-time all-pro center, Kreutz started 159 out of 160 games from 2001-2010 and did every single thing the Bears asked of him and more. He also secured a spot on the NFL 2000s all-decade team. He was irreplaceable and, at times, under-appreciated. Any team would be lucky to have a player like Olin Kreutz.
2) Lance Briggs, 3rd round, 68th overall in 2003, Linebacker, University of Arizona: After the 2006-07 Super Bowl season, Lance Briggs became a free agent. Everyone wanted to see him back in a Bears uniform, but no one knew what was going to happen. The Bears franchise tagged him a couple of weeks later, but he made it known that he was upset with the amount of money he was earning and didn’t feel the Bears wanted him in their future plans.
Soon after that, I saw him at the movie theater with his girlfriend. At that moment, I went from a (really cool) 17-year-old high school senior to a pubescent 12-year-old girl. I got so nervous, had butterflies in my stomach and couldn’t get this stupid little smile off my face. As he walked past me, I managed to maintain some composure and said “Hey Lance, I just want you to know how much we love you here in Chicago. Please come back, we need you more than you can even imagine.” He proceeded to stick his fist out, give me a pound and said “I’ll do what I can, my man.” True story.
It wasn’t until a year later that Briggs’ value to the defense surmounted the absurd stinginess of Jerry Angelo and the McCaskeys, when they finally offered him a much deserved 6-year, $36 million deal. But, I can’t help but ask: was it because of me, and me alone, that Briggs decided to stick it to the man, be patient and play (at a pro-bowl level, mind you) through the entire 2007-08 season with these contract distractions? Or was it because of Urlacher, who was willing to take a pay cut to keep Briggs on the team, and the rest of the players that he decided to stay in Chicago? Probably the latter. But do I try to convince people that it actually was because of the me? Absolutely.
Anyways, Briggs belongs on this list for a variety of reasons. He has made seven consecutive pro bowls dating back to 2005, and he’s a three-time all-pro linebacker. Briggs has only missed four games in his entire nine-year career. During that period, he has recorded 969 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 13 interceptions (three for touchdowns), 14 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown), and 64 pass deflections. I defy you to find any great Bears linebackers who were drafted as late as Briggs and have had the kind of success that he’s had. You can’t. He deserves the 2 spot on this list.
1) Richard Dent, 8th round, 203rd overall in 1983, Defensive End, Tennessee State University: A 2011 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Richard Dent is, by far, the biggest draft steal in Bears history. He was, and still is, widely considered the best player on the greatest defense of all time. The Bears finished 15-1 during the 1985 season and shut out both of their opponents in the playoffs en route to a monstrous Super Bowl XX defeat over the Patriots. With a league-high 17 sacks during the regular season, Dent performed in what’s believed to be the most impressive defensive post-season performance in NFL history: 7 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles in the divisional playoff game against the Giants. Legendary. Dent went on to win Super Bowl XX MVP, and he remains one of six defensive players ever to do so.
Throughout his career, Dent made four pro bowls and five all-pro teams. He recorded 137.5 sacks, making him one of only 27 players to be a part of the 100 sacks club. How many 8th round draft picks can say all of this for themselves? Well, not many considering there are only seven rounds in the draft these days, but you know what I mean. Richard Dent was an absolute steal if I’ve ever seen one.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Singletary, Linebacker; Doug Plank, Safety; Johnny Knox, Wide Receiver
Stay tuned for the 5 Biggest Draft Busts: Chicago Bulls Edition.
Once Jay Cutler went down injured last season, some fans still remained optimistic that running back Matt Forte would be able to mitigate the loss of our starting quarterback. What actually happened, and what has seemingly become a trend in Chicago sports, is Forte was lost for the season due to a knee injury two games later.
Before the start of last season, the Bears attempted to finalize a contract extension with Forte, but were unable to do so. Forte elected to wait until after the season to continue negotiations, but after his injury, the two parties have been unable to come to agreement. This has prompted Forte to holdout of all team activities until an extension is reached. Since the two sides first initiated negotiations, running backs DeAngelo Williams, Arian Foster, Fred Jackson, and recently LeSean McCoy have all been given extensions. So why have the Bears refused to do so?
