The Sun-Times’ Bears experts try to separate the fact from fiction when predicting GM Ryan Pace’s second offseason with the team:
1. Jay Cutler can be the same quarterback without offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
ADAM L. JAHNS: Fact. The Bears plan to keep the same offensive system, regardless if Gase leaves or not. Coach John Fox wants his offense run a certain way under Cutler. And the once-mercurial quarterback has earned Fox’s confidence. After all, he’s the one throwing the ball, not Gase.
PATRICK FINLEY: Fiction. He can be better. Cutler’s season was solid — and that’s something — but let’s no get carried away. Of quarterbacks with 300 attempts this season, Cutler finished No. 15 in passer rating. He was 17th in touchdowns and 15th in interceptions. Those middle-of-the-road numbers can be topped, and so can the Bears’ win total.
MARK POTASH: Fact. Losing Gase would have been problematic for Cutler in his earlier years with the Bears, but a much wiser, grown-up Cutler is well-equipped to handle change at this stage of his career. The Bears promise the system won’t change, which will ease the transition. And as much of Cutler’s improvement this season was due to his own maturity as Gase’s tutelage. The same? He should be better even without Gase next season.
2. The Bears have made gains in the NFC North in the last year.
JAHNS: Fiction. The Bears went 1-5 in their division, beating a Packers team that has turned out to be very beatable this season. The Vikings improved again under coach Mike Zimmer. The Lions, meanwhile, have beaten the Bears in six consecutive meetings.
FINLEY: Fiction. The Bears finished last both in 2014 and 2015. They won only one division game for the second-straight year. Since Lovie Smith was fired, they’re 4-14. The Vikings surged past them, and the disastrous Lions have swept them in three-straight years.
POTASH: Fiction. Unless you consider the Packers regression in the second half of the season a net gain for the Bears, they were marginally better on the field in Fox’s first year. What the Bears did was lay a foundation that could set them up for a quantum leap in 2016. But the Packers will have Jordy Nelson back next season and the Vikings are on the rise under Mike Zimmer. That’s a pretty big hill to climb in the NFC North.
3. Kevin White will be worth the wait.
JAHNS: Fact. The safer-than-sorry approach will pay off for the Bears as the first-round pick enters the offseason without restrictions. Missing the entire season hurts, but being able to be around Cutler, receivers coach Mike Groh and others still is beneficial.
FINLEY: Fiction? Fact? Who knows. The draft is a gamble even in good circumstances, but the Bears have been impressed by the little they’ve seen of White on the field — and by almost all of what they see off it. Amari Cooper, the other top 10 receiver in the draft, finished with 1,070 receiving yards for the Raiders. The Bears would be thrilled with that next year.
POTASH: Fact. It depends what you consider “worth the wait.” Even if White is not worth the No. 7 pick in the draft, with his athleticism and a proven NFL quarterback throwing to him, he should at least be a significant upgrade over what the Bears have had — outside of Alshon Jeffery and Marshall — at that position.
4. The Bears’ starting defense will have at least five new players next year.
JAHNS: Fact. When general manager Ryan Pace was talking about adding more playmakers, it’s the defense that comes first to mind. They need legitimate playmakers, not potential ones at every position – minus outside linebacker where Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston are formidable pass-rushing trio.
FINLEY: Fact. I think it’s five, exactly: two linebackers, two defensive linemen and a cornerback. The Bears need playmakers, particularly at middle linebacker to run Vic Fangio’s scheme.
POTASH: Fact. Pernell McPhee and Eddie Goldman are the only certain returning starters at this point. Adrian Amos, Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter are likely to start in 2016. Everything else is up in the air.
5. Willie Young is a starting outside linebacker.
JAHNS: Fact. Young may still call himself an end, but he showed that he’s capable of handling his coverage assignments when needed this season. Young finished the season with 6 ½ sacks, 21 quarterbacks pressures and 12 tackles for loss despite playing just over 50 percent of the defensive snaps.
FINLEY: Fact. He showed enough in the second half of the season to warrant it. The Bears could still add an outside linebacker and use Young, in the final year of his deal, in pass-rush situations.
POTASH: Fact. The Bears can live with Young at outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he’s still best suited as a pass-rushing 4-3 end.
6. Charles Leno and Kyle Long are the Bears’ starting offensive tackles in 2016.
JAHNS: : Fact. … For now. Pace was pleasantly surprised by Leno’s emergence this season. But the Bears shouldn’t be tied to Leno on the left side or Long on the right for that matter. Offensive line is an offseason priority, and there will be good tackles to consider in the draft.
FINLEY: Fiction. The Bears would be wise to bring in someone to challenge Leno — but at which tackle spot? I think Long is a left tackle, eventually.
POTASH: Fact. The Bears have bigger problems on their offensive line than the tackles. Unless they think Long was a total bust at tackle — which he wasn’t — it would be silly to waste the year of development in 2015 by moving him back to guard.
7. The Bears will bring back at least two of the following playmakers: Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett.
JAHNS: Fact. Bennett has the most curious situation because he remains under contract. He can be a malcontent at times, but he still has physical traits teams covet at tight end. Is he worth any trouble for one more season? Fox may be able to get to him.
FINLEY: Fiction. Bennett will be hard to replace — he’s an amazing talent — but the Bears should see if they can find a Plan B, if for no other reason but that he’s got only one year left on his contract. The franchise tag means Jeffery will be back, and signs point to Forte heading somewhere where he can be a bell cow.
POTASH: Fact. Jeffery will get the franchise tag. Bennett will be back. He’s a little eccentric, but he’s not Marshall.
8. The Bears made enough progress in Year 1 to expect significant improvement next season.
JAHNS: Fiction. It’s a fact that the culture is better at Halas Hall, and it’s a fact that the Bears kept most games close this season. But the Bears’ roster still requires upgrades. Pace has plenty of work to do.
FINLEY: Fact. Stability has value; just ask all the teams scrambling for leadership. What they do with that newfound base, though, will be the challenge.
POTASH: Fact. For what Fox and his staff had to with, the Bears were well-coached in 2015. The contributions that players like Jarvis Jenkins, Mitch Unrein, Bruce Gaston, Bryce Callahan and Harold Jones-Quartey made indicates that with better players, Vic Fangio can build a difference-making defense. With better health, the offense figures to take a big step.
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley
Follow me on Twitter @markpotash