When Jay Cutler was traded to Chicago in April 2009, my Bears-fan friends were elated. Rex Grossman and his ilk had been disastrous Bears' quarterbacks for far too long, and all my Bears-fan friends were just so happy to have a guy who had thrown for 8,000 yards over the last two years without missing a game, who had a passer rating of 86 or above in both seasons, and who was actually a good quarterback.
Anyway, all those Bears fans were happy because in Cutler, they had finally found their quarterback. No more Grossman and Brian Griese and Dave Krieg and Shane Matthews and so on and so forth. Cutler, 25 at the time of the trade, would be the Bears' quarterback for years to come, and the fans would reap the benefits.
So, how ‘bout those benefits, then?
Cutler has now been a Bear for five seasons. He's played all 16 games only once, in his first year as a Bear in 2009. In his last season in Denver (2008), he threw for 4,526 yards; he hasn't topped 3,666 in Chicago. The Bears made the playoffs in 2005 and the Super Bowl in 2006, but with Cutler they've only made the playoffs once (in 2010). Since Cutler came to Chicago, the team is 44-36, and last year, he played in only 11 games, passed for only 2,621 yards, and finished 23rd among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring.
That's one side of the story. The other side says that Cutler might not be Peyton Manning, but his top receivers in his first few years in Chicago were Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox. Heck, Roy Williams. Sure, Cutler wasn't carrying the Bears to the promised land, but dude can only carry so much, yeah?
And then last season. Sure, he finished 23rd in fantasy points. But he only played 11 games, and only really played in 10. If you look at team fantasy totals instead of those of individual players, Bears quarterbacks (160 for Cutler and 131 for Josh McCown) finished fourth at the position, behind only Denver (406 for Manning, 3 for Brock Osweiler), Philadelphia (251 for Nick Foles, 97 for Michael Vick, and 1 for Matt Barkley), and New Orleans (348 for Drew Brees).
With receivers like Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery -- and a tight end like Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte is of course still there -- around a quarterback, success tends to follow. Funny how that works.
Basically, with the weapons the Bears have now, any quarterback who plays 16 games will be relevant in at least two-quarterback leagues. If Chicago has a full-time elite quarterback, there's no reason that guy can't be a starter in a single-QB league. Of course, check out Cutler's injury history sometime, and you'll see reason for concern. Thumb, rib, head, ankle, groin, concussion.
And then the other way! While sure, Marc Trestman is apparently a "quarterback whisperer," the Bears' depth chart behind Cutler is less than impressive. The team will enter the season with Jordan Palmer, he of six years' NFL experience but only 15 total pass attempts, as its primary backup. Right now three other quarterbacks with zero total experience are on the roster. Basically, they don't have anyone with even the resume of Josh McCown. There won't be a lot of "don't hurry back, Jay; get fully healthy" in Chicago this year. They'll be getting him back on the field as quick as they can.
I can't recommend trusting Cutler as a fantasy starter, even with the high upside. In my pre-free agency rankings, I had him 108th overall, 17th at quarterback. The position is crazy deep right now, of course: the quarterbacks just above him were Robert Griffin III and Andy Dalton. But Cutler does mark the end of a tier, with Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, and Eli Manning the next group. I think there's a clear gap.
The ceiling of a healthy Cutler is as high as most anyone's. But the floor might be lower than most, too.
Okay, with that out of the way, let's look at the Bears' other fantasy-relevant players.
At 28 years old and six seasons into his career, Matt Forte set career highs in rushing yards, receiving yards, and receptions, while tying his career high in touchdowns last season. That's not how things are supposed to go for veteran running backs. His all-purpose yardage of 1,933 was 200 better than his previous career best.
Some of the credit for that can be put on the team's improved receiver corps. Just like having reasonable targets to throw to helped Cutler's production, having talented pass-catchers there to pull the attention of defenses allowed Forte more room to perform. And unlike Cutler, Forte has a much better track record of health, having played in 95 percent of the team's games since his rookie year (91 of 96).
Forte was considered a late first-round or early second-round fantasy pick entering last season with his history of decent-but-not-dominant seasons. After his huge 2013, though, fantasy players have no choice but to look at Forte as a much more viable starter. I list him as my No. 4 running back, not-so-coincidentally No. 4 overall. He's in the same range as Eddie Lacy and Marshawn Lynch, but he's clearly an RB1 in fantasy in 2014.
There's not a lot of depth behind Forte on the roster. Former backup Michael Bush was cut and the team didn't sign anyone of note, so odds are the primary backup (and Forte handcuff, if you're looking for one) would have to be the team's first fourth-round pick in the draft, Ka'Deem Carey out of Arizona. If something happens to Forte, Carey could become interesting. Iutside of that, though, Carey is unlikely to be worth much in fantasy.
Man. Speaking as someone who eyed Alshon Jeffery as a sleeper pick starting in 2012 and tried again in 2013, last season was fun.
The Bears had two top-10 fantasy receivers last season, with Marshall putting up 198 fantasy points and finishing fifth, and Jeffery with 186 points in ninth. Marshall did his damage with a career-high 12 touchdowns despite his yardage falling off by more than 200 from 2012, while Jeffery was the accumulator as he nabbed only seven touchdowns but went for 1,421 yards including two different 200-plus-yard games and three others of more than 100.
The team's next highest-producing wide receiver in 2013 was Earl Bennett, who is now a Cleveland Brown. Longtime kick returner and occasional receiver Devin Hester, too, has moved on. For 2014, though, the Bears signed Josh Morgan and Domenik Hixon as depth. Morgan has been unspectacular in his career; he started 2011 hot before a broken leg ended his year, but as it is he has never topped 700 receiving yards or three touchdowns in any of his six seasons. Hixon -- other than being the star of one of my favorite NFL what ifs -- has been even less exciting, with only seven career touchdowns in six seasons.
I ranked Marshall as my No. 6 wide receiver, 22nd overall, with Jeffery a little behind (No. 11 receiver, No. 29 overall). Both should be seen as sure starters and, barring injury, near-sure things. The one of the two more likely to fall short of his ranking has to be Jeffery, who had a big breakout but was far less consistent than his counterpart; he followed up his 218-yard game with a one-catch, 27-yard outing, and had six different games of 60 or fewer yards. No one thinks Jeffery was a one-hit wonder, but a slide wouldn't be the biggest shock in the world.
Neither Morgan nor Hixon has much to offer in fantasy as of now, but should one of the two big guys get injured, both have the potential to be interesting. As it stands, though, neither is worth anything but super-deep roster depth.
Martellus Bennett got a lot of tight-end love in 2013. He finished 10th at the position and for most of the year he ranked even higher. Almost all of that, though, was due to his first two games, as Bennett had 10 catches for 125 yards, three touchdowns, and 29 fantasy points in Weeks 1 and 2. He only put up two more touchdowns the rest of the season, and only once more did he even reach double-digit fantasy points in a game. Yet he was still owned in upward of 80 percent of fantasy leagues all season, and was widely started.
In short, while Bennett did offer some production, he might have been the most overrated mid-level player in fantasy in 2013. He's a fine starter at tight end if you're really strong elsewhere, if you wait and fill the position super late in your draft; he's not the guy you grab in the eighth or ninth round instead of, I don't know, Fred Jackson or Kendall Wright. I ranked Bennett as my 16th tight end, 112th overall, before free agency and the draft; if anything, that number is more likely to get worse than improve now.
There isn't much else at tight end for the Bears to hang their hats on for 2014. They resigned Dante Rosario, who has had his moments, this offseason, but he's seven years into his career and has averaged something like 150 yards a season.