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Preseason Power Rankings No. 12: Chicago Bears

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The 2013 Bears scored the second-most points in franchise history (445). Only the 1985 Bears tallied more in regular season play, putting up 456 in their bulldozing of all non-Dan Marino-led competition in a 15-1 season.

But for all of their skill on offense, the 2013 Bears were overmatched on defense, surrendering 478 points, 57 points more than any previous Chicago club had given up.

Long before the Packers’ Randall Cobb sprinted through the Chicago secondary en route to the division-clinching touchdown in the regular season finale, the Bears’ defense was broken. Chicago surrendered at least 28 points in half of its games, including 54 to Philadelphia, 45 to Washington, 42 to St. Louis and 40 to Detroit. No team allowed more yards per play than the Bears, and no team was worse against the run.

In the offseason, the Bears set out to bolster that “D,” signing two of the best available defensive ends (Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen) and drafting defensive players with four of their first five picks. On offense, the Bears tried to build continuity. They re-committed to quarterback Jay Cutler, signing him to a seven-year contract worth up to $126.7 million in January. In May, they signed wide receiver Brandon Marshall to a four-year deal worth as much as $40 million.

These were logical moves for Chicago. For once, it was the offense didn’t need much work. Now, the focus turns to whether the defense can provide more resistance in head coach Marc Trestman’s second season on the job.

Strengths.

The Bears’ 2014 offense could be one of the best the franchise has ever fielded. Marshall (100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 TDs in 2013) and fellow starting wideout Alshon Jeffery (89-1,421-7) were Pro Bowlers a season ago, as were tailback Matt Forte (1,933 combined rushing-receiving yards) and right guard Kyle Long.

Cutler — now in sixth season in Chicago — appears to have taken well to Trestman’s scheme. The strong-armed Cutler connected on 63.1 percent of his throws a season ago, his best completion percentage in six years. He’s quite capable of being the first Bears quarterback to make a Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon 29 years ago.

If Cutler gets an all-star nod, he’ll be aided by strength of his pass catching corps. Marshall and Jeffery form an outstanding tandem. Forte is one of the game’s best receivers out of the backfield. Tight end Martellus Bennett is solid, too.

In Trestman’s inaugural campaign, the Bears’ passing attempts rose nearly 20 percent, but total sacks were down more than 30 percent. Moreover, the club’s completion percentage was up more than five percent. In short, the 2013 Bears threw it more and threw it better — and their quarterbacks hit the ground less. That’s testament to Trestman’s scheme, but it also reflects well on the offensive line, which the club overhauled last year, drafting Long and right tackle Jordan Mills and signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson.

The Bears can only hope their offseason D-line investment will pay similar dividends. And Allen, Houston and ex-Lions end Willie Young should strengthen a defense that got just 20 sacks from its front four a season ago.

Finally, in Robbie Gould, the Bears have one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers. He hit 26-of-29 field goals in 2013, including 9-of-11 from 40 yards and beyond.

Weaknesses.

Even with an upgraded defensive line, the Bears’ defense looms a major concern. The top player in the LB corps, Lance Briggs, will be 34 in November. Shea McClellin, the Bears’ 2012 first-round pick, could get reps at strong-side and middle linebacker in an attempt to jump-start his career. More is also needed from second-year pro Jon Bostic, whether at middle or outside linebacker.

The Bears’ secondary also looks shaky. Per Pro Football Focus grades, the club had two of the four worst starting safeties in 2013 (SS Major Wright, FS Chris Conte). Wright departed in free agency, and Conte comes off shoulder surgery. The Bears added four veterans and a draft pick at safety, which at least gives them some options as they try to craft a workable solution on the back end.

The Bears’ cornerback play should also be monitored. The club added some much-needed youth and depth in the draft, taking Kyle Fuller in Round One. Fuller, veterans Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman figure as the top three corners. If the 33-year-old Tillman stays healthy and returns to form, and if Fuller is a quick study, the Bears should be just fine at this key position. But if Tillman misses time, and if Fuller isn’t quite ready for prime time, the Bears could have a problem.

The worries don’t stop there. The Bears’ special teams are quite unsettled entering training camp. The club will have a new punter, holder, long-snapper, punt returner and kickoff returner. And backup quarterback could be a trouble spot after the departure of Josh McCown. Veterans Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer and sixth-round rookie David Fales will vie to back up Cutler. Clausen and Palmer have generally struggled against NFL competition, but Trestman is masterful with quarterbacks.

Changes.

