This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Despite the Bears growing on defense in 2015, there are plenty of questions on offense. Jay Cutler and Zach Miller will need to repeat their success from last year, and the unfamiliar task of replacing Matt Forte falls to Jeremy Langford. The Bears will need much to go their way to compete for a playoff spot.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
CUTLER'S QUEST FOR CONSISTENCY
When Chicago hired Adam Gase as offensive coordinator in 2015, Jay Cutler responded with the most consistent season of his career, including a career-high 92.3 quarterback rating and only 11 interceptions, the fewest he's thrown in any campaign in which he's played at least 15 games. However, with Gase taking over as the Dolphins' coach, the Bears promoted quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains to O-coordinator in an effort to retain a similar system. Due to the exit of RB Matt Forte and trade of TE Martellus Bennett, the weapons around Cutler will have a different look this year. Notably, 2015 first-round pick Kevin White will attempt to brush off a rookie season erased by a shin injury. With excellent size (6-3, 215 pounds) and speed (4.35 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine), he provides an explosive alternative to WR Alshon Jeffery in the passing attack. Although Bennett has been shipped to the Patriots, Cutler should still have a third reliable receiver in TE Zach Miller, who will attempt to extend his second-half flourish from last season into the coming campaign.
MOVING FORWARD WITHOUT FORTE
Forte led Chicago's backfield for eight seasons, but a lack of interest from the organization forced the veteran to move on to the Jets. In his stead, the team will turn to a triumvirate of unproven commodities in sophomore Jeremy Langford, Ka'Deem Carey and 2016 fifth-round choice Jordan Howard. Before the draft, GM Ryan Pace stated on the record that Langford is penciled in as the starter, but notching 3.6 yards per carry in 2015 may not have been enough to cement the job. The other incumbent, Carey, wasn't much better, as he averaged 3.7 YPC and didn't top the 4.0-YPC mark in any of the four games in which he had at least seven carries. As a result, the Bears spent a mid-round pick on Howard, a 6-0, 230-pound bruiser who was a difference maker when healthy at Indiana. Entering training camp, Langford is expected to serve as the primary receiving back, at the very least, but any of the three could earn early-down or goal-line work based on their preseason performance. No matter the formula settled upon by Loggains, the Bears may find it difficult to uphold the standard established by Forte.
ENTERING PHASE TWO OF THE DEFENSIVE OVERHAUL
The hiring of coach John Fox in 2015 was expected to include a turnaround of an aging defense, and phase one of the overhaul was a success, as a league-high six rookies earned starts throughout the year. In addition, free agent acquisitions (LB Pernell McPhee and CB Tracy Porter) made valuable contributions, which helped the Bears elevate from 30th to 14th in total defense. Improving on the edges as well as along the defensive line, LB Lamarr Houston registered a career-high eight sacks, McPhee led the team with 25 quarterback pressures, and NT Eddie Goldman was fourth among rookies with 4.5 sacks. In the offseason, the weak run defense was addressed with the pickups of LBs Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, both of whom have consistently posted 100-plus tackles per season when healthy. To add an element of speed to the unit, Chicago selected LB Leonard Floyd in the first round of April's draft. Bringing plenty of burst to the fore, he'll nonetheless need to beef up his 6-6, 240-pound frame in order to break free of a situational role.
KEY JOB BATTLE
Jeremy Langford holds stature as the early-down back in name, but both Langford and fellow holdover Ka'Deem Carey were unable to average four yards per carry last year. Jordan Howard joined the group via this year's draft to provide additional competition, from which the winner could prosper under the direction of head coach John Fox. On the other hand, Fox has mentioned a desire to ride the "hot hand," so a revolving door of sorts could come to represent this role.
With the departures of Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett over the last two seasons, Jeffery could be more involved than ever as Jay Cutler's top receiver. Jeffery is an elite receiver, as evidenced by him finishing eighth in the league in receiving yards per game (89.7), while posting four 100-yard games in just nine starts in 2015.
RISING: Zach Miller
After not playing for three years, Miller caught 29 passes for 381 yards and four touchdowns from Week 10 on in 2015. With Martellus Bennett now in New England, Miller will have the lead tight end role all to himself.
FALLING: Jay Cutler
If coach John Fox has his way, the Bears will play solid defense and establish the running game. Should that work out, Cutler won't have nearly enough pass attempts to be an elite fantasy option on a weekly basis.
SLEEPER: Kevin White
Now fully recovered from a shin injury that wiped away his entire rookie season, White will rarely see double coverage playing across from Alshon Jeffery, placing him in a prime position to show off his elite skill set.
THE INJURY FRONT
Kevin White, WR – The seventh pick of the 2015 NFL Draft participated in OTAs and is fully recovered from the shin injury that completely took away his rookie season. After the lost season, he'll be starting as an outside receiver across from Alshon Jeffery and will look to earn Jay Cutler's trust with his potentially game-breaking speed.
Pernell McPhee, LB – The second-year Bear is expected to be ready to participate in training camp after requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason. Although he played in 14 games, he was clearly limited, as he recorded 33 tackles and five sacks in his first seven games, but only 19 tackles and one sack in his remaining appearances after suffering the injury. Along with the free-agent additions made to the defense, a healthy McPhee could flourish in year two of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defensive system.
Eddie Royal, WR – Although he appeared in three games late in the season, ankle and knee injuries caused him to miss six of the final nine games last year, and he failed to surpass 31 receiving yards in any of those late-season contests. He's expected to be the primary slot receiver, and with Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White playing on the outside, Royal should find plenty of space to operate.
Jerrell Freeman, LB – The veteran was signed in free agency to shore up a weak run defense, and he should be up to the task, as he recorded an impressive 8.4 tackles per game during four campaigns with the Colts. In addition, he should be able to chip in a few sacks after averaging 3.4 per 16 games played in his career.
Leonard Floyd, LB – The ninth overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft was added in the hopes that he can quickly become, at the very least, a situational pass rusher. Though he's a bit undersized at about 240 pounds, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has had success deploying fast edge rushers to harass opposing QBs. During three seasons at Georgia, Floyd registered 17 sacks over 37 games.
Danny Trevathan, LB – The Super Bowl-winning linebacker was brought in to add speed to an LB crew that struggled to contain opposing rushing attacks. In defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defense, the speedy linebacker will be in position to replicate the 7.3 tackles per game that he posted in his last three years with the Broncos. However, don't look for him to contribute sacks, as he's only registered one in his last 32 contests.
Danny Trevathan – LB (from Broncos)
Veteran playmaker instantly boosts front seven.
Jerrell Freeman – LB (from Colts)
Outstanding tackler bolsters team's run defense.
AKIEM HICKS – DT (from Patriots)
Pairs with Eddie Goldman to improve interior pass rush.
Leonard Floyd – LB (Rd. 1, No. 9 – Georgia)
Sub-package pass rusher must add strength to earn full-time role.
JONATHAN BULLARD – DT (Rd. 3, No. 72 – Florida)
Possessing first-round talent, could see time as edge rusher.
Matt Forte – RB (to Jets)
Departure leaves Bears with plenty of questions at running back.
Martellus Bennett – TE (to Patriots)
Exit opens up pass targets for other receiving options.