How will Bears use Cutler?
Historically conservative offense must find balance with new quarterback
The reason the Windy City has been buzzing all spring and summer about football is simple: Jay Cutler. After decades of making do with quarterbacks who had fatal flaws and season after promising season going down the tubes because defenses didn't have to worry about a signal-caller who could single-handedly beating them, the Bears now have their man. Cutler finished third in the NFL in passing yards last year, second in pass attempts, 10th in yards per attempt and seventh in touchdown passes. He's got a cannon and can make any throw you need. And the big question entering training camp is: will the Bears unleash him?
Numerous stories out of Chicago this summer have quoted offensive coordinator Ron Turner as saying he won't try to change Cutler's aggressive nature, he won't stay an arch-conservative play caller and he won't be as predictable as he's been accused of being in the recent past. But can a leopard change his spots?
It's true that damning Turner in advance could be unfair: He's never been handed a quarterback with Cutler's ability. Still, with that ability comes a gunslinger's mentality that's often led to boneheaded plays. After all, Cutler was also second in the NFL in interceptions last year, behind only Mr. King Bonehead himself, Brett Favre. What'll happen when Turner and Lovie Smith see Cutler make one of his patented "force-in" throws that loses their team a game late? Will we see a return to a run/pass mix that saw the Matt Forte finish fourth in the league in carries as a rookie?
Sure, there'll be other questions in Chicago's training camp. Will a much-maligned receiving corps be able to step up and match Cutler? Can any of the newly acquired tackles do enough to protect Cutler's blind side? And will the defense stay healthy and/or effective enough to keep the Bears in games? But for the time being, the Cutler/Turner meshing is the big storyline to follow.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Is Devin Hester really a No. 1 wide receiver? I tend to think not. He's fast, yes, but he's yet to show the kind of polished route running all over the field that top quarterbacks want. I'd like him much better as a No. 2 speed threat, but this is the hand Cutler's been dealt. The real question is the receiving depth chart after Hester. Cutler's former college teammate, Earl Bennett, looks like the favorite for the second spot, but he had exactly zero catches (and a single punt return) in his rookie year. That's a big step up. Holdover Rashied Davis and rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox figure to get into the mix at least for third-receiver duties, but if Bennett falters, it won't be a shock to see someone else get a chance to start.
Will newly acquired quarterback Jay Cutler bend to the Bears' conservative ways, or will he change them?
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At tight end, both Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark are back again, but as last season wore on, it became clearer that Olsen was by far the preferred receiving threat in the Chicago offense. He should be the more draftable fantasy commodity by far, with Clark (remember he was originally a converted offensive lineman) serving mainly as an annoying vulture. But fantasy owners considering taking Olsen early would do well to pay attention and make sure this situation doesn't get fuzzier in camp.
On defense, corner Nathan Vasher will have to prove he can stay healthy and hold off Corey Graham (who was significantly better than a hobbled Vasher in '08) in camp. With Mike Brown cut (and subsequently signing with the Chiefs), the Bears have a significant vacancy at free safety. Craig Steltz, Josh Bullocks, Danieal Manning and Glenn Earl all will get a look, but it's an experienced but relatively underwhelming group. If Chicago doesn't prove that it can get a better push with its mercurial defensive line, it could be exposed.
Fitting in: The obvious choice to analyze here is Cutler, a square peg who may have to fit into Smith's and Turner's round hole. Rex Grossman had a big arm but terrible accuracy issues, while Kyle Orton had fewer physical tools and better game-management skills, but forced enough bad plays to make his coaches gun-shy. The truth is, of course, that training camp won't really tell the story when it comes to Cutler. He's got the job, and the regular season's first month will show us the truth about the Bears' run/pass mix.
The rookie receivers present a more interesting training camp case. Iglesias was heralded (along with Browns draftee Brian Robiskie) as one of the more NFL-ready possession receivers in April's draft, but there have been conflicting reports out of Bears minicamp regarding his actual readiness. Some reporters who attended Chicago's OTAs this spring and summer believe that Iglesias' fellow rookie, Johnny Knox, was actually a more impressive player, and could see significant action sooner. Knox posted the fastest 40 time at the Draft Combine this winter, and thus could represent a slot threat Cutler couldn't out-throw. Where these guys fit into the receiving plans will almost certainly get clearer during camp.
On the line: With last year's left tackle John St. Clair gone and right tackle John Tait retired, the Bears have significant questions on the perimeter of their offensive line. Once the Rams cut future Hall of Famer Orlando Pace, Chicago pounced, and Pace will get first crack at guarding Cutler's blind side. But there are real questions about Pace's ability to stay healthy, and any objective observer would admit he's lost a step regardless. So the Bears brought in journeymen like Frank Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer, who, if they're forced into significant action, could be shaky. And this is to say nothing of second-year man Chris Williams, whose health issues pretty much made a bust of his rookie season. He'll try to nail down the right-tackle job in camp. Matt Forte's fantasy value -- and Jay Cutler's health -- could very well depend on how these guys acquit themselves in August.
The bottom line
Between Cutler, Forte and Olsen, the Bears have three of fantasy's highest-upside players entering 2009. But while Forte was an elite receiving back in '08, there is a tension between the fantasy values of a quarterback and rusher on the same team. Will Cutler's presence convince the Bears to lessen the running load on Forte? Will Forte's excellent rookie year curb the need to let Cutler fling it 40 times per game? Pay attention to stories coming out of Chicago's camp to try to read the tea leaves, because there's a potential for three extremely high fantasy draft picks on an offense that hasn't always been able to make that claim.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.
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