I posted this over at Fannation on SI's website in a thread about who would finish higher in the NFC North standings this year IF Favre is gone for good: the Bears or the Vikings. At first I only planned on writing a few sentences in response to a comment that our defense was not what it used to be, but then I got into it.
Just because we may not return to '05 or '06 levels, our defense is still solid. As a team we lost a season of a perennial pro bowler in Urlacher, a season of a potential pro bowler in Pisa, we endured a secondary ravaged with injuries, and still managed to go 7-9. As it stands we improved at SS with the addition of Chris Harris, FS with the addition of Major Wright, Bowman, who had 6 INT's last season, is developing into a very good cornerback and Tillman still has at least 2 seasons left in him. We upgraded at DE with Peppers, at DT Harris is finally healthy, and Idonije and Anderson will be good enough playing opposite Julius. Our entire defense upgraded in the offseason.
As for the offense, not only did we remove the revolving door that called himself Orlando Pace, we replaced him with Chris Williams, who showed an ability to protect the passer as he began to start at the end of the season. We removed a negative and added a positive. Mike Tice, our new OL coach, is well-recognized for his ability to elevate his lineman's play, and all indications are that our OL will be much better this season. Forte played through an injury last year and now has a legitimate backup in Chester Taylor, and both of them fit well into Martz's system, which calls for RBs capable of catching out of the backfield. Aromashodu finally got significant PT towards the end of the season, and showed good hands, good speed, and good size, and if he can thrive in Martz's system, could develop into a top WR. Johnny Knox had a great rookie season, and with his speed and toughness provides a great threat if he can improve his route-running even the smallest amount. Personally I don't feel Hester should be catching passes, but he was reliable outside of the time he missed due to injury. And Earl Bennet showed up as a smart, deceptively fast receiver who Cutler likes to throw to. Our WR corps is young and unproven, but with good to great speed all around, huge potential. At TE, Olsen can catch, Desmond showed up in training camp big time so far, and Brandon Manumaleuna can block. Not flashy, but solid.
And then it comes to Cutler. Many complained about him last year, but many of his knocks were unjustified. While he was throwing picks left and right, he was doing it in Ron Turner's convoluted offensive scheme, miscommunicating with receivers also struggling in Turner's system. With a year of experience and bonding, they should sync well this season under Martz, an offensive genius. With improved blocking and receiving, Cutler should feel more comfortable in the pocket, and do the thing he does best: throw. Anyone who doubts his ability as a QB in the NFL should look at the Vikings game last year where Aroma broke out, or the Lions game in which Cutler threw four TD's. With everything else elevated around him, Cutler is more than capable of carving up a defense with ludicrous accuracy, and a cannon of an arm.
All that said, our season rests on two big IF's: IF Tommie Harris can perform at an adequate level, and IF the skilled players embrace Martz's system. The improvement is in place, and growth should lead to success. I am not suggesting a 13 or 14 win season, but anything below .500 is extremely pessimistic, and 9-11 wins seem appropriate.
As for the Vikes, IF Favre is finally gone, then Jackson's development at QB is key. If he can be an adequate starter their offense shouldn't lose too much, but an aging defense could slow them down.
So, IMHO, the bears should finish one to two games ahead of the Vikings this season. What about you, WCG readers?