With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.
The Chicago Bears came out of nowhere to be NFC contenders in the 2005 season. Well, maybe their defense did. The defense was the top defense in the NFL in scoring defense, challenging the 2000 Baltimore Ravens for the title of best scoring defense in NFL history by allowing a paltry 12.6 points a game. They return 22 starters, but it will be the possibility of new starters in key positions which makes Chicago so intriguing in this preseason. With Head Coach Lovie Smith, the Bears know that they have a coach dedicated to succeeding in Chicago, and it’ll be upto Smith to make the tough decisions at some of the key positions on the field. Their defense was upto the task in 2005, but it’ll take an improved showing from the offense in order for them to get any further than the NFC divisional round.
Lovie Smith will let Offensive Coordinator Ron Turner continue to work with the offense in hopes that they can improve on their sometimes dismal performances from 2005. While the defense was easily gaining accolades throughout the NFL, there was little positive reflection about the offense. Rookie Kyle Orton started 15 games for the Bears in 2005 and went 10-5, but he was never considered the long term solution for the Bears. Now Turner will have to work with returning quarterback Rex Grossman, who suffered injury in 2005, and free-agent acquisition Brian Griese, who was the starter in Tampa Bay until injury forced him out for the season. The Bears did have one of the top 10 rushing attacks in all the NFL with Thomas Jones and rookie Cedric Benson in the backfield, but they do need to get more contribution from a passing game that didn’t give them much to work with. Orton was working to be the one not to make mistakes, rarely taking the chances necessary to make things happen in big-time fashion.
QB: That’s the big question in Chicago: Who’s it going to be? Will it be Rex Grossman, who entered training camp each of the past two seasons as the starting quarterback for the Bears, or will it be Brian Griese, who came over as a free-agent? There have been grumblings around Bears camp for weeks, and with the better play of Brian Griese during the Bears’ first two games, the calls for Griese to be the starting quarterback are already beginning. Griese has already thrown for three touchdown while Grossman has yet to lead a real successful offensive drive for the Bears. Griese is a NFL veteran who has performed fairly well in his two previous NFL stops, Denver and Tampa Bay, but have been ultimately replaced by quarterbacks after his limitations as quarterback are realized. Those team, however, needed a quarterback to really lead an offense. They don’t need to necessarily do that, just to kill some time for the Bears and give the defense a rest and not make mistakes. Grossman has had the injury bug since he’s come into the NFL and hasn’t been available for more than 3 games in any of his first three NFL season. The funny thing is that in this discussion, Kyle Orton, who went 10-5 as a rookie, hasn’t really factored into the discussion.
RB/FB: This position is as hotly contested as the quarterback competition. On one side you have NFL veteran Thomas Jones, who had a hamstring injury and was dropped to second on the depth chart in favor of 2005 rookie Cedric Benson. However, with Benson himself now on the sideline with a shoulder injury, Jones is primed to once again take over the starting position. Jones was solid last season for the Bears and their 8th ranked rushing attack, rushing for 1,335 yards last season. That made him, along with Walter Payton, the only running backs in team history to eclipse the 1,300 yard mark in a season. But that didn’t make him expendable in favor of Benson when he missed most of training camp with the hamstring injury. Jones has the upper hand, at least for now, because of his familiarity with the Bears’ offense and that he has proven himself as an NFL running back. But as is the case with most high draft picks, he is making the big money and will eventually have to get on the field. Meanwhile, the Bears appear to have Jason McKie slated as the starter with Bryan Johnson suffering a hamstring pull of his own. He will battle it out for the rest of the preseason with rookie J.D. Runnels, whom the team will now keep because of the injury to Johnson. McKie will need to be more consistent with his blocking, but the coaching staff is noticing an improvement in his effort and corresponding play on the field.
WR/TE: Right now the receiving unit has Muhsin Muhammad as the top receiver, the role he was signed to have when he came over prior to last season from Carolina. Muhammad responded with a solid season, although his low number than that of a year ago can be contributed to the futility of the Bears’ offense more than the drop in play. Meanwhile, the Bears are having a problem trying to fill the spot opposite of Muhammad on the offensive unit. Right now it’s Bernard Berrian, but that could change. One player who has been making a splash for the Bears is converted corner Rashied Davis, who has been playing very consistently for them in camp and in the first two preseason games. He’s shown great speed and good hands, but is a little undersized. He’ll be a contributor for the Bears regardless, but he’d love to get himself a starting spot. Desmond Clark had 24 catches last season and will be the starter for them once again at tight end.
OL: All-Pro Olin Kreutz will anchor the line for the Bears as always. He’s been the starting center in Chicago since 1999 and has made 5 Pro-Bowls in that span. He’s a strong center who reads defenses better than most and is a very important part of the run-blocking aspect of the Bears offense. To his left will be John Tait at tackle and Ruben Brown at guard. Tait came over prior to 2004 from the Chiefs and has been a solid fixture for them since. Played LT until Willie Roaf went to KC, when he moved to RT. He returned to the LT with the Bears, where he’s been solid. Veteran of 12 NFL seasons and 8 Pro Bowls, Ruben Brown made splashes with the Bills. Now with the Bears since 2004, he has also contributed to one of the best OL units in the NFL. The right side features veterans guard Roberto Garza and Fred MIller at tackle. Miller and Garza have also been solid members of the line, Miller a veteran who’s been around with Tennessee and St. Louis and Garza having played with Chicago his entire 6 year career. Together they produced the eighth-ranked rushing attack and should be solid once again.