The defensive depth chart got a makeover. The Bears released defensive end Julius Peppers and didn’t bring back defensive tackle Henry Melton, defensive end Corey Wootton or linebacker James Anderson. The Bears’ most expensive free agent signings — Houston and Allen — are defensive ends, a nod to the premium that ready-made pass rushers command. To bolster the defensive tackle depth, the Bears turned to the draft, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds, respectively.

The Bears took a value shopping approach at safety. Free agent additions Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Adrian Wilson are all slated to make less than $1 million in salary this season, per NFLPA records.

On offense, the changes were reserved to backup spots. McCown left to be the Buccaneers’ starter, while tailback Michael Bush and Earl Bennett were released. Rookie Ka’Deem Carey could help replace Bush, while former Washington wideout Josh Morgan was signed to bolster the WR depth.

The Bears underwent several major shakeups in the kicking game. Long-time star returner Devin Hester signed with Atlanta. Punter Adam Podlesh was released, and the club spent a draft pick on a potential replacement (Pat O’Donnell, Round Six). Then, late in the offseason, 16-year long-snapper Patrick Mannelly retired, adding another layer of uncertainty to the special teams.

Camp battles.

Here are the positions and players to watch:

— Safety: Ex-Giant Mundy might have the edge at strong safety, but Wilson is a wild card if he has something left after missing the 2013 season with an Achilles injury. Rookie Vereen is the biggest threat to the incumbent Conte at free safety.

— Cornerback: The progress of Fuller must be monitored. There are plenty of snaps to be had in this secondary if he’s up to it.

— Defensive tackle: Can Ferguson or Sutton push starters Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea? If not, can the rookies at least prove capable rotation players?

— Linebacker: Will Bostic, McClellin and second-year outside linebacker Khaseem Greene step up their play? The Bears didn’t draft a linebacker and added only veteran backup Jordan Senn in free agency.

— Wide receiver: Morgan and second-year pro Marquess Wilson appear the favorites to replace Bennett as the third receiver.

— Running back: Carey and second-year pro Michael Ford will compete for the little work that won’t go to Forte, a true three-down back.

— Quarterback: Palmer, Clausen and Fales will compete for no more than two reserve roles. The question is, which of this trio most quickly applies Trestman’s lessons?

— Returner: Eric Weems is the most experienced option in the competition to return kickoffs and punts.

— Punter: O’Donnell will try to hold off veteran Tress Way.

— Long-snapper: First-year pro Brandon Hartson and CFL veteran Chad Rempel will battle it out.

Prospects.

The Bears must hang tough early. Six of their first nine games are on the road, including trips to visit the 49ers (Week Two), Falcons (Week Six), Patriots (Week Eight) and Packers (Week 10).

If Chicago can get through that nine-pack in decent order, there’s a real chance to close with gusto. From November 16 through December 21, the Bears play five home games and take just one road trip — Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The Bears end their season at Minnesota — no picnic, yes, but not the worst draw ever.

It all looks fairly cut-and-dried with the Bears. If their defense is better, and if their offense hums along, they are serious contenders for a playoff spot. But if the defense remains a sieve, and if the offense regresses, they are vulnerable.

The Bears aren’t the youngest of teams. Tillman and Briggs don’t have many NFL years left. Cutler and Marshall aren’t kids, either, and Forte is approaching 2,000 career touches. There ought to be a real sense of urgency to get into the playoffs with an offense this talented. As Bears observers with any sense of history would tell you, scoring points traditionally hasn’t been a Chicago strength.

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Larry Fitzgerald will talk post-2017 plans at training camp

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Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald spent a lot of time last year fielding questions about whether or not he planned to continue playing in 2017 and then took a little time after the end of the season before announcing that he’d return to the team.

The 2017 season hasn’t started yet, but the way last year played out makes it pretty likely that there are already plenty of people wondering about Fitzgerald’s plans for 2018. On Monday night, Fitzgerald said that the frequency of the questions last year grew tiresome and he plans to handle those queries differently than he did last season.

Fitzgerald said that he’ll discuss his future at training camp and only at training camp.

“I’m going to answer it one time, and I’m not even going to address it anymore,” Fitzgerald said, via Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com.

It seems unlikely that Fitzgerald will field his final question on the topic in July unless his answer is unequivocal that he’s going to play in 2018. An answer that involves making a decision after the season will invite follow-ups as the season unfolds and a plan to retire would lead to questions about second thoughts along with weekly reminders that the end is getting close.

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Washington “getting close” to a plan for replacing former G.M.

