From the time Lovie Smith took over as the Bears’ head coach, they’ve been an average team at worst who, at times, flirts with greatness. While they need to take care of a few of their own guys first (starting with Matt Forte), they have needs elsewhere that can be filled.
In the past, Chicago has shown no problem making the big moves in the offseason to improve their football team. In 2009 they traded for Jay Cutler, and in 2010 they added Julius Peppers. Both moves greatly altered how the team played on their respective sides of the ball. With the Packers being the class of the division and the Lions continuing to rise, the Bears need to make some changes in order to keep up.
Here are just three of the changes the Bears could make this offseason to help their team return to playing into January.
Primary Need: Offensive Tackle
The Bears could add any quality linemen in free agency, and they would be able to find a spot along the line to use him. Last week was offensive line week here at PFF, and when we ranked the offensive line, Chicago finished at the bottom. While they could improve on the inside, tackle is the far bigger need. J’Marcus Webb (-26.2) started all 16 games at left tackle in 2011 and, while he did improve on his pass blocking compared to 2010, he still allowed 12 sacks–the most among left tackles. On the right side for most of the season was Lance Louis, who managed the third-lowest rating for right tackles at -33.5 despite starting just 12 games there.
Replacing one of the tackles will be Gabe Carimi who was a first round pick last year that unfortunately sustained a serious knee injury in Week 2. With a full offseason to learn, we’re guessing he will move to left tackle, which means the biggest need on the right. The tackle market is weak, with the most intriguing right tackle prospect being Anthony Collins of the Bengals. He started two games and played most of a third and allowed just one overall pressure in 2011. Since moving to right tackle in his second season, he has looked good in his limited time, but was buried on the Cincinnati depth chart. Pairing Carimi with Collins would be a big improvement, especially compared to recent years.
Secondary Need: Wide Receiver
In 2009 and 2010, the Bears ran with Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett at receiver. Since that wasn’t working out, Roy Williams and Dane Sanzenbacher were added to the mix for 2011. Last season, Hester and Sanzenbacher had two of the lowest catch rates in the league as both caught less than 51% of passes thrown their way. It’s looking like Roy Willliams’ one-year experiment might be over as he is a free agent and Bennett had one catch or less in five of his last six games. Knox’s status is uncertain for the start of 2012 due to a serious back injury he sustained against Seattle. This team is sorely in need of a makeover at the receiver position.
The Bears likely will want to keep Bennett in the slot, so they need someone who can play out wide. Of the available unrestricted free agents, Vincent Jackson (+5.0) might be the best. He’s a high-risk receiver that had eight dropped passes in 2011, but high reward too, with nine touchdowns and 18.4 yards per catch. The Bears are used to receivers who aren’t always consistent, but can sometimes make the big plays. Jackson is just that, but a much better version than what’s currently on the roster.
Tertiary Need: Safety
Chicago has used third round picks on safeties the last two years in Chris Conte (-2.1) and Major Wright (-5.0). Neither player has panned out yet, although it is definitely not too late in their careers. The Bears are a unique team in that they like rotating players in and out at safety more than most. They likely need at least a third man to bring in competition and push everyone to be better. Both Craig Steltz (+4.8) and Brandon Meriweather (-3.2) are free agents who are likely to look for a home elsewhere, which leaves a big opening on the depth chart.
Someone who can come in and win a starting job is Thomas DeCoud who has spent the first part of his carrier with the Falcons. In 2010, the Bears had Danieal Manning and Chris Harris who brought a strong run stopping presence that Chicago was lacking in 2011. DeCoud had a run defense rating of +4.4, which was the 12th-best for safeties. He had some problems in coverage early on in the season, but was solid down the stretch. He would make it three third round picks at the position on the roster, but DeCoud has performed better than Conte or Wright so far.