Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Up today: the Bears, who need to give Vic Fangio some more talent to work with on defense. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
CB Alan Ball, WR Josh Bellamy, G Vlad Ducasse, RB Matt Forte, DE Jarvis Jenkins, WR/KR Marc Mariani, LB Shea McClellin, C Will Montgomery, TE Zach Miller, CB Tracy Porter, DE Mitch Unrein
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Jenkins, Miller: The Jenkins call is contingent on what the Bears’ plans are for free agency, but as things stand right now, they have one viable DE (Will Sutton) under contract for 2016. Jenkins recovered from a miserable 2014 with Washington to post a steady ’15, so he may go contract hunting this off-season. Odds are, he won’t find an overly lucrative offer elsewhere. But if he does, the Bears could keep Unrein, who made four starts last season. Expect Chicago to address its D-line depth via free agency and/or the draft, but retaining another end familiar with Vic Fangio’s scheme would be wise.
Miller, 31, makes for a compelling case. Long played by injuries during his NFL career, Miller erupted starting in Week 8 last season to finish with five TDs and 34 receptions. The Bears are about ready to tap out on their partnership with fellow TE Martellus Bennett; losing both he and Miller in the same off-season would set them back quite a bit in terms of production from the position.
One problem at the moment: Miller reportedly wants $5 million per year. That’s not a demand way out of line within the tight end scale—14 TEs currently earn more than that per year—but this creates a problem for a few reasons. First, Miller had played a grand total of four games between 2010–14, so he’s a huge risk, and second, that’s about what Chicago owes Bennett ($5.1 base, $6.3 cap).
At a lower price tag, and likely on a short-term deal, Miller would be welcome back.
Most important position to improve
Inside linebacker: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio merely tried to piece his ILB spots together last year. Christian Jones, McClellin, Jonathan Anderson and others started over the course of the 6–10 season. The Bears would love to find an upgrade on the entire group, no matter where it comes from in the coming weeks.
The draft makes for an obvious path. Sitting with picks No. 11 and 41, Chicago finds itself in a nice range to take an inside linebacker—a position teams usually bypass in the top 10 but that, this year, contains multiple potential top-50 talents.
McClellin should be itching to get out of town, and it’s a stretch to picture the Bears convincing him to stay. Multiple Chicago coaching staffs have tried to figure out what to do with him since he was made a first-round pick back in 2012. He was a mess at defensive end under Lovie Smith, improved slightly at linebacker and at least was passable last year. He hardly offers more upside, though, than Jones, Anderson or John Timu ... and that’s not saying a ton for McClellin.
The Bears were able to take a look at their in-house options, even making Jones inactive for a game to get Timu another start. There could be a few bit players and backups in the mix. They need more.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, defensive end, guard, outside linebacker, safety, tight end: The building blocks for the Bears’ defense as of now are NT Eddie Goldman, OLB Pernell McPhee, CB Kyle Fuller and S Adrian Amos. The front office would love to count DE Will Sutton or one of the aforementioned inside linebackers among the irreplaceable nucleus, but the jury is still out. Keep in mind that Sutton is among those players brought in by the previous staff, to play a different scheme.
Even if John Fox and Fangio have high hopes for Sutton, they still stand to lose Jenkins and Unrein, leaving them thin at defensive end.
Cornerback could be another spot the Bears bump up their draft board, depending on who is available at 11. They do have Fuller on one side, and Bryce Callahan played himself into an extended look at the slot position. Will GM Ryan Pace re-sign Tracy Porter, a pleasant surprise last season on a minimum deal? Stands to reason he would want to, but Porter (who will be 30 in August) likely will not have another shot to hit the market as a starting cornerback. Because of his 2015 contract, the Bears also cannot lock him into a new contract until March 9, when any other team in the league could do the same.
Veteran Alan Ball and slot CB/special-teams standout Sherrick McManis are impending free agents. Ball looked like a savvy signing last off-season, but he flopped, hence Porter’s shot in the lineup.
One safety spot is set thanks to Amos. The other has Antrell Rolle’s name penciled in—however, the 33-year-old missed nine games last season due to injury.
At OLB, McPhee (6.0 sacks) should be the centerpiece moving forward, but Lamarr Houston (8.0) and Willie Young (6.5) outproduced him in that important category. Houston still has three years and about $24 million owed to him on a balky contract, while Young is more of a hand-in-the-dirt guy than a stand-up outside linebacker.
Chicago needs at least one guard and possibly a center, the latter depending on how the staff feels about Hronnis Grasu starting or Montgomery returning.
Overall priority this offseason
Give Fangio more to work with on defense: Chicago allowed an average of 35 points over its first three games last season, but that stretch came against Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle—later, half of the NFC’s playoff field. Save for a handful of games from there (i.e. losses to Detroit, San Francisco and Minnesota), the Bears’ defense emerged as one of 2015’s surprises.
The pass defense actually allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL, although its yards-per-completion and yards-per-attempt clips were far less successful. Teams might have attempted to throw on Chicago more, too, had its run defense not been so average.
Despite the moderate success in Fangio’s first year, the talent level remains underwhelming. Chicago needs to add multiple contributors across all levels of its defense—line, linebackers and secondary.