This article is part of our Team Previews series.
By Michael Beller
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Bears were arguably the biggest disappointment in the NFL in 2007 after entering the season as the defending NFC Champions. They lost three of their first four games and ended up 7-9, becoming the sixth Super Bowl loser in the last eight years to miss the playoffs the following season.
When looking for where things went wrong, it really starts on defense. After leading the league in takeaways and allowing the third-fewest points and fifth-fewest yards, the Bears registered 11 fewer takeaways in 2007 and ranked 16th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed. The unit simply didn't seem as opportunistic as it was a year earlier.
On offense, the loss of Thomas Jones in the offseason resulted in Cedric Benson entering the season as the unquestioned starter at running back. He responded to the opportunity by totaling exactly one 100-yard game and finishing the season with 674 yards on 196 attempts, an average of 3.4 yards per carry and just one fewer fumble (three) than touchdowns (four). His season ended when he broke his ankle Week 12 against the Broncos. The offensive line got old in a hurry and looked nothing short of embarrassing on certain weeks. Bears quarterbacks were sacked 43 times, ninth most in the league.
Speaking of the quarterbacks, Rex Grossman followed his dreadful performance in Super Bowl XLI by throwing six interceptions to just one touchdown in his first three games of the 2007 season and was benched in favor of Brian Griese. Griese started six games and played marginally better than Grossman but gave the reins back after getting hurt in Week 10. Before the season was over, Kyle Orton got three starts, and Bears quarterbacks combined for 17 touchdowns, 21 interceptions and a 6.51 YPA, good for 22nd in the league.
One positive from last season was Devin Hester, who continued his assault on the record books. He returned four kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns, breaking his own record of five set in 2006.
The outlook for 2008 doesn't seem to be bright, as the Bears appear to be running third at best in the NFC North behind the Vikings and Packers. Their first two picks in April's draft, left tackle Chris Williams from Vanderbilt and running back Matt Forte from Tulane, figure to be fixtures in the offense. Their new-look receiving corps does not include Bernard Berrian (Vikings) or Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), as they've been replaced by new-old Bear Marty Booker, Brandon Lloyd and third-round pick Earl Bennett. Expect a season of more downs than ups and a record similar to last year.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (14) Chris Williams, OT, Vanderbilt
Ideally will anchor the line at left tackle for years to come.
2. (44) Matt Forte, RB, Tulane
High-upside running back could start in rookie season.
3. (70) Earl Bennett, WR, Vanderbilt
Could log significant time on receiving-thin team.
3. (90) Marcus Harrison, DT, Arkansas
Fills void after team lost three DTs over past two seasons.
7. (208) Ervin Baldwin, DE, Michigan State
Provides depth for system predicated on rotating ends.
7. (222) Chester Adams, G, Georgia
Necessary pickup to bolster aging offensive line.
7. (243) Joey LaRocque, LB, Oregon State
Strictly a depth guy.
7. (247) Kirk Barton, OT, Ohio State
See Adams, Chester.
7. (248) Marcus Monk, WR, Arkansas
Has a chance with few established options ahead of him.
Marty Booker, WR (Dolphins)
Returns as likely No. 1 to team with which he had his best years.
Bernard Berrian, WR (Vikings)
Leading receiver last two years heads to division rival.
Muhsin Muhammad, WR (Panthers)
Back to team where he led league with 16 TDs in 2004.
Brian Griese, QB (Buccaneers)
Grossman, Orton remain to battle for starting job.
REX'S LAST STAND
Rex Grossman entered the 2007 season on quite possibly the most uneven footing of any quarterback in NFL history coming off a Super Bowl appearance. Many critics argued the Bears won the NFC in spite of Grossman, and Chicago fans were clamoring for Brian Griese during training camp. Grossman ended up getting benched after three games, but took the job back after Griese got hurt Week 10. He started the next five games before getting hurt early in the fifth game of that stretch at Washington. In the four games he played completely, he threw three touchdowns to one interception, and the Bears went 2-2.
The Bears signed Grossman to a one-year deal in February, and he will compete with Kyle Orton for the starter's job in training camp. They expect Grossman to win the battle, but this is his make-or-break year in Chicago. The Bears upgraded the line by selecting Chris Williams with the 14th overall pick in the draft, which will allow them to move John Tait to right tackle and should provide Grossman with better protection. However, he'll be working with a largely new receiving corps and he lost his favorite target in Bernard Berrian.
BATTLE IN THE BACKFIELD: Cedric Benson VS. Matt Forte
Cedric Benson's first season as a starting running back in the NFL was one to be forgotten: 196 carries, 674 yards, four touchdowns, three fumbles and a broken ankle. The offensive line did him no favors, but Benson often ran without a mean streak and appeared unwilling to fight for extra yards. It was also the second straight season that ended with an injury. The Bears drafted Matt Forte in the second round after he ran for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns in his senior season at Tulane. Benson's May arrest for boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest may sound an early death knell in the battle, depending on the outcome of the investigation. Either way, Forte enters the season as the more fantasy-friendly of the duo.
NOW STARTING AT RECEIVER…???
With Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad gone, the Bears will have a completely new look on the outside of their offense. Marty Booker, Brandon Lloyd and Earl Bennett join holdovers Devin Hester, Rashied Davis and Mark Bradley to form a receiving corps that appears to be a weak spot. Booker serves as the default No. 1, but the starter opposite him is anyone's guess. Lloyd caught all of two passes with the Redskins last year. Hester, by far the best deep threat of the bunch, looked lost on offense on numerous occasions in 2007. Davis is nothing more than a fourth receiver. Bradley has shown flashes of brilliance but has had trouble staying healthy. And Bennett is just a rookie. Expect Booker, Lloyd, Hester and Bennett to emerge as the top four options, but none outside of Hester (mainly due to his return exploits) projects as much of a fantasy option.
Rising: Greg Olsen has all the tools to be an elite tight end in the NFL.
Declining: Cedric Benson's already tenuous job security is threatened by the Bears' selection of Matt Forte.
Sleeper: Devin Hester's return prowess alone makes him draftable. The fact that he should see an uptick in playing time at receiver makes him a bona fide sleeper.
Supersleeper: Mark Bradley has always had the talent to succeed but has been derailed by injuries. If he can stay in one piece, he could emerge as a top option for the Bears.
Brian Urlacher, LB
Contract squabbles aside, he's still one of the best in the game.
Lance Briggs, LB
102 tackles in 14 games slightly above career per-game average.
Charles Tillman, CB
75 tackles, three interceptions, four forced fumbles, has a knack for getting his hands on the ball.
RotoWire Rank: 14
Article first appeared 6/03/08