Dec 30, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New York Jets guard Matt Slauson (68) during the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Bills beat the Jets 28-9. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
In a busy off-season for the Chicago Bears, extensive changes have been made all over the organization. From a change in their coaching staff, to the constant changes made on their roster, this is a team that is going through a complete transformation under the guidance of GM Phil Emery. Recently, the Bears have made another move to improve their OL, where they’ve agreed to terms with former Jets starting OG Matt Slauson. In a brief conversation between him and the media, Matt Slauson made a rather bold proclamation:
Considering how the arch-rival Packers have won the NFC North in back-to-back seasons, and the Bears have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, some fans will laugh at this statement. However, the Chicago Bears are in fact a team capable of challenging for the division crown, following the sheer amount of improvements made to their roster. Yet, this is also a division where all 4 teams have made the playoffs in the past 3 seasons. Let’s see how the Bears stack up to the rest of their division foes.
Green Bay Packers: This team–as much as I dislike them–are your division champs, and for good reason. Despite the fact they cut their best play-maker in their secondary with Charles Woodson, and lost Greg Jennings to the Vikings in free agency, they are in great position to continue their dominance in this division. Tom Thompson has done an incredible job of selecting players in the draft, as most if not all of their starters are players he himself picked each April in his career with the Packers. As for their current plans in free agency this off-season, they’re focusing on securing their best players to long-term deals. Right now, Green Bay is engaged in talks with Aaron Rodgers that will make him the highest paid player (where have we seen this before?) in the NFL.
Meanwhile, they’ve decided to keep TE Jermichael Finley in an effort to keep most of their corps players on offense intact. It’s also been rumored that OLB Clay Mathews could be receiving attention for a new long-term deal of his own, so most new additions will come from the draft. Their biggest need is shoring up their pass protection, as Aaron Rodgers has simply taken way too many hits. If he’s going to be the highest paid player in the NFL, then you better protect said player, otherwise you’ll risk yourself on losing your biggest asset. Besides focusing on their OL, one must pay attention to the lack of a dependable running game on offense. With a better running game, you’ll be able to protect your QB better. At one point, they had interest in now Falcons RB Steve Jackson. Now, their overall interest in free agent RBs has seemed to have died down temporarily. Look for them to be scouting plenty of RBs in preparation to the up-coming draft.
Minnesota Vikings: Coming off their first post-season appearance since 2009, the Vikings are looking to continue their ascension and become one of the better teams in the NFL. Their defense is stingy, and their offense is built around a good mix of young and experienced players. Their biggest need this off-season, was the addition of a serious threat in the passing game to their offense. Zygi Wilf has done just that by luring yet another former Packer in WR Greg Jennings to join their cause. Now with that need all but taken care of, they can look into adding on to their formidable defense.
Many would suggest the Vikings are searching for a new MLB to man their 4-3 defense. While there was past interest in former Bears LB Brian Urlacher, a statement was made recently where the Vikings are instead looking into the draft first to fill the void. Considering they have 2 first-round picks thanks to the Percy Harvin trade, they could either trade up to snag a player earlier in the draft, trade down to pick up more picks, or just stay put and choose a LB with 1 of their 2 first rounders. Plain and simple, the Vikings have options, and plenty of them.
Detroit Lions: In 2011, they were seen as a team on the verge of greatness given their explosive offense and the “Silver Crush” on defense. In 2012, they were seen as a team that choked badly, suffering an embarrassing fall from 10-6 to 4-12. Needless to say, they had holes to fill, and those holes have been filled admirably by management. They’ve added RB Reggie Bush, Safety Glover Quinn, and DE Jason Jones in a flurry of signings that created significant improvements to both sides of the ball. Reggie Bush will add another dimension to their offense, giving them a feature back to pair with young Mikel Leshoure in their running game. Jason Jones is a veteran who’s had success with current Head Coach Jim Schwartz, and Glover Quinn becomes a needed presence in their secondary. The draft will still be critical to them, though.
