After the Jay Cutler trade, the Bears are closer to a Super Bowl appearance than they were at this time yesterday. I don't think that is even worthy of debate. Now, the questions are, how much further do they have to go? And relatedly, do they have the ammunition to get there?
A lot of noise has already been made about the picks that the Bears gave up in exchange for their new passer. Can they survive without two first rounders and a third rounder over the next two years? This is still a football team with a lot of holes to fill, but I believe that they can.
First, let's examine exactly what was given up a little more closely. The Bears surrendered their starting quarterback, Kyle Orton, but got Cutler in return, so that is at minimum a wash. The Bears will have to find a decent backup for Cutler, but this isn't a huge issue, because the new Bears quarterback has proven to be very durable thus far in his career. Cutler has not missed a start in his first two years as a starter, and that's true despite battling issues with diabetes. Those issues appear fully resolved, so the Bears should have a QB ready to give the team close to 16 starts every year. If the Bears had kept Orton, they almost certainly would have used a high pick on a quarterback within the next two years. The Bears no longer have that need post-trade, so let's consider one of the three picks given to the Broncos a wash as well. Specifically, let's say that the third rounder is really no loss.
So now, we are left with the surrender of two first round picks. However, even this loss is not entirely bad. High draft picks demand high salaries. Thankfully, many of the Bears' top players are under contract for some time, but the Bears will have to face contract extensions for many of their promising young players on offense, including Cutler, Matt Forte, Greg Olson, and Chris Williams (assuming he pans out). In avoiding two years' worth of first round contracts, the Bears will be in a better position to ensure that these key cogs remain with the team over the long haul.
As to the amount of ammunition left in the Bears arsenal, they are not in a terrible position. Under normal circumstances, an NFL team has seven picks per draft, one for each round. This year, the Bears will still have those seven picks (one in the 2nd, one in the 3rd, one in the 4th, one in the 5th, one in the 6th, and two in the 7th). Certainly an extra 7th rounder doesn't hold anywhere near the value of a lost 1st rounder, but the point is that valuable players can still be found anywhere in the draft, and the Bears still have plenty of opportunities to draft good football players. Next year, as of today, the Bears have another six picks to make. So when it comes to draft picks, the cupboard is far from bare. And when you consider that Jerry Angelo's greatest draft successes have come after the 1st round, the Bears still have the opportunity to add good, young talent to their roster.
After the trade, what does that roster look like? Well, the offensive side of the football has been the focus of the offseason, and even without the further additions that are sure to come, the Bears look to be an improved offense in 2009. As stated in the last post, when Chris Williams' "redshirt" year is taken into account, the Bears have already added four quality offensive lineman to a unit that needed an influx of new talent. Offensive line becomes much less of a draft priority, and the good news is, quality lineman can be found in any round of the draft.
As stated above, quarterback is clearly much less of a draft priority. Caleb Hanie can continue to develop as a promising number three, battling for that spot with Brett Basanez. An affordable veteran addition is a near certainty at number 2, but those types of QBs are not usually hard to find.
The running back depth chart is already full, and most importantly, the Bears already have Matt Forte, a young stud in the starter's role. The Bears should consider finding a quality backup to reduce his workload, but this can easily be accomplished in the middle rounds of the next couple of drafts. As of today, nothing needs to be done at the tight end position, where the Bears have some of the best depth in the league. So thus far, all the Bears need on offense is a mid-round selection at running back and a couple of young offensive line selections over the course of the next two years. But as you know, we have not yet addressed the wide receiver position.
Wide receiver is one of the Bears' biggest needs- you know it, I know it, and most importantly, the Bears know it. First, let's talk about what they do have. At minimum, Devin Hester can be a dangerous home run threat as a number 2 or number 3 receiver, and his value will increase greatly now that he is paired with perhaps the best deep passer in the game. If anyone can push along Earl Bennett's development, it probably is Jay Cutler, the man that made him the SEC's all-time leading receiver. But beyond those two, the Bears have some work to do. Fortunately, this year is a great year for wide receiver talent in the draft, and the Bears can get a good one in the 2nd or 3rd round. Beyond that, it is highly likely that the Bears will look to add at least one veteran receiver. There are some intriguing options in trades, like Anquan Boldin and possibly even Chad Johnson, but I don't expect that the Bears have another bockbuster deal in their plans. The free agent market has some intriguing names, like Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt, and some solid (if not sexy) vets, like Mike Furrey, Ronald Curry, Drew Bennett, Hank Baskett, Darrell Jackson, Ike Hilliard, Amani Toomer, and others. The addition of a franchise QB will greatly aid the Bears in luring one or two of these pieces to Chicago. Once they get here, a passer like Cutler will also maximize their talents.
