Plenty of new additions to the Chicago Bears have dominated the offseason headlines, and rightfully so. Certain facets of the team have been vastly improved, but others like the defensive and offensive lines remain in a tentative limbo. Luckily there are some players from last year’s roster that made great strides towards bettering themselves and are primed to continue that improvement this year. The ‘12/’13 Bears have a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl, but not without increased contributions from some of the returning members of the team. Here are a few picks to watch in the upcoming year that should emerge as consistent contributors.
Stephen Paea DT 1 Season of Experience
Paea started the first five seasons on the bench, sprouting worries that he might be the second coming of Jarron Gilbert. However as the year progressed, Paea saw some snaps, and turned in two sacks and 14 tackles by year’s end, including a pair of four tackle performances against the Packers and Chiefs. The lack of offseason practice from the lockout did not bode well for Paea, who never played organized football until his senior year of high school. His lack of experience make it obvious that he has to have exceptional athletic ability, setting the combine record for bench press with 49 and running a 40 time of 4.98 seconds. The opportunity is also in place with the departures of Anthony Adams and Amobi Okoye, look for Paea to capitalize in a big way.
Chris Conte S 1 Season of Experience
Conte reviews are a bit of a mixed bag, but anyone who watched him play in multiple games could see that he possessed great instincts in coverage and didn’t get beat for big plays like nearly every other Bears safety did last year. Major Wright also played his best football while teaming up with Conte, he grabbed all three of his interceptions with Conte at his side. The biggest concern for Conte is his ability to stay healthy, but fans seem to forget that most of the reason he was put on IR after Week 15 was because of the lack of time left in the season. The injury was in the ankle/foot region and by all indications would not have kept him out for more than a couple of weeks. Conte seems to be primed for a big year and will play an integral role in shutting down opponents’ deep game.
Earl Bennett WR 4 Seasons of Experience
Weeks 9, 10, and 11 were perhaps the proudest time of the year for the Bears, and Earl Bennett was right at the center of it all. The Cutler-Bennett connection yielded 251 yards in that span, and he only managed 130 yards receiving in the other eight games that he played. If Cutler hadn’t gone down, Bennett could have very well been in the Pro Bowl conversation, and there is no reason to think that they can’t pick up right where they left off. Brandon Marshall will demand the majority of the touches, but that also means that Bennett will rarely draw a double team. His sure hands and ability to get open on third down indicate that he can carve out a very productive niche in the offense for years to come.
Kellen Davis TE 4 Seasons of Experience
This pick was the hardest to make, largely because Davis didn’t get a chance to show any improvement last season. The disregard of tight ends in the Mike Martz system was well documented and so Davis only managed 18 catches for 206 yards in his fourth year out of Michigan State. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a chance to see some of Davis’ skills in the receiving game, which at times showed both potential and ineptitude. Inconsistency aside, the bottom line is this; more than any other position, tight ends are defined by their quarterback. Whether it is Rob Gronkowski in New England or Jermichael Finley in Green Bay, the so called elite tight ends always have the benefit of elite passers and Jay Cutler has shown that he has elite quarterback potential. The biggest asset that a tight end can have in the receiving game is a quality physical makeup- good height and a strong build. Davis is plenty tall at 6’7” and has acceptable strength to speed ratio. If he can manage to catch a majority of the balls thrown is way, he could turn out to be a very valuable option for Cutler.
Lance Louis G 3 Seasons of Experience
For a former 7th round pick, Louis has already exceeded expectations by starting 30 games in 3 years. Injuries kept the offensive line depth thin, and when Chris Williams went down in Week 10 Louis was forced to play permanently on the outside. Suffice to say he wasn’t suited to be a tackle, but as a guard he actually projects to be a very good fit. Louis has good footwork and is as fast as any O lineman in the NFL, there aren't too many other 320 pound guys who can run the length of the field to track down Kamerion Wimbley. Louis doesn’t have the strength or size to hold off defensive ends, but his mobility will help him get out and open up holes for backs if he is allowed to stay on the interior. Louis will be looked upon once again to help provide stability to an oft-injured offensive line and can do well in solidifying the guard spots now that the coaching staff understands his limitations.
These five Bears will receive various levels of attention during the season, but all will most likely be making contributions. It’s also never a sure thing to say that any of these guys will even play well enough to be on the team next year. If this had been written before last season, for instance, Davis and Bennett would not have had the chance to play with their starting quarterback for half the year and Louis would have been forced to play out of his comfort zone on the outside and gotten burned. When attempting to predict the unpredictable, one can never be sure about much. Two things that are known however are that next year is still full of promise and a team can never reach its’ full potential without a number of contributions from all departments.