They are searching for a LB to replace Justin Durant, as well as new additions to their OL following the departures of Jeff Backus, Stephen Peterman, and Gosder Cherilus. In a pass-happy offense that’s been featured in the Motor City, effective pass-protection is paramount in order for Mathew Stafford to complete passes to his targets. Being in a division where 3 of the NFL’s top pass-rushing threats are present (Julius Peppers; Bears, Clay Mathews; Packers, Jared Allen; Vikings), this only further complicates things when thinking about how to protect your QB while 3 of your starting 5 OL are now gone. Unless they feel Reggie Bush could also block in the passing game, it’s dangerous to leave your QB in this vulnerable of a state. The Lions have definitely improved after their big signings, but they still have a number of moves that need to be made before they can return to contention within this division.
Granted, all 3 of those teams feature pressing needs in various positions, but this is a division that is stacked from top to bottom. How will the Chicago Bears compete with these 3 rivals? All biased opinion aside, I strongly feel the Chicago Bears are set to compete within their division.
First of all, they’ve been hard at work in shoring up pass protection for Jay Cutler. At the beginning of free agency, the Chicago Bears added one of the best LT’s in the NFL in Jermon Bushrod, where he will be a major upgrade over J’Marcus Webb. Speaking of Webb, he will be given a chance to compete at RT, with recently re-signed vet Jonathan Scott and former 1st round pick Gabe Carimi also in the mix. As far as Gabe Carimi is concerned, he will be given a chance to compete at both RG and at RT, pending any further additions. And regarding the topic of further additions, the Chicago Bears have signed OG Matt Slauson, who also provides a definite upgrade to the interior of the OL.
He’s young (27), he’s versatile seeing how he’s played both Center and LG, and he’s solid. In 3 seasons with the Jets, he has been a key player in the production of their running game, where they’ve managed to rush for at least 1,600 yards per season. Although he will be given a look at both Guard positions, his best fit is at LG, where the Bears featured 3 different starters last season. Having a big and young Guard line up next to a great LT and mentor in Jermon Bushrod, and the Bears’ left side of their OL is significantly stronger than last season. With all of these additions, comes the known fact they all will be coached by one of the best in the business in Aaron Kromer, who resides as both the Offensive Coordinator and the OL coach. And all of that, was just the tip of the ice-burg.
In addition to their OL, they also lacked a meaningful as well as a respectable TE corps. Kellen Davis didn’t perform, and Matt Spaeth nor anyone else in that position were ever seen as a legitimate threat. Well say no more, as the Bears’ first signing was TE Martellus Bennett aka the “Black Unicorn” (note: that’s what he calls himself). He brings to the Bears, a versatile and all-round threat from the TE position that does everything a TE is expected to do in today’s NFL. From being an elite blocker, to emerging as a receiving threat, he is also young enough at 26 to develop into an exceptional TE for the Bears. With all the moves made to their offense, they also made notable moves on defense.
Gone are the days of Brian Urlacher wearing #54 and manning the middle of the defense. In a move that saddened Bears fans, both sides have moved on, with the Bears quick to act on improving the position. Out with Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach, and in with D.J. Williams and James Anderson. While neither LB will ever be confused with the former great, both players are solid if not great additions, given they are both younger and fairly productive. This allows the Bears to add a young prospect from the draft to groom behind their veteran group led by Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams, and James Anderson. That, in its own right, is a LB corps that a ton of teams would like to have. Where D.J. Williams presents character/legal concerns, he is a dominant player who has the speed to play the “Mike” in the Tampa 2. James Anderson, is an improvement over Nick Roach at the “Sam” position, where Nick Roach left to join the Raiders. Combined with the existing talent on their defense, and it’s safe to say they are in prime condition to wreck havoc on opposing teams.
The single biggest question for the Chicago Bears is: will Jay Cutler perform? If past history indicates his success in an offense that featured both options in the passing game and dependable pass protection in Denver, then the answer could be “yes”. But that “yes” is rather a big “maybe” as he’s been coached in 4 different schemes on offense now. Will Marc Trestman be able to work his magic on Jay Cutler, and succeed where others have failed in Chicago? Only time will tell. If all the pieces added to this puzzle are put together correctly, then this is a dangerous team others must take note of. After all, they hosted the NFC Championship Game in 2010, and they’ve posted an 18-14 record these past 2 seasons.
The ceiling is incredibly high for this team. To others residing in the NFC North: Watch out. Here come the Monsters of the Midway.