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Washington may be close to backfilling its personnel department, even if that doesn’t mean hiring a General Manager.

According to Liz Clarke of the Washington Post, team president Bruce Allen said they had met with more than a dozen candidates plus some internal scouts, and were nearing a decision.

We’re getting close to having a final plan,” Allen said. “It has been a good period. We’ve learned a lot about other strategies and structures around the league.”

They’ve been short-handed since firing G.M. Scot McCloughan in March, with Allen presiding over the franchise-tagging of Kirk Cousins and the draft.

So it’s reasonable to suggest they don’t feel a pressing need to have someone with the title McCloughan used to have.

Considering they’ve gone this far without one (and have two more years of contract to pay for McCloughan to not be G.M.) they could be looking for some alternatives which don’t suggest anyone having the power to nudge Allen out of the top spot.

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Kentucky basketball hopeful has some NFL potential

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Usually the Kentucky basketball players are all first-rounders, and usually after their first year.

But in the case of senior guard Dominique Hawkins, he might have a shot to go pro in another sport.

According to Ben Roberts of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Hawkins might be a fringe NBA draft prospect whose basketball future lies overseas.

But the 6-foot- guard with a 44.5-inch vertical leap has also drawn some attention from NFL scouts, who are intrigued about his potential as a defensive back.

He was the state of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 2013 and a favorite of fans there, and Wildcats coach John Calipari called him “Old Reliable” during their tournament run (as opposed to all the “Young Temps” he usually recruits).

“He is a fierce competitor,” Calipari said of Hawkins in February. “He’s tough as nails. He will come up with [loose balls]. Any 50/50 ball, he’s getting. And offensively, he’s gotten better each year.”

Usually when an NFL team is thinking about conversion projects, it’s power forwards turned into tight ends. But while Hawkins might not be NBA caliber, football teams are going to turn over every rock in search of guys who can play.

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David Diehl visits the PFT Live studio on Tuesday

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Tuesday’s PFT Live includes one of the new twists that debuted last week — a current or former player spending a full hour in studio.

Last week, it was Willie Colon on Tuesday and Brian Westbrook on Wednesday. This week, two-time Super Bowl champion David Diehl, who played 11 years with the Giants, will visit the PFT Live studio for the final hour of the show.

For clarity, he’ll be in the Connecticut studio. If you saw any of Monday’s show, you know that the West Virginia studio barely fit Barstool Big Cat and PFT Commenter. There’s no way it would fit both me and Diehl. Or Diehl on his own.

We’ll be discussing a wide variety of topics, including a back-and-forth draft aimed at compiling our ideal offensive line. Join us at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN for Diehl’s visit.

Actually, join us at 6:00 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Radio, and then on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET.

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Owners discussing timing change for coaching hires

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If some owners have their way, future Dan Quinns and Kyle Shanahans might not have to spend a Super Bowl week lying (or at least awkwardly hedging) about their plans for the following week.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, owners will discuss a change to the timing of head-coaching hires, which would allow teams to agree to terms with a new coach after a second interview but not announce the hiring.

It’s actually a box of leftovers from the March meeting, when the needed rules change was proposed by the competition committee but not voted on. Atlanta has also sponsored the rule, having been on both sides of it.

Ostensibly, that would give teams more of a chance to rebuild coaching staffs in the wake of late departures caused by their own success. In recent years, the Seahawks and Falcons have had to wait before replacing Dan Quinn (to Atlanta) and Kyle Shanahan (to San Francisco) until their teams were finished with the Super Bowl.

But if it’s as simple agree-don’t-announce, that doesn’t really seem to change much, since both hirings were the worst-kept secrets of the Super Bowl weeks in question, and both hirings were foregone conclusions.

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Jay Gruden thinks Chris Thompson is the NFL’s best third-down back

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Washington coach Jay Gruden thinks he has the NFL’s best third-down back on his roster.

Chris Thompson, who had 68 carries for 356 yards and three touchdowns last season and added 49 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns, is as good as it gets in the third-down role, according to Gruden.

“I think Chris Thompson’s role is big,” Gruden said, via CSNMidAtlantic.com. “When you’re talking about third downs, that’s the most important down in football. There’s nobody better as a third-down back in my opinion than Chris. He’s got a huge role on this football team.”

With rookie Samaje Perine joining last year’s top two rushers, Rob Kelley and Matt Jones, it would be easy to envision Thompson’s role being reduced. But Gruden sees Thompson having a key role.

