With confirmation coming that Brian Urlacher won’t be returning to the Chicago Bears this off-season, the beginning of the Marc Trestman era is already looking to be a stark contrast from the end of the Lovie Smith era.
Smith was fired after a season in which his team finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. While it was clear that missing the playoffs was a major reason for Smith’s firing, his replacement’s approach to this point implies that they wanted to alter the philosophy of the franchise also.
Trestman has come in and immediately placed an emphasis on the quarterback position in press conferences. His enthusiasm for the offensive side of the ball leaked over into free agency with the additions of left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett.
Both of those moves were made to help Jay Cutler.
Depending on how the offensive line shapes out come the start of the season, Bushrod’s signing could have a knock-on effect on at least three positions. Bushrod’s signing could see J’Marcus Webb move to right tackle and subsequently push Gabe Carimi (if healthy) inside to right guard. That, along with the addition of Aaron Kromer as offensive coordinator, should give Cutler much improved pass protection. At the very least, Kromer better coaches the unit and Bushrod is a more talented option than Webb at left tackle.
With his protection sorted, the Bears really made a big move when they signed Bennett.
Not only is Bennett himself huge, 6’6 265 lbs, but his impact on both the running and passing game should be also. He dramatically improves the talent at the position over the departed Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth. With a reliable tight end to throw to, Cutler will be able to consistently get into a rhythm rather than force the ball to his wide receivers early on in the game. Bennett caught 55 passes last season for 626 yards and five touchdowns during his only season with the New York Giants.
His individual value as a blocker and a receiver will be important, but his impact as the final piece of the Bears’ passing attack will be monumental.
Cutler’s top four targets entering this season are Brandon Marshall, Bennett, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte. Forte will always be a prominent part of the passing game, while Marshall has always been the focal point of any offense with Cutler under center. Forte and Marshall led the Bears in receiving last season, combining for 162 receptions, 1848 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jeffery was a rookie last season, but had his moments when his talent shone through. He finished the season with three touchdowns, 24 receptions and 367 yards in just 10 games.
Jeffery played just 445 snaps and caught half of the targets that came his way. He was only a bit-part player in the offense throughout the year, but showed off his potential to beat defensive backs to make big plays. Jeffery caught passes of 30, 35, 42 and 55. Matching up to receivers who stand 6-3 tall with above average speed is very difficult for defensive backs to do without help.
As a rookie, Jeffery only had Marshall drawing coverage away from him. Now that Bennett has joined the duo, the Bears have three receiving options who are at least 6-3. While some teams will have the personnel to matchup to a trio of very physically gifted and aggressive receivers, the average NFL team will have to expose themselves to one of the group. Considering Bennett and Marshall have proven more throughout their careers so far, Jeffery should be the one who sees a slack secondary.
He proved in college that he had an ability to consistently make big plays and there were flashes of those big plays during his rookie season. The only obstacles Jeffery faces to a breakout season next year are his own consistency and his quarterback’s willingness to trust him with targets.
Jeffery is in the perfect spot to benefit from the Bears’ improvements this off-season.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf