Disappointing, underachieved, irritating. Those are just some of the adjectives used to describe the way the Chicago Bears’ season ended. Many fans point to the injuries of Jay Cutler and Matt Forte as nails in the coffin for the 2011 season. Despite the Bears limping to an 8-8 finish, several positives can be taken out of the season. Both Cutler and Forte both proved that they are irreplaceable to the Bears’ offensive success. During their six game slump to close the season, the Bears were only able to muster up 81 points. Their defense, despite injuries of their own, helped keep the team competitive. Future Hall of Famers Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher played at a high level and continue to put the Bears in a position to win games.
Obviously, offense has never been one of the Bears strong points. Whether it’s their lack of weapons outside of Cutler and Forte, no continuity along the offensive line, or a revolving door of quarterbacks up until Cutler’s arrival, 2012 needs to be the offseason where the Bears are able to start piecing together a winner on the offensive side of the ball. Chicago has never been a team to hand out large contracts in the offseason, so the likelihood of a top tier receiver such as Vincent Jackson or Dwayne Bowe is almost zilch
This is precisely why I expect the Bears to be aggressive in the upcoming draft. With their trade of Greg Olsen to the Panthers, they now have four of the first 80 selections, one being their first-round selection, something that was lacking over the last few seasons (I almost don’t count Gabe Carimi, since he missed 14 games). For me, this is exciting territory. The Bears can take several directions in order to ensure a deeper, more competitive team going into the 2012 season.
Stand pat and draft for need
It’s painfully obvious that the Bears top three needs are at receiver, cornerback, and depth along the offensive line. With having four picks in the top 80, not only do the Bears have a chance to address their issues, but add depth in case the injury bug decides to make a permanent stay, as well. Our first-round selection unquestionably should be used on a receiver. Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd or South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffrey could both be around and would instantly step in as number one options for Jay Cutler.
The second and third rounds would be interesting. What if several first-round quality players fell a bit? Let’s say Rutgers’ receiver Mohamed Sanu was available when the Bears made their second pick at number 50 — would it be worth it for them to select him over a cornerback like Leonard Johnson or an offensive lineman like Peter Konz or Ben Jones? At that point, you have to trust that new GM Phil Emery and his scouting background is making the right choice.
Having two picks so close together (numbers 74 and 80) also gives the Bears a chance to have several players lined up and draft based on best available in terms of their need. If they decided to draft two receivers first, they could then shift their attention to a cornerback and offensive lineman. Virginia Tech Jermain Hosley and Washington tackle Senio Kelemete would be sound picks. While this option isn’t what I personally think the Bears should do, it is the safest route and gives them the best chance to flesh out their roster if they do decide to remain conservative in free agency.
Package several picks to acquire an additional first-round pick
Most reports have noted the Bears intend on selecting a receiver with their number 19 pick. This leads me to believe that Lovie and company feel they have all the answers to their offensive line are currently on the roster. As I mentioned earlier, tackle Gabe Carimi missed all but two games last year. J’Marcus Webb was among the worst in the NFL in adjusted sack rate and his right tackle counterpart Lance Louis didn’t fare much better. Assuming that Carimi is healthy, he and 2008 selection Chris Williams seem to have the left side of the line shored up.
So, let’s once again assume that Floyd or Jeffrey is their selection. What if they packaged their second round, one of their third-round picks and a fourth round pick next year to move back into the first round (around selections 25-28)? A variety of options could be available. Maybe an offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele out of Iowa State or cornerback Alfonzo Dennard out of Nebraska could prove to be impact players that can kick up the Bears competitive level on both sides of the ball.
They could also trade back into the first round to pick up an impact player on defense. Despite his problems with coaching, I’m a huge fan of Arizona State bruiser Vontaze Burfict. Many people point to a down 2011 season, but I still feel you can attribute that to immaturity. The guy is a tackling machine with big hit potential and fantastic speed from sideline to sideline. With veterans like Peppers, Briggs and Urlacher on the defensive side of the ball, I feel like Burfict would be forced to grow up quickly. Having his speed next to Briggs and Urlacher could give the Bears arguably the best starting linebackers in the NFC.
Swing for the fences — trade up to land an elite prospect
After days of agonizing, I feel like this is the direction the Bears need to go. Package their first-round selection, both third-round picks and next year’s second round pick and move up to get an elite player who can come in and immediately become a leader. Using the draft pick value chart that NFL teams utilize for draft day trades, their picks would be valued at 1735 points, equivalent to the value of the fifth overall pick.
Let’s say the Bears were able to complete a trade with Tampa Bay (owners of the fifth pick). Several home run prospects would be available. LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne may not be able to match former teammate Patrick Peterson, but his ability as a pure cover corner is second to none. He could instantly step in and become the leader of the Bears’ secondary. Iowa tackle Riley Reiff is durable, sound at both run and pass support, and would compliment Gabe Carimi well. With Chris Williams shifting to left guard, and Lance Louis also moving inside, a huge weakness could potentially become the most balanced part of the Bears’ offense.
As great as those two players would be, I would absolutely love to see the Bears go all-in and draft, in my eyes, the two best non-quarterback prospects in this year’s draft — Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon or Alabama running back Trent Richardson. Both are head and shoulders above everyone at their respective positions. With Blackmon, his production is second to none. He’s got elite size, fantastic fitness, the ability to shed defenders and catch anything thrown his way. If the Bears were able to land a quality number two option, say Saints speedster Robert Meachem, Jay Cutler could have a much-improved selection of weapons.
On paper, Blackmon would be the obvious choice if available. That being said, Richardson could have a greater long-term impact, even with Matt Forte on the roster. Fans need to remember that Forte and the Bears seem to be miles apart on an extension and if they’re forced to use the franchise tag on him, he could leave in 2013. Richardson put up monster numbers against the country’s best competition all three seasons at Alabama. Richardson can contribute in both the running and passing games, plus his skills would give the Bears arguably the best running back tandem in the NFL.
As free agency creeps closer, new GM Phil Emery has a plethora of choices to make in order to ensure the Bears’ 2012 season has a different ending than 2011. With a cache of picks and upwards of $28 million in cap space, the Bears find themselves in unfamiliar territory. The door is open for a new direction — one with a more dangerous philosophy on offense and an infusion of new blood on defense.