It will be hard for the Bears as a team to suffer the great Super Bowl hangovers we've seen in the recent past. The competition in both the NFC North and entire conference isn't that daunting, and Chicago comes back with most of its defense intact and some more interesting cogs on offense.
Individually, however, there are two big question marks, in both reality and fantasy. The most obvious one is at quarterback, where Rex Grossman had a tale of two seasons in 2006. He started out smokin' like a breakout passer, only to struggle down the stretch and eventually melt down against the Colts. Now the good Grossman needs to stand up and take charge, or Lovie Smith will consider someone other than "Rex as our quarterback."
Then there's the huge void in the running game left by Thomas Jones, who was traded to the Jets. Jones was arguably the team's postseason MVP, and he was certainly one of the team's locker-room leaders. The pressure is on Cedric Benson to stay healthy and produce as a feature back, and many are skeptical based on what Benson has done before in the NFL.
The Bears figure to be a "real" good team in terms of wins and losses again, but their "safest" fantasy options still remain on defense and special teams.
Projected draft round Player Round Rex Grossman, QB 15-16 Cedric Benson, RB 3-4 Bernard Berrian, WR 8 Muhsin Muhammad, WR 13-14 Greg Olsen, TE 16-17 Desmond Clark, TE DND Robbie Gould, K 16-17 Defense/special teams 9-10 Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league with a 17-round draft. DND: Do not draft.
Key additions: DT Anthony Adams, SS Adam Archuleta. Key losses: DT Alfonso Boone, WR Justin Gage, DT Tank Johnson, S Todd Johnson, RB Thomas Jones, DT Ian Scott, S Cameron Worrell.
Defense/special teams. There's a big debate over which is fantasy's top defense. The Ravens, Patriots and even the Chargers have been mentioned in the same breath as the Bears. But when you throw in special teams, it breaks the tie in favor of Chicago.
The Bears are actually modest when it comes to sacks (40), but they picked off 24 passes and got six touchdowns from rookie Devin Hester in the return game. Really, it comes down to having plenty of athletes on the field in both phases as both the speed and depth of Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 pays off. In any scoring format, the Bears are at least the No. 3 fantasy defense, but in those leagues that heavily reward big special teams plays, they are the clear No. 1.
Brian Urlacher, LB. If you're new to the world of IDP and have no idea who to take, grab the guy you know is absolutely awesome. Urlacher can produce in so many ways. Two years ago, he had no INTS but posted a career-high six sacks. Last season, he had no sacks but upped his tackles total to 141 and had a career-high tying three picks. He's the heart and soul of the Bears' defense, and he can be your IDP MVP, too.
Robbie Gould, K. As the Bears were able to score a surprising amount of points in 2006, Gould was the biggest beneficiary. He was excellent in banging home 32-of-36 field-goal attempts and all 49 PATs. Although breakout kickers rarely repeat as league-leading scorers (Neil Rackers, anyone?) the opportunities still will be there for Gould to put up at least 130-plus points. The only knock: He's not a threat from 50 yards and beyond.
Cedric Benson, RB. I just drafted Benson in Sporting News' in-house Fantasy Source experts league, and I have mixed feelings about it. I had to get him in the third round as my No. 2 back because the well was drying up quickly for non-committee feature types. The job opportunity is a great one: Chicago is a strong team overall that will have leads often in the second half and lean heavily on the run to put away games, but is Benson the right man for the job? I'm not sure, but I'm hopeful that not looking at Jones over his shoulder will help.
There have been injury issues with Benson, including the knee woes that popped up in the Super Bowl, and then there was the controversy of him not being liked by teammates. But you figure some players need more time to mature than others -- after all, Jones himself was deemed as a first-round bust with early sputtering in Arizona.
Ideally, you want to be in a luxury position where Benson is your No. 3, but good luck with that in your back-crazy draft. I hedged my bets with Benson a bit by taking promising Falcon Jerious Norwood as my No. 3, and then a bit later by taking Bears backup Adrian Peterson. If Benson is up to the task, he can have a monster season for the Monsters of the Midway, but that "if" is sizeable enough to be boom or bust.