Overall Grade: C+
Strength of the team in 2005. Ron Rivera heads the unit, but they display a lot of the qualities of Head Coach and former Defensive Coordinator of the St. Louis Rams Lovie Smith. They were the second-ranked defense in the NFL in yards allowed and first overall in points allowed per game. They have also shown improvement during Rivera’s tenure as DC in third-down and red-zone efficiency. Rivera will have all 11 starters returning for the Bears in 2006 and they look to duplicate their 2005 success. All across the board these guys have talent, it’s a matter of keeping together and maybe getting a little help from their offense.
DL: The Chicago line starts with the talented ends: Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye. Alex Brown has 20 career sacks but his value to the team is his versatility. He can get penetration on a line and shut down running plays to the outside, get upfield and attack the quarterback, and he can also drop back in zone coverage if absolutely necessary. Ogunleye came over from Miami before the 2004 season and he’s been one of the premier ends in the NFL for a few seasons now. He is an excellent pass rusher and can get to the quarterback consistently and in a hurry. Inside the Bears have Tommie Harris and Alfonso Boone. Harris is one of the most productive members of the team, and that is saying something with a defense that includes All-Pro Brian Urlacher at linebacker. Boone is actually the longest serving member of the Bears D-Line and has been solid in tutoring the youth of the line.
LB: The core of the defense starts and ends with the linebackers. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Hunter Hillenmeyer are easily one of the best units in the NFL. Urlacher is one of the NFL’s most recognizable faces and players in the middle of this defense. He’s got a motor that never ends. He’s so incredibly fast on the field, yet he probably wouldn’t place better than most of the linebackers on the roster in the 40-yard dash, but he’s always where the ball is. In the backfield, 20 yards downfield, he’s there. Lance Briggs was able to make himself known to the rest of the NFL as a playmaker in his own right. A heavy tackler who wants to make big plays and does pretty well in doing so from his position. Hillenmeyer is also a solid tackler and doesn’t do anything spectacularly but can handle all of the aspects of the game well. Together, they are one of the most highly renowned corps in the league.
DB: Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher are the corners once again for the Bears in 2006. Vasher was a ball-hawk in 2005, a year that saw him make 8 interceptions and a historical return off a missed field goal attempt that saw him set an NFL record by running 108 yards for the touchdown. Charles Tillman has solid ball skills and is a good athlete, both aspects that are helping him continually improve into one of the better corners in the game. The safeties are also very good. Mike Brown, who has been injury-prone these past few seasons, is still one of the better safeties in the NFL and is the emotional leader of the Bears. He earned his first Pro-Bowl selection in 2005 and was a second-team All-Pro. He’s a hard-hitting safety in the old-school mode. Opposite of Brown is Chris Harris, who was thrown into the fire early in the 2005 season as a rookie and is now entrenched as the starter. He is solid as well and is not a weakness despite his relative inexperience.
Overall Grade: A+
K: Robbie Gould made quite the impression on the Bears as a rookie by scoring 83 points for the Bears, second among all rookie kickers. Meanwhile, he’ll return for the 2006 season with the experience of having played in windy Chicago during his rookie season. He’s a strong kickoff specialist as well and limits the yardage that opposing teams get from kickoff returns. Should be solid once again as he continues to get accustomed to more of the NFL life for kickers.
P: Brad Maynard is one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL. He’s got the ability to put the ball in places that most punters can’t accomplish and does it with relative ease. A high kicker who can still get good distance with his punts, a valuable member of the filed position game. He was more useful because of the lack of consistency that the offense showed last year.
Overall Grade: B
Lovie Smith is showing his value as a Head Coach with Chicago. He’s an even 16-16 in his two seasons as the leader of the Bears after a 5-11 in 2004 and 11-5 in 2005. He’s brought a work ethic to the Bears that was missing at times under former coach Dick Jauron. Smith has been the force that they have needed in Chicago, even if he was written off by some people after the 2004 disaster. He’s got Ron Turner, a former collegiate Head Coach who has been working with the offense, although so far rather unsuccessfully. On defense, the Bears are better off with Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera, who has made the Chicago defense as formidable as it’s been.
Overall Grade: B+
Position Battles to Watch
QB: With the Bears looking past 21005 starter Kyle Orton, it’s a matter of the oft-injured Grossman or the veteran Griese when trying to figure out who the starter will be. Griese has been solid everywhere he’s been prior, but at the same time he’s never been able to rise above a ceiling which basically has limited his growth in each of his first two stops. Grossman, meanwhile, hasn’t really had enough time on the field in real NFL regular season action to showcase whether he can handle the load or not. It’ll be an interesting decision.
RB: You would think that two of the most important offensive positions on the field shouldn’t be a problem for a playoff team, but the Bears have a problem at running back. Although the Bears have Thomas Jones, who ran for over 1,300 yards in 2005, they also know that 2005 first-round pick Cedric Benson must get his chance on the field because he’s got the big contract. Both are hard runners and strong backs. Don’t forget Adrian Peterson, who’s performed well when he’s been in the games as well. This one will be doubly tough because of the need to have Benson on the field to earn his contract.
Player to Watch
Rashied Davis, WR: A converted corner who has been the talk of camp at WR, Davis is looking to break into the receiving rotation. He probably would not make the team in normal circumstances, but with the lack of depth, he will not only more than likely have a roster spot, but will also have the ability to contribute regularly for the Bears. He’s been good at getting open and has displayed soft hands in his preseason action.
Offensive MVP: Thomas Jones
Defensive MVP: Brian Urlacher