While the Bears front office and the McCaskey family are notoriously frugal, they recently signed Julius Peppers to the biggest contract of the 2010 offseason, as well as extending both Jay Cutler and Lance Brigg’s contracts. Also, the trade for Brandon Marshall added an additional $9.3 million to the 2012-2013 payroll. Given these moves, the Bears front office has been willing to shell out money to acquire and keep talent.
Matt Forte was one of the best running backs in the NFL last year. He accounted for more of his team’s offense than any other player prior to his injury, and given the poor state of the receiving corps, Forte was also our best receiver. Forte essentially assumed the role Marshall Faulk played in Mike Martz ‘ offense during the “Greatest Show on Turf” years of the St. Louis Rams. Over the past two seasons when Forte is given 16 carries or more, the Bears are 14-2; when he doesn’t (I blame Mike Martz for these games) they are 5-9.
What Forte is looking for is a contract akin that of Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson ($10-11 million per season), whereas the Bears are looking more in the range of the previous running backs mentioned ($7-9 million per season).
This essentially boils down to whether the Bears decision to not resign Forte is a calculated and intelligent decision or alternatively, one of the worst moves in recent Bears history? (Given that this is the Bears, there are a couple hundred to choose from).
I believe the Bears are making the right move by not offering Forte a contract in the same range as Johnson and Peterson, and there is no reason why Forte shouldn’t accept the same deal McCoy or Foster were given. The issue with handing out so much money to a running back is that it is the most fragile and shortest-lived position in football. According to a study by the NFL Player’s Association, the average length of an NFL career is only 3.3 years, and the lowest of all positions is at running back at 2.8 years.
Forte has a history of knee injuries beyond last year’s season-ending one. In 2009, he also sprained his MCL and in 2006 he tore his PCL. Running backs take a beating on every play either through blocking or running, and agreeing to pay someone $10-11 million dollars per season given such extensive injury history is not a sound investment.
The list of bad running back contracts is extensive: Corey Dillion, Ricky Williams, Shaun Alexander, Priest Holmes, and Jamal Anderson to name a few. Investing $10+ million dollars into such a fragile position is not only a bad investment at the position, but it also drastically affects shaping the rest of the roster. Currently the Bears have placed the franchise tag on Forte, which gives him a one-year salary of $8 million dollars. This allows the Bears more time to work on a contract, but Forte continues to holdout until a long-term deal is reached.
The Bears made the right decision to bring in Michael Bush. For the first time in a long-time, the backup running back position is settled. Bush carried the load for the Raiders backfield last year once Darren McFadden went down, and is an extremely good runner in the red zone, something lacking from Forte thus far in his career. Given this, if Forte’s holdout extends into the season, the production from the position will not be detrimentally affected.
The Bears and Forte’s agent, Adisa Bakari, should be able to use the recently signed extensions as a barometer for Forte’s contract. New General Manager Phil Emery seems like he has a better grasp of running a football team than his predecesor Jerry Angelo did, so he will ultimately make the the right decision. If Forte balks at the Bears offers, they will not hesitate to move on without him and look to trade him. Bears fans have a right to be disappointed if a deal is not reached, but there is so much turnover between NFL seasons that the franchise has to keep the big picture in mind.
The Chicago Bears had arguably the worst corps of receivers in the NFL last season. Even after missing four games, Matt Forte still led the team, from the backfield, with 52 receptions. The top two receivers on the depth chart, Johnny Knox and Roy Williams, caught 37 balls a piece, good for 109th in the league. Knox finished with a team-high 727 receiving yards. More importantly, the Bears haven’t had a single 1000-yard receiver since Marty Booker in 2002. In fact, this franchise has only produced 11 1000-yard receivers EVER. The Arizona Cardinals had three of them on THE SAME TEAM just four years ago. I can go on and on about this, but one thing is clear: the Bears have lacked a playmaker (outside of running back) for as long as most of us can remember. It’s probably no coincidence that we’ve only won one Super Bowl in its 46-year existence (and that happened to be the best defensive team in the history of the NFL). Jerry Angelo, the worst man ever, didn’t seem to understand this. Hence his firing after the season.
