Hub Arkush: Meet the new Bears

Same as the old Bears?

The health of key players such as Jay Cutler (center) and Matt Forte (left) will be crucial to the Bears' success this season, writes Hub Arkush. (H. Rick Bamman – hbamman@shawmedia.com)

The last time we saw the Bears on an NFL field they were an 8-8 football team.

Are these guys better?

Last season, the Bears began with Jay Cutler at quarterback and Josh McCown coming off an ugly preseason.

Although Cutler figures to be better this year, there is absolutely nothing to suggest Jimmy Clausen can play the way McCown did last year if he’s called on. Of course, there was nothing to suggest McCown could do it last year, either. David Fales is probably the biggest surprise on the roster and not a factor.

We’ll call quarterback marginally better because of Cutler.

Running back is weaker than it was last year. Matt Forte is one of the best in the league, and although he’s getting to a dangerous age at the position, he’s shown no signs of slowing down.

The problem is Michael Bush looked like a strong No. 2 going into last season, and this year we saw nothing in the preseason to suggest Shaun Draughn, Ka’Deem Carey or Senorice Perry can carry Forte’s jock.

After all the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth, wide receiver is slightly improved. Josh Morgan and Santonio Holmes are better options at No. 3 and No. 4 than Earl Bennett and Joe Anderson were last year.

Tight end is probably a draw. Is Matt Mulligan better than Steve Maneri?

The offensive line is weaker. In 2013, Eben Britton, Jonathan Scott and James Brown were all known quantities behind the same starting five as we see this year. But while Brian de la Puente may or may not be an upgrade over Brown, Michael Ola and Charles Leno Jr. are raw and unproven.

The defensive line is better, but it may not be anywhere near as improved as many are assuming.

At similar stages in their careers, we have no idea whether Jared Allen has more left in the tank than Julius Peppers until he shows us.

Stephen Paea is right where he was last year, and just how healthy will Jeremiah Ratliff be in Henry Melton’s spot? Remember, Melton was coming off a Pro Bowl season. Ratliff should be more productive than Landon Cohen.

Lamarr Houston is a definite upgrade, but Willie Young’s career numbers are a hair below Corey Wootton’s. We’ll see whether Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton can play.

Linebacker is weaker. There was cause for optimism last year with Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams and James Anderson starting and exciting rookies Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene behind them.

Briggs and Williams appeared a step slower in the preseason, and Shea McClellin looks out of place and unsure of himself in Anderson’s spot. Bostic and Greene are not as exciting a year later.

The secondary is a draw. Going into 2013 there was hope for Major Wright and Chris Conte at the safety spots. This year we don’t know who the safeties are and Charles Tillman, while admittedly notorious for poor preseasons, had another bad one.

Special Teams were a major strength going into 2013 and are a major concern today. The regression there is the biggest change in any unit on the team.

Finally, according to research by Philly.com, the Bears were the 29th oldest team in the NFL to begin 2013, and they are 30th this year.

Are these guys better than they were at the end of 2013?

Somehow this doesn’t feel quite as good as it did in March when they were signing all those veteran free agents.

Obviously Cutler, Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have to stay healthy. The loss of any one of those players for a prolonged period could handcuff the offense.

This team is not any deeper than last year, so general health everywhere is a must.

There are 17 players drafted or signed as undrafted rookie free agents last year and this year. A number of them must become core special teamers.

And the defensive line must take a quantum leap forward for this group to be better than 8-8.

• Chicago Football editor Hub Arkush can be reached at harkush@chicagofootball.com and on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.

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