4 Downs: How much better is Bears' D?

A healthy Charles Tillman, who missed eight games in 2013, will play a key role for Chicago's defense. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Chicago Bears' defense in 2013 didn't look anything like, well, the Chicago Bears' defense of the past decade-plus. The Bears ranked 30th in total defense and last in rushing yards allowed with 2,583 yards, just more than 400 yards from the 31st-ranked Atlanta Falcons.

GM Phil Emery & Co. went to work rebuilding the defense in the offseason through free agency and spent their top three draft picks on defensive players. With this potent offense, a top-16 defense would seemingly make the Bears championship material. Can the Bears rebound from the bottom of the NFL's defensive rankings to the upper half in one year?

Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears' defense will be in the league's top half this season.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. That's a large jump for a defense that allowed 394.6 total yards (30th) and 29.9 points (tied for 30th) in the NFL last year. On paper, the Bears are better on defense. If healthy, the additions of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young should improve a defensive line that failed to slow down or sack anybody in 2013. But serious questions remain at linebacker and safety. And can all these veteran defenders stay off the injury report? There are too many "what ifs" to predict the Bears a top-16 defense in Week 1.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. If the Bears' defense is in the top half, then this defensive line will go down among the game's greats and we better start coming up with nicknames. It's tough to be optimistic about the defense after last season's injury-plagued debacle and premature impressions from the preseason. Mostly, it's tough because the back seven of the defense is suspect. The linebacking corps has wily veterans in BBQ King Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams, but if Shea McClellin starts, wow. Jon Bostic had too much on his plate last season, but still has promise. Can he realize it this season? It's telling that Marc Trestman has danced around who will start at safety. Corners should be good, health willing, but all in all, this looks like a bottom-third defense.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears' offensive skill player core of Cutler, Forte, Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett is the best in the NFC North.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Green Bay is superior at quarterback, and Detroit's Calvin Johnson is a tiny notch above Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery at wide receiver, but as a whole, the Bears own the best set of skill position players in the North. There is nothing wrong with the offense. Matt Forte is wildly underrated. Marshall and Jeffery are Pro Bowlers. Martellus Bennett is an above-average tight end, and Cutler has all the necessary talent. This figures to be a fun year on offense. Hard to believe just two years ago the Bears ranked No. 28 in total yards (310.6) and No. 29 in passing yards (187.4) per week. How quickly things have changed.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. I think you could argue the Bears' group edges the Packers' core. Marshall and Jeffery are arguably the most dangerous duo in the league, and Forte is worth every penny of his most recent contract. Bennett is a little extra spice to this recipe. But where it matters most is at quarterback, and Aaron Rodgers still trumps Cutler. And because the Packers' offense gets to face the Bears' defense, the edge still goes to Green Bay.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Jared Allen will have an eighth straight season of at least 11 sacks.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. I went back and forth with this one, but I'll give Allen the benefit of the doubt because unlike Julius Peppers in 2013, Allen should have help on the defensive line. If teammates Houston, Young, Jeremiah Ratliff, Stephen Paea and rookies Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson can be disruptive, that should, in theory, loosen it up for Allen coming off the edge. Allen seems to be in good shape and in good spirits. No reason to expect a tremendous decline in his performance.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Sure, why not? As long as Allen stays on the field, he'll produce. I like the Bears' revamped defensive line. How could I not? It's a clever mix of youth and experience with plenty of complementary skills. If these guys can stay healthy, Allen will have plenty of clear paths to get to the quarterback.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Cutler will be an MVP candidate this season if he stays healthy.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Reasonable expectations for Cutler are 16 starts and a playoff berth. Enough with the MVP talk. Make the postseason, a feat Cutler has accomplished only one time in eight years. Rich Gannon, the 2002 NFL MVP, blossomed late in his career in Oakland with help from Trestman. That proves nothing is impossible. But more recent MVP quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Rodgers, Tom Brady) all have something in common: They play on perennial playoff teams. And the last I checked, Manning, Rodgers, Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, even Andrew Luck, aren't going anywhere. Make the playoffs. Whatever happens after that is simply icing on the cake for Cutler.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. It's a perfectly plausible scenario, but I'm not buying that campaign just yet. Cutler's career has been about his promise, not his production, and while I'm high on him succeeding in tandem with Trestman, let's slow the roll a little on the MVP talk. Like, let's see him play four good games to start the season. Then we can start talking MVP. What I wonder is this: Will Cutler's reputation and his past performance be a boon or a detriment for this prospective MVP campaign? Sportswriters vote for the AP award. We're human beings, remember. Does his renaissance under Trestman make him a sympathetic figure -- The New Jay Cutler, For Real -- or will people still consider him a surly jerk above all else? I think it'll be the former, if it happens at all. Everyone loves a comeback story.