5. Can Devin Hester not suck so much this year?
Devin Hester has been horrible the past few years. There’s no way around that. He has lost some of his speed. He doesn’t seem as shifty, and his confidence seems to be at an all-time low. People who weren’t fans of the old regime believe this all resulted from his move to wide receiver, which is a sorry excuse for a guy who was once called the best athlete in football. In his six seasons since his first two years in the league, he only has six special teams touchdowns, including zero in 2008 and 2009, combined. Asking Hester to score a few touchdowns this year on special teams might be asking a little too much, but getting prime field position out of him shouldn’t be. After all, like many others on this team, he has millions of dollars riding on it.
4. Will the rookie linebackers produce like they are expected to?
Jon Bostic has had a very talked-about camp and has had a nice preseason. Like any rookie linebacker, he has much to learn and will likely make mistakes, especially being in the middle of a very good and veteran-led defense. This scheme won’t make it easy on him, because Mel Tucker’s defense, similar to Lovie Smith’s except with more surprise blitzes thrown in, asks a lot out of the middle linebacker. Regardless, Bostic should get the start on September 8 against Cincinnati whether D.J. Williams is healthy or not. Williams has never been more than a mediocre player, and Bostic has the tools to play and succeed immediately.
Khaseem Greene was one of my favorite players coming out this past year, and I was thrilled when the Bears selected him with the 117th pick. He was an All-American in 2012 and won the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award on top of it. His niche right now is probably on special teams, but I’m not so sure that he couldn’t make as much of an impact as James Anderson at outside linebacker, if Anderson goes down. Anderson has only forced five fumbles and has only accounted for eight sacks in 96 career games, so he’s not exactly what I’d consider a dynamic player, he is only a stop-gap for Greene’s eventual arrival at the position in 2014 anyway.
3. Can the class of 2012 make a much-needed impact?
The Bears only had six selections in the 2012 draft, and 16 months later, only four remain after Greg McCoy’s release in camp last August and Evan Rodriguez’s 47 arrests. Those four players—Shea McClellin, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Hardin, and Isaiah Frey—need to give this team a jolt this year.
Whether Corey Wootton stays healthy or not, something he has struggled with, Shea McClellin will have to be better than he was last year. Tom Thayer’s comments comparing him to J.J. Watt were idiotic to the highest degree, but he should be able to reach at least seven sacks in 2013. He also needs to work on defending the run, something he was unable to do last season.
A lot has been made of Jay Cutler repeatedly (and repeatedly) throwing the ball in the direction of Brandon Marshall. A duplication of this will result in another poor season for the offense, but at times last year, Cutler had no choice. Kellen Davis was just shameful (and is still shameful with just one catch this preseason for the Browns), Earl Bennett missed a quarter of the season (again), and Alshon Jeffery was average. Jeffery reportedly dropped his body fat from 12 percent to 8 percent, and he looks it, too. Yet, there were two instances last season when he spent time being hurt and a lot more when his hands resembled stone. He has to stay on the field, and he has to catch the ball. So far, so good, as he hasn’t had issues with either this offseason. He has to be another guy who Cutler can trust.
Brandon Hardin did nothing in his first season because of a neck injury. This year, there is an outside shot that he doesn’t even make the team. If he does, he probably will probably do the same on defense again- nothing. He will hopefully never see the field; if he does, that would mean something odd happened, injury or lack of playmaking, with either Major Wright or Chris Conte. Nonetheless, Hardin has a nice combination of size and speed to definitely make a difference on special teams.
Had I wrote this in May, I would have left Isaiah Frey off of this list, but Kelvin Hayden tore his hamstring and Frey has had a great camp. Now, he’s going to be the nickelback. From what we’ve seen so far, he could have a nice year. Drafting a Mountain West player in the 6th round and having him get this much playing time on your team a year later is very good value.
2. Will the revamped offensive line have a better season than last year?
Nobody could have asked Phil Emery to do much more to address the Bears’ biggest weakness—the offensive line—than he did. He used two of his first four draft picks on the offensive line (Kyle Long and Jordan Mills). He spent 35 million dollars on a left tackle (Jermon Bushrod) and a smaller deal on a veteran guard (Matt Slauson). In other words, he replaced four shitty to average players with either good players or players with high potential. The offensive line, even the two rookies, has looked good in the preseason, but it’s the preseason for a reason, and they need to carry it into the regular season. The blitz schemes will get more complex starting September 8, and that will be a test, specifically for Long and Mills.
1. How will the relationship between Marc Trestman and Jay Cutler turn out?
What a surprise, huh? Before I go any further, I mean this “relationship” as a working relationship. Nobody should care at all if these two actually like each other. If they don’t want to go to dinner together, so what? As long as Cutler respects the play calling, as long as Trestman respects the plays that Cutler likes more than others, this will be fun to watch. I’m not sure why Cutler wouldn’t like the offense, from what has been on display. Trestman is drawing up plays so Cutler doesn’t get killed. He’s getting Cutler’s playmakers into space. Trestman is letting him audible. Lastly, he’s not an egotistical asshat like Mike Martz and clueless ogre like Mike Tice was. And hell, why should Trestman not get along with Cutler? He’s arguably Trestman’s biggest talent that he’s ever had at the position. Cutler is willing to learn in order to become a very rich man. The audibles that Cutler has made have worked thus far. If it all fails, Trestman has a new project (Tajh Boyd, Marcus Mariota, or David Fales) to work with starting in 2014, and Cutler is playing elsewhere.
–Brian Ociepka (follow me on twitter at @bjociepka1)