Mark Anderson, DL. Mr. Anderson was "The One" on the Bears' pass rush last season, leading the team with 12 sacks as a rookie edge specialist with only one start. It's amazing that no other Bear had more than 6 1/2 sacks. Now, much to the disappointment of former starter Alex Brown and much to the joy of IDPers, Anderson steps into a full-time role at end. With tackle Tommie Harris back healthy and Adewale Ogunleye on the other side, Anderson will be free enough to challenge for a sack a game average.
Bernard Berrian, WR. Berrian continues to be undervalued in drafts, perhaps being dragged down along with Grossman. It's not like you would consider Berrian as your No. 1 fantasy receiver, but he's good enough to be in your lineup almost every week as a No. 3 starter. He's still Grossman's go-to guy downfield, and he should only improve entering his fourth season to build on his 51 catches.
Lance Briggs, LB. So Briggs is happy. At least for one season. And that keeps him with Urlacher and the rest of the Bears' talented front seven for one more season. Briggs' main IDP production will be in tackles -- he led the Bears with 109 solo stops in '06 -- but he also occasionally contributes with sacks, fumbles and picks. If you can't Urlacher, you can get Briggs about a dozen picks later.
Rex Grossman, QB. The Bears are brining Rexy back as their starter, but if fantasy passers were former boy-band members, will his success more resemble that of Justin Timberlake -- or Lance Bass? Good question. Actually, Grossman's realization that he's not like JT and is just one small part of the Bears' offensive harmony will help him perform better. Grossman got in trouble last season when he tried to force passes downfield. When he got into the mode of checking down and taking what the defense gave him, he was both very efficient and productive.
It's important to remember that Grossman still is a young, developing quarterback with room to grow -- he just happens to play on what's a Super Bowl-caliber team everywhere else, raising the level of impatience of us fans and fantasy types. Grossman's shaky end to '06 probably means he will go undrafted in several leagues, but considering the Bears' easy schedule and increased potential in the passing game, Grossman deserves a late-round flier. Hey, if he's hot for the first half again, you'll take it, right?
Muhsin Muhammad, WR. Muhammad is very similar to Berrian, only with less big-play upside and more red zone potential. Muhammad won't be on top of the mountain among fantasy receivers, but he produces enough at age 34 to be considered in the mix for No. 3 starting duty in the right matchups.
Adewale Ogunleye, DL. After breaking out with 15 sacks as a Dolphin in 2003, Ogunleye posted that total combined in his first two seasons with the Bears, and he dipped back down to 6 1/2 in Year 3. Ogunleye has the talent to shoot right back up to double-digits, especially now that Anderson is in the starting lineup and will demand more attention from offensive lines. Ogunleye once played off Jason Taylor so well in Miami, so it's key for Anderson to remain an elite pass rusher. Keep Ogunleye on your IDP in-season watch list.
Charles Tillman, DB. Mr. Peanut has quietly planted back-to-back fine all-around seasons from cornerback. You gotta like that he's consistent, with five picks in '06 to match his five picks in '05. It's also impressive that he has established himself as the Bears' third-best tackler after Urlacher and Briggs. Tillman's stats make him one of the better IDP values after the top safeties are long gone.
Adrian Peterson, RB. Which Adrian Peterson will be a better performer in the NFC North, this one, or the first-round rookie in Minnesota? It's a trickier question than you think. The Bears' AP, a prolific college runner in his own right at Georgia Southern, at least gets a bump up to No. 2 with the departure of Jones. When given a chance to spell Jones and Benson in the past, Peterson has been productive in stretches. He's a simple, follow-the-blockers runner who can't be ruled out for the job if Benson falters, so he's someone you want to grab in the later rounds when every other player bores you.
