In a league that had long since become enamored with the vertical passing game, the Lovie Smith Era Bears stood as one of the final anachronisms. Insisting that the team “gets off the bus running” and believing in a notion as foolish as “Bears weather,” Chicago could not adapt to the 21st-century NFL. Unsurprisingly, the Bears, despite mostly strong defenses, made the playoffs just three times in nine seasons under Smith.
New GM Phil Emery fired Smith before the 2013 season and brought in offensive guru Marc Trestman, most recently of the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League. Armed with offensive schemes that made the Raiders a juggernaut, not to mention Rich Gannon an MVP, when he was the offensive coordinator in Oakland from 2001-03, Trestman updated the Bears for the modern NFL. He transformed the offense into a pass-first group, taking advantage of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who became the league’s best receiver duo. He got Matt Forte more involved in the passing game, though the Tulane product still ran for a career-high 1,399 yards and nine touchdowns. Quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Josh McCown combined for 4,448 yards, 32 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, which would have made the fictional Chicago Bears QB the No. 3 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues, trailing only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Add it all up, and the Bears were eighth in total offense, and second in points per game. Clearly, a new world order had descended upon Chicago.
Year two of the Trestman Era should only bring more of the same. As such, the Bears are one of the best teams in which to invest for fantasy owners. They’re the only team that has three non-quarterbacks coming off the board within the first 25 picks of a typical fantasy draft. Forte is a running back built for today’s NFL, equally as adept at catching the ball as he is at running it. In his two years in Chicago, Marshall has 218 receptions, 2,803 yards and 23 touchdowns. Jeffery broke out last year, catching 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven scores. The offensive line, which was the worst in the league in 2012, improved across the board and ranked fifth in run blocking. In one short season, Trestman remade the Bears from an antiquated offense into one of the league’s best.
As maligned as he is, Cutler is fully equipped to take advantage of the machine Trestman has laid in his hands. He showed real signs of improvement last year, and likely would have set career highs in both yards and touchdowns if not for injuries that cost him five games. Cutler isn’t Aaron Rodgers, but he doesn’t have to be. All he has to do is trust the system and take advantage of the league’s best collection of skill players, and he will be a regular fantasy starter. No other quarterback roundly considered outside the top 10 at the position has the upside of Cutler. With Marshall, Jeffery and Forte, he has top-five potential.
All too often, fantasy owners zero in on certain players instead of trying to get guys that are in high-powered offenses. That sort of thinking leads an owner to take, for example, 2013 Hakeem Nicks over 2013 Eric Decker (Nicks’ average draft position narrowly outpaced Decker’s). Don’t make that mistake this year. No matter if it’s Forte, Marshall, Jeffery, Cutler or Martellus Bennett, fantasy owners want to have some stock in the Bears’ offense.
Most overvalued player
Bears defense -- The defense still has a name-brand quality to it, despite the fact that it was among the worst in the league last year. We’ll touch on this more in the defensive analysis section, but the Bears ranked 30th in both total defense and points allowed. Emery did an admirable job retooling the group, signing Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Ryan Mundy, and drafting Kyle Fuller, but this is still a defense that fantasy owners will want to be wary of on draft day.
Most undervalued player
Martellus Bennett, TE -- It’s hard to say Forte, Marshall or Jeffery is undervalued when all have an ADP inside the top 25. The last remaining skill position player, Bennett is going overlooked in drafts. He set or matched career highs across the board last year, hauling in 65 passes for 759 yards and five scores. Like Marshall and Jeffery, Bennett is a big, physical weapon for Cutler in the red zone. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, he can bully safeties, and he has the athleticism that makes it hard for linebackers to stick him, even in tight spaces. Also, thanks to Marshall, Jeffery and Forte, he rarely, if ever, sees more than one defender in coverage. Bennett currently has an ADP outside the top-130 picks, making him about a 12-round selection in 12-team leagues and the 14th tight end off the board. Given the potency of the Bears offense, that is ludicrous. Jimmy Graham certainly deserves to be considered in a class of his own at the position, and Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas are easily a cut above everyone that isn’t Graham. Once you get beyond those three, though, there’s a lot of room for debate. Bennett could vault up into the top 10 this year, and definitely should be drafted as a starter in all leagues, regardless of format.
QB: Jay Cutler, Jimmy Clausen, Jordan Palmer
RB: Matt Forte, Ka’Deem Carey, Michael Ford, Shaun Draughn
WR: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Marquess Wilson, Josh Morgan, Eric Weems
TE: Martellus Bennett, Zach Miller
There are a lot of ways to show just how bad the Bears defense was last year, especially against the run. My favorite one is as follows. In the team’s Week 12 loss to the Rams, Zac Stacy piled up 87 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries before leaving with an injury. He gave way to Benny Cunningham, who had 129 yards on the season to that point. Cunningham proceeded to carve up the Bears for 109 yards and the game-sealing score on just 13 carries. The Bears allowed an average of 161.4 rushing yards per game, nearly 30 more than 31st-ranked Atlanta. It was largely their undoing last season.
With the offense returning all 11 starters from the previous year, Emery immediately began revamping the defense. He cut Julius Peppers, who might as well have not even played last year. He also opted not to bring back safety Major Wright, who graded as the worst safety – that’s 86th out of 86 – in the league last year according to Pro Football Focus. Emery’s fix for a defensive line that generated the second-worst pass rush in the league by Pro Football Focus’ metrics was to bring in defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen. Houston had six sacks, two forced fumbles and 69 tackles for the Raiders last year, while Allen racked up 11.5 sacks, his seventh-straight season with at least 11 takedowns of the quarterback.
The next order of business was to remake the secondary. Emery did that by signing safety Ryan Mundy and using the team’s first-round pick on Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller. The team was already decent on the corners with Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, though there is a chance that the aging Tillman could shift to a safety or nickelback position, similar to what the Packers did with Charles Woodson.
Lance Briggs once again leads the linebacker group, and the team will need him to stay healthy if the defense is going to improve. He missed seven games last year because of a fractured shoulder suffered in the team’s loss to Washington, and his injury really sent the defense into a downward spiral. Middle linebacker D.J. Williams played in just six games due to a torn pectoral, meaning the Bears were without their two best linebackers for a majority of the season. Any team is going to struggle defensively when that is the case. They’ll be joined in the middle by failed defensive-end-turned-linebacker Shea McClellin.
The group has improved enough for the Bears’ real-life chances, but it’s still a group fantasy owners should avoid. Briggs, Allen and Houston all deserve consideration in IDP leagues. Tillman and Williams could, as well.