NFL Nation's Michael C. Wright examines the three biggest issues facing the Chicago Bears heading into training camp.
Cutler after the big-money contract: Lost in all the anticipation for the upcoming season seems to be an undercurrent of skepticism regarding whether quarterback Jay Cutler is worth -- or whether he’ll eventually prove he’s worth -- the seven-year deal signed in January worth $126.7 million. The verdict remains out, and even the team made sure to structure an escape hatch into the Cutler deal. Essentially, Cutler signed a three-year deal worth $54 million that contains rolling club options from now until 2016. If the Bears decide to release Cutler after the 2016 season, they can do so with no salary-cap repercussions because he didn’t receive a signing bonus, which means no proration.
Cutler took a major step in his first season working with head coach Marc Trestman, quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. But will Cutler continue to trend in that direction?
In four seasons with the Bears prior to 2013, Cutler had generated a passer rating of 81.9. But last year, the quarterback produced a career-high passer rating of 89.2, his best since his rookie season (2006). The coaching staff and front office believe they made a wise investment in Cutler. What’s more is the players in that locker room believe in Cutler, too.
Safety play: Unrest at the safety positions seems synonymous with the Bears in recent years, and the team goes into camp with both spots up for grabs. The Bears drafted Brock Vereen, and signed M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray, Ryan Mundy and Adrian Wilson to battle it out for the top spots. Mundy has taken repetitions with the first group as have Vereen and Jennings, but the picture won’t start to clear up until the Bears play some preseason games.
“The simple fact [that] we’ve rotated him in with the ones is a clear indication we think he can compete,” Trestman said of Vereen, a fourth-round pick. “We’re not going to anoint him yet. You’ve got to be very careful with young players. They get in shorts and they’re doing well, and then you put on the pads and you’ve got to see how they are in pads. There’s no reason to think he can’t put himself in position to compete for one of those jobs, but it’s way, way too early.”
Chris Conte is the only returning starter at the safety position, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be fully healthy for the start of camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, which forced him to miss organized team activities and minicamp.
Can Shea play LB? That’s been the question regarding former first-round pick Shea McClellin since the team announced it would be moving him to linebacker from defensive end. While McClellin certainly doesn’t appear to be out of place at his new position, we still haven’t seen him in live game situations. So it’s unclear whether the Bears will be able to salvage the first pick of Phil Emery’s tenure as general manager.
“He’s going to be a typical 4-3 linebacker for us,” Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “I see him as probably more of a blitzer than maybe a four-down rusher. But he will have some edge-rush opportunities.”
McClellin is competing with Jon Bostic for the starting spot at Sam linebacker, and it’s likely Bostic will win the job. That could relegate McClellin to more of a role as a pass-rushing specialist. McClellin is also taking repetitions at middle linebacker, but he’s not likely to beat out incumbent D.J. Williams or Bostic.
McClellin deserves credit for transforming his body during the offseason in preparation for the new role. Now he has to prove he’s capable of performing consistently in the new gig.