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CBS producer believes Tony Romo will be the next John Madden

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CBS is obviously quite excited about the addition of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to their broadcast booth.

The network is so happy to have him that Romo is going to get his first appearance in the booth during this weekend’s PGA Tour stop at the Dean and DeLuca Invitational at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

According to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, CBS producer Lance Barrow announced at a gala for the tournament Monday night that Romo would make his CBS debut this week in the booth at the 18th hole.

In addition to announcing Romo’s foray on the network’s golf broadcast this weekend, Barrow made a lofty comparison in likening Romo to an NFL broadcasting legend.

I think he is going to be great,” Barrow said. “I think we have the next John Madden on your hands.”

Romo has yet to work a single NFL game, but in comparing Romo to Madden he’s setting an incredibly high standard for the newest member of the network’s announcing team.

After his coaching career was complete, Madden became the most recognizable NFL analyst on TV. Madden paired with Pat Summerall to form the No. 1 crew in NFL broadcasting, first working for CBS before moving to FOX in the mid-1990’s. His popularity continued to grow with the introduction of the Madden NFL game franchise.

Whether Romo could potentially ever reach Madden territory as a broadcaster is yet to be seen, but clearly CBS is incredibly bullish on their addition to their staff.

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Michael Bennett, columnist, appear to bury hatchet after apology

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Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett threatened to boycott the Seattle Times after a column critical of Bennett appeared in the paper on Sunday.

While the column from writer Matt Calkins largely praised Bennett for his on-field performance, numerous charity endeavors and engaging personality, the piece primarily took issue with an incident that occurred in the locker room following Seattle’s playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons in January.

Bennett lashed out at a local TV reporter for asking a question about the team’s pass rush in the game and questioned what adversity had the reporter faced. What Bennett didn’t know at the time was that the reporter – Bill Wixey – had survived cancer. That incident, and Calkins’ belief that no apology had been given from Bennett to Wixey, was the prime point of contention for Calkins’ criticism.

But in a follow-up column on Monday, Calkins notes that he found out that Bennett had apologized to Wixey privately and he didn’t do the legwork on that before writing the story. Since the linchpin of the argument was incorrect, the rest of the premise the criticism was predicated upon wasn’t supported any longer. He apologized to Bennett for getting it wrong.

Part of my duty is to hold people accountable. That includes myself,” Calkins wrote.

Bennett appears to have accepted the apology from Calkins as well.

Although I was offended by your attacks on my character, I admire and respect your willingness to admit you were wrong about me,” Bennett wrote in a Twitter message directed at Calkins and the Times’ twitter accounts Monday night. “I care deeply for social causes, for our fans and I’m not afraid to make a stand even if it makes me unpopular at time I will continue to lead organically n staying true to what I feel is right I love this city n I love the people.”

While Bennett didn’t expressly say his plan to boycott the paper is off, it seems as though he’s willing to move beyond the issue.

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Turner considers trying to get back into the NFL business

The NFL television landscape could change in plenty of ways come 2023. At at time when the ability of ESPN to continue to pay more than $2 billion per year to keep Monday Night Football, one of the league’s former broadcast partners could be trying to get back in.

Via Michael McCarthy of SportingNews.com, Turner Sports currently is exploring the possibility of making a bid on a piece of the TV rights. Of course, there’s a big difference between thinking about it and scraping together the cash necessary to make it happen.

Turner’s status as a cable channel limits its options, as a practical matter. The NFL realizes the value of placing prime-time games on broadcast TV, given that the three-letter networks still draw the maximum audience. Even with the proliferation of cable and Internet, millions still rely on the free signals broadcast through the public airwaves by NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX.

The Monday Night Football package would make the most sense for Turner, and the NFL may need to find a deep-pocketed partner to bid on the games, if ESPN ultimately won’t have the cash to continue to pay such a premium for the premier American sporting content.

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OBJ is a no-show for Day One of OTAs

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Uh-oh, OBJ.

The Giants receiver, entering his fourth NFL season, skipped the first day of the team’s Organized Team Activities, according to Dan Duggan of NJ.com. Duggan says the reason for the absence isn’t known, and that it’s likewise unknown whether he’ll show up for any of the other nine OTA sessions.

The practices are voluntary, but as the on-field culmination of the offseason program they take on greater importance than other April-to-June workouts. With Beckham eligible for a new contract following the completion of his third season, it’s possible that he’s choosing to stay away in order to get paid.