Desmond Clark, TE. Clark remains No. 1 on the depth chart at his position -- for now. He is coming off his best receiving season in five years, with six touchdowns to go with 626 yards. But the Bears "rewarded" him by using a first-round pick on Greg Olsen, a freakish athlete with great pass-catching potential. While you might think Clark's '06 makes him a must-draft, Olsen's presence should change your mind.
Greg Olsen, TE. Speak of the Hurricane. Olsen is listed as No. 2, but it will be hard for the Bears to keep him off the field for long. It's not like Clark is an all-world blocker, and Olsen should be a quick learner. The faster he can get settled into the passing game, the best for the other receivers. Even though he's behind Clark, he's the better late-round pick to stash away in hopes of becoming a fine weekly play in the second half of the season.
Alex Brown, DL. Brown got demoted to No. 3 because of Anderson. And don't expect him to produce like Anderson did as the No. 3 last season.
Devin Hester, KR/WR. The Bears are sure putting an emphasis on improving their offensive athleticism, aren't they? Hurricane Hester was quite devastating to special teams coverage units last year, and now gets to work on overmatched nickel and dime backs -- a group to which he belonged to last season. Hester is expected to be more than a reverse man -- the Bears plan on using him as a traditional receiver as well. Those chances, however, will be sporadic, and you can also bet opponents will do everything they can to keep the ball out of his hands on returns. Some smart alec will draft Hester; don't let that be you.
Brian Griese, QB. You know what they say: The backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a team. Bears fans are getting nervous about Grossman again, and the calls for Griese are getting louder. But keep this in mind: If the Bears go to Griese, they'll be making a conservative move, going with someone who won't lose games for them, which means more limited passing stats. Griese hasn't been a solid fantasy QB since his early Denver days; his stops in Miami and Tampa Bay are more the producer he is now -- a spot fantasy starter at best if he's a reality starter.
Garrett Wolfe, RB. Here's yet another young athlete to watch. I think Wolfe's involvement in terms of touches will take a while to evolve, but like Olsen and Hester, Wolfe can provide good versatility and spark to the offense. As far as a fantasy factor, however, take a wait-and-see approach to see exactly what Wolfe's role is behind Benson and Peterson.
Mark Bradley, WR. Bradley once showed potential as being a starting wideout, but first knee surgery (ACL) than an ankle sprain slowed down his progress in the past two seasons, and now his right knee is an issue. Ouch.
Rashied Davis, WR. He had some clutch catches for the Bears last season, but he just doesn't do enough to get fantasy consideration.
Mike Brown, DB. Brown once was known as a huge playmaker. Now he's known as the Dan Morgan of safeties.
Ultimate Fantasy Football Tip: Berrian ($4.15 million), Muhammad ($3 million), and Hester ($2.50) are all good values as middle-tier wide receivers. Considering you need to start three, having one of those three in your lineup makes great financial sense.
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Coaching: Offensively, coordinator Ron Turner likes to mix it up, with the strong running game and intermediate passing game. Having unique personnel such as Olsen, Hester and Wolfe will allow the team to do more with formations and put Grossman, the wide receivers and Benson in better position to succeed. There's a way to be conservative and creative at the same time, but the biggest numbers figure to come from the ground.
Defensively, Smith has the talent to just let his players loose all over the field and let their speed to take over to track down ballcarriers to convert tackles and takeaways. He's got the ideal players to execute and produce in his scheme.
Offensive line: There's some good continuity here on the outside, with John Tait and Fred Miller well settled as the team's tackles. The strength core, however, lies in the middle with nasty center Olin Kreutz, flanked by left guard Ruben Brown, who still has something left in the tank. The Bears were better in pass protection (only 25 sacks allowed) than run blocking (3.8 average) last season.
Schedule analysis: The hardest test may come right in Week 1, with a trip to San Diego, the Bears' fellow No. 1 seed from the 2006 playoffs. In addition to the six favorable games against NFC North opponents, games against Oakland, Washington, Seattle, Kansas City and the Giants don't look all that daunting. That's pretty darn favorable for a Super Bowl runner-up. Power poll rank: 6th easiest (27th toughest)