Insert Phil Emery. What was his first move? He went out and got us a dangerous playmaker in Brandon Marshall. And Jay Cutler went from a very unhappy person to just an unhappy person, which says a lot. With the news of Marshall finally being cleared of any wrongdoing for a nightclub incident in March, I figured there’s no better time than to breakdown what kind of impact he should have on Cutler and this Bears team going forward. Below is a chart of Marshall’s numbers over the past five seasons:
The touchdown numbers may scare you, I know. However, that has more to do with Cutler, Orton, Henne and Moore, all of whom are known to be poor red zone quarterbacks, than it does Marshall. He finished in the top five in both targets and red zone targets during his three full seasons in Denver, and he finished in the top 12 in targets and top 6 in red zone targets during his two seasons with Miami. Simply put, quarterbacks trust Marshall, especially inside the 20 yard line. The numbers alone show you that he is as reliable a wide receiver as there is in this game. It is very difficult to maintain the consistency that Marshall has at the professional level. Even with terrible quarterbacks throwing him the ball in Miami, he still managed to put up very solid numbers.
Now, think about the impact Marshall had on Cutler. During their two full seasons together in Denver, Cutler targeted Marshall an average of 186 times. That’s unheard of. Consider the fact that Denver was 10th in the NFL in total yards per game (346.3) in 2007 and 2nd in 2008 (395.6), and you realize that the Cutler-Marshall combo is a perfect marriage (if you think a supporting cast of Eddie Royal, a running back by committee and Tony Scheffler is scarier than Forte/Bush, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and a healthy Johnny Knox, you’re sadly mistaken). With Cutler at the helm during his first three seasons in Chicago, the offense averaged just 217.1, 194.1 and 231.9 yards per game, respectively. His completion percentage went from 62.9% as a full-time starter for the Broncos to 59.9% with the Bears. And finally, his interception rate has gone from 0.89 picks per game to 1.20. The argument can be made that the Bears offensive line has been horrendous, so obviously Cutler’s numbers were going to take a hit. However, a lot of that had to do with the way Mike Martz ran his offense. His outrageous stubbornness to establish a balanced offense and actually allow the Bears to play to their strengths (running the ball) put a ton of pressure on Cutler, leading him to force throws way more often than he should have. There will also be no more seven-step-drops, so the sack/rush/hurry numbers will undoubtedly go down.
Just having Marshall on the field completely changes the way defenses will have to game plan for us. Plus, the Bears did themselves justice by going out and signing Michael Bush, the former Oakland Raiders running back. He’s a straight beast inside the 5-yard line, something Matt Forte certainly can’t consider himself thus far. Adding these guys will only take the pressure off of Cutler and Forte to carry the load. Marshall will help stretch the field and open up opportunities for other guys to make plays. With extra weapons and more time in the pocket without Martz calling the shots, there will be less forced throws, so Cutler’s decision-making, particularly in the red zone, should (hopefully) improve (he ranked next-to-last in bad decision rating in 2011). No more holding our breath, praying our below-average receivers run the correct routes and make the plays that NFL receivers are supposed to make. If Alshon Jeffery lives up to his potential (put up 88-1517-9 during his sophomore season with South Carolina), the Bears could own one of the scariest offenses in the NFL. Consider this stat that Peter King came up with in yesterday’s Monday Morning Quarterback:
The Chicago Bears could field the tallest set of receivers in club history — and, in fact, one of the tallest ever to take the field — this year, depending on the play-calling whimsy of offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
If the Bears line up in a five-receiver set, with two tight ends and three wide receivers, here’s how they could threaten the opposition:
At wideout: The 6-4½ Brandon Marshall and 6-3 rookie Alshon Jeffery could line up split out, with 6-0 Earl Bennett or 5-11 Dane Sanzenbacher the third receiver; Sanzenbacher is more suited to play inside. This is dependent, too, on the recovery of 5-11 Johnny Knox from a severe late-2011 back injury.
At tight end: Returning are 6-7 Matt Spaeth and 6-6½ Kellen Davis, who could be used as sixth, or sixth and seventh linemen to buttress a shaky line. And fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez, an athletic 6-2 tight end, could get some playing time if he proves his worth as a receiver too.
Conjures memories of the Chargers two years ago, when they could send three receivers 6-4 or taller downfield — Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates — with the 6-2 Legedu Naanee in reserve.
That’s pretty incredible to think about. Provided Cutler and Marshall don’t skip a beat, Mike Tice patches up the offensive line, and Forte’s knee heals up, the Bears offense will finally be able to keep the defense off the field longer and may very well turn itself into a juggernaut.
Only 2.5 months ’til training camp. CAN’T WAIT!