CHICAGO – Here are five storylines to watch as the Chicago Bears begin Phase 1 of their offseason program on Monday.
1. New sheriff in town: The Bears hired head coach John Fox to restore order inside a locker room that ran amok in 2014. Fox comes to Chicago with a proven track record of success that includes four consecutive AFC West titles in Denver and two Super Bowl appearances (for Denver and Carolina). Players will respect Fox or otherwise will be shown the door. There is expected to be actual accountability at Halas Hall for the first time since Lovie Smith left town. The days of walking over the head coach are history. Fox will set the tone early in the offseason program. The expectation is the players will buy in, quickly.
2. 3-4 defense: The CBA prohibits players from participating in on-field work until later in the offseason program, but the Bears need to eventually figure out who on the roster from the old regime fits in the new 3-4 style of defense Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio plan to run. Some of the fits are obvious: cornerback Kyle Fuller, for example. Fuller transcends every scheme and is expected to thrive with the increased amount of man-to-man coverage he’s likely to play in the 3-4. Other fits are not so obvious: Jared Allen, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, etc. The Bears should have a better idea once the players are allowed to “get on the grass,” to steal a phrase from Fox.
3. Quarterback crisis: The Bears have spent much of the offseason preparing as if Jay Cutler is the starting quarterback in 2015. Only time will tell if the Bears select a quarterback in the draft, but until further notice, Cutler is the guy next season. How will he coexist with Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase? We’ve seen this movie before. Every offseason there is renewed optimism that Cutler is finally matched with the perfect coaches who will finally unlock all that potential. And every year, Bears fans walk out of the theater disappointed. No matter what the Bears decide to do short-term with Cutler, the Bears need to improve the depth at the position. Jimmy Clausen seems like a decent No. 2. However, the Bears need to find a future No. 1.
4. Matt Forte’s future: Forte is entering the last year of his contract. He is scheduled to count $9.2 million against the Bears'2015 salary cap. Even with a hefty $7.050 million base salary (plus another $1.150 million tied up in per-game roster bonuses and a workout bonus), he’s been worth every penny. Forte is fresh off a season when he gained 1,038 rushing yards and made 102 catches. However, it’s unclear how the Bears plan to proceed with Forte. Can the two sides agree on a short extension? Does Forte even want a shorter deal? Do the Bears want it? With a renewed emphasis to run the football under Fox, Forte seems to have immense value in 2015. But my experience with contract squabbles is to expect the unexpected.
5. Ray McDonald: McDonald’s football ability is not up for debate. A talented 3-4 defensive end, McDonald instantaneously improves the defense. At issue is whether McDonald can stay out of trouble, or at the very least, discontinue his repeated habit of putting himself in horrible off-the-field situations. Can he be trusted? The Bears are about to find out. McDonald’s first order of business is to ingratiate himself with his new coaches and teammates. Establishing a good rapport inside the locker room begins in the offseason program. McDonald would be wise to take advantage of the opportunity to build some goodwill among his co-workers, many of whom only know McDonald from his publicized criminal investigations.