So on the offensive side of the ball, over the next two offseasons, the Bears needs to add a few mid-round linemen (let's say three), a backup RB in rounds 2-5, a veteran QB, a 2nd or 3rd round WR this year (and maybe next as well), and a veteran wideout (or two). These tasks can be accomplished with the picks and the cap space that the Bears currently have. If they are, at a minimum, the Bears are a top 15 offense- with their ceiling set much, much higher.
What about the defense? The defensive unit has been the heart and soul of this franchise, but it has also been in a steady decline since their Super Bowl appearance. However, I believe that with the right additions, and a little good fortune, the defense can get better pretty quickly. First, the pass rush needs to improve. The addition of Rod Marinelli should help in this regard, and specifically in helping Mark Anderson get back on track. Marinelli may have failed with the Lions (who doesn't?), but he is still a highly regarded defensive line coach. If Tommie Harris can put his health issues behind him, that will help even more (and I believe that we saw signs of just that at the end of last year). Nonetheless, the Bears should look to add a pass rushing defensive end and a quality defensive tackle in the next two drafts.
In the secondary, improvement is certainly needed. How quickly that improvement occurs depends a bit on whether Nathan Vasher is committed to becoming the player that he was a few years ago. If he isn't, the Bears should seriously consider cutting him loose and adding a free agent like Ken Lucas, who they had contact with this week. Charles Tillman, Corey Graham, Daneal Manning (if he stays at nickel), and Kevin Payne are all players who have tread on their tires and are solid, if unspectacular, veterans. Hopefully, Craig Steltz is a starter in the making at safety. If he isn't, the Bears acquired two safeties this offseason who have struggled of late, either with injuries or production, but who have also shown promise as starters in the past- namely, Josh Bullocks and Glen Earl. Zachary Bowman and Marcus Hamilton are two recent additions who are still unknowns at corner, but may develop into contributors. Trumaine McBride is still young and can be an effective fourth corner. So the cupboard is not bare here, either, but the Bears should still consider drafting 2-3 defensive backs over the next two years, in any round. One can never have too many.
At linebacker, the Bears will sink or swim with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and given their talent level, they should be at a minimum solid football players. Chicago can stand to add talent to compete on the strongside, to increase depth at the position, and to acquire additional special teams performers. Their remaining picks can go to this goal, and perhaps a bargain basement free agent or two.
The important thing to remember is that the Bears defense does need to get better, but it does not necessarily have to get all the way back to where it was three years ago. Why? The Bears offense will be much improved, and the Bears special teams are always good, so the Bears defense will not have to carry the same burden that they've had to in the past. Yes, it would take a lot to get the Bears defense back to a top 3 unit. But a top 10 unit? This can be accomplished with just a few key moves. And a team with a top 10 defense, a top 5 special teams unit, and a top 15 offense can do a lot of damage in the NFL.
So do the Bears have enough ammunition to build their roster going forward? I believe so. Jerry Angelo only needs to add 4-6 offensive players (and only 1 offensive starter) with 13 picks over the next two years, and he should be able to find the players that he needs in the rounds that he is selecting. After that, he can focus on what have been his strengths: adding undervalued defensive talent with his remaining 7-9 draft picks and acquiring veteran contributors at a reasonable price tag.
Let's remember, the Bears have holes, but they are not devoid of talent. The team was 9-7 last year, and the team is better now on paper than it was on the field at that time. In addition, no team in our division has made moves that even approach those made by the Beloved. There are tasks that lie ahead, but those tasks can be accomplished, and they can be accomplished with the tools that Jerry Angelo currently has in his possession.
My prediction? The Bears are a playoff team in 2009, and a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2010.
How does that sound, Chicago?