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10 Most Important Bears of 2016: #1 Is Jay Cutler still ascending as a player?

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For the 8th consecutive year, I'm bringing you who I believe will be the ten most important Chicago Bears for the upcoming season. Next up, back at his customary #1 spot after last season's #4 ranking, quarterback Jay Cutler.

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The NFL is a quarterback driven league whether we want to believe it or not, and good teams get good play from their QBs. But good is a relative term, as it all depends what each team asks their signal caller to do. The bottom line is that teams with postseason aspirations need their quarterbacks to good solid football, usually in the framework of their offense.

Some teams need their quarterback to be The Man and lead them to the Super Bowl, other teams need their QB to be part of the machine and play safe, smart football. The 2016 Chicago Bears will hope to allow Jay Cutler to settle in and help them win games as a gun slinging game manager.

We don't often see those two terms used to describe the same guy, but I think last year Cutler started to play safer with the football. Then again, at times Cutler was the only playmaker on the field, so he had to take some chances. He had to force some throws and he had run around the pocket to make up for occasional shaky pass protection. In four of the Bears' six wins he had 4th quarter comebacks and game winning drives.

Last year was the first time I've ever had Cutler anywhere other than #1 in my 10 Most Important Chicago Bears series. With the train wreck of a season and coaching staff that the Bears had in 2014, I just felt that the importance of the head coach and his top assistants were at an all time high. The Bears desperately needed John Fox and his staff to bring the Bears back near respectability and they did that. Their record only improved by a game, but the team was no longer an embarrassment. Their players may not have been that good, but they were playing hard and showing improvement.

Cutler showed improvement as well, playing some of his best football ever. He posted the best passer rating of his career (92.3), the 2nd lowest interception percentage of his career (2.3) and the 2nd best completion percentage of his career (64.4). He did this while missing Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal for 7 games each, Martellus Bennett and Marquess Wilson for 5 apiece, and Matt Forte for 3 games.

At 33 years old, it is possible that Cutler is maturing as a quarterback and that his best football is yet to come.

This year he'll have a new play caller for the sixth time in his Bears' career, but new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains was the QB coach last year and the terminology and playbook are relatively unchanged. The Bears' offense will have Jeffery back, as well as a debuting Kevin White, who looks to live up to his lofty draft slot after missing all of last year. The running game will be manned by a committee approach and the tight end position is surrounded by question marks. On paper, Chicago's offensive line should be better than the one that ended the 2015 season.

Overall, the entire offense should be better in year two of the John Fox regime, although some are concerned that losing offensive coordinator Adam Gase will be a big blow. I'm not one that shares that concern however. I really think they'll be fine with Loggains making the play calls.

Defensively the Bears should be much better in 2016, perhaps even creeping up to the top half of the league's rankings. The last two times Jay Cutler played on a team that ranked in the top 10 defensively, the Bears were a combined 21-11.

Last season he mixed in his usual gunslinger type of play with more game manager traits, and if he can continue to find that balance, the Bears will push for a playoff spot in 2016.