The Giants have another OTA on Tuesday, and then again on Thursday. Thursday’s practice will be open to the media. Coach Ben McAdoo technically can’t say or do anything to suggest that presence is required; however, some coaches have a way of making their frustration known, private or publicly.

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O.J. Simpson will have July parole hearing

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The Juice could be loose, again.

Via Andrew Blankstein and Daniella Silva of NBC News, Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson will have a parole hearing in July. He has served nine years of a 33-year sentence on charges arising from a bungled effort to reclaim memorabilia that he believed was stolen from him.

Some contend the Nevada justice system threw the book at Simpson due to the perception that he got away with a double murder in California, with the alleged killing of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ronald Goldman.

The key question regarding Simpson’s potential freedom will be whether and to what extent discretion may be exercised by the parole board. That discretion will allow anyone who thinks he should be serving life without parole for the 1994 killings to justify keeping him behind bars for more of that 33-year term.

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Ameer Abdullah could be headed for a featured role in Detroit

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The running back the Cardinals wanted to draft before drafting David Johnson may soon get a chance to have an impact similar to Arizona’s 2015 Plan B option.

Lions running back Ameer Abdullah recently said he’d be better than any other option the team may bring in. They didn’t bring anyone in via free agency or the draft, which per the team’s official website has created the impression that Abdullah will have a featured role in 2017, his third NFL season.

The question is whether he can stay healthy. Abdullah finished his rookie season (with 16 appearances and 597 rushing yards) needing shoulder surgery. Last year, a Week Two foot injury knocked him out for the rest of the season.

Other options are Theo Riddick (who had 357 yards rushing in 2016), Zach Zenner (334 yards), and Dwayne Washington (265 yards). Collectively, the Lions generated 1,310 rushing yards (30th in the league), with an average of 3.7 yards per carry.

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Nevada, NFL may be at odds over mobile betting at Raiders games

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It won’t be easy for the NFL to keep gambling at arm’s length when the Raiders are playing in Las Vegas.

The latest example of that comes from the Nevada Gaming Commission, which plans to allow fans to place bets inside the Raiders’ new stadium, using mobile apps that are legal within Nevada state lines.

The NFL, of course, isn’t keen on that, and the Raiders’ lease in the stadium specifically prohibits “any Gaming or Gambling, the maintaining or operating of a Gaming Establishment and/or sports wagering or any wagering on racing or other non-sports events.” But Nevada Gaming Commission chairman Tony Alamo told ESPN that his commission, not the league’s lease with the stadium authority, would make the rules about where mobile betting is allowed.

“The NFL has not approached me for any policy decisions,” Alamo said. “The Nevada Gaming Commission is the policy maker for the state of Nevada and gaming, and they have not approached us in any shape, way or form.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told ESPN in the Raiders “are required to abide by League rules on the matter.” But do the Raiders have the authority to prevent people from betting on mobile apps if the Gaming Commission allows it? That’s one of many questions that is sure to come up as the anti-gambling NFL navigates the uncharted territory of playing in America’s gambling capital.

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Chiefs sign Tourek Williams

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The Chiefs got a look at linebacker Tourek Williams when he played for the Chargers and now they’ll be getting a closer view.

The NFL’s transaction wire brought word on Monday that the Chiefs have signed Williams to their 90-man roster. Linebacker Victor Ochi was waived in a corresponding move.

Williams was a sixth-round pick of the Chargers in 2013 and saw action in 44 games over the last three seasons, although a broken foot kept him off the field for the entire 2015 season. He played in every game last year and had 14 tackles and a sack while seeing more time on special teams than on defense.

Ochi played two games for the Jets last year and had two tackles.

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Aaron Donald not at OTAs as contract talks go on

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The Rams exercised their option on defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s contract for the 2018 season, but General Manager Les Snead said that a lucrative, long-term contract extension was “definitely coming.”

Snead also said that “whether he gets a raise or not,” Donald would show up and “do the things he does.” That wasn’t the case on Monday, the first day of the team’s Organized Team Activities.

Donald was not at the team’s practice, which is voluntary, and coach Sean McVay declined to discuss the reason for his absence beyond saying it was not related to an injury. Steve Wyche of NFL Media reports that “all indications” are that Donald is staying away for contract reasons and General Manager Les Snead seemed to confirm that while also saying that a deal may not be far off.

“We’re at the serious stages of renegotiating,” Snead said, via Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. “I’m very hopeful this will get done.”

If a deal does get done, Donald will move way up the list of best-paid defensive players in the game and could nudge Broncos linebacker Von Miller out of the top spot once pen is put to paper.

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