As we inch towards a Bears training camp that's now less than three weeks away, we'll take a weekly look at how their three division rivals handled their respective offseasons.
In Detroit, the Lions sat at 9-4 after beating the Bears at Ford Field in December. Then they had to sweat out surviving a second playoff berth in three years by losing their final three games that would be tough enough without Matthew Stafford having injured the middle finger of his throwing hand on a Leonard Floyd rush: at the New York Giants, at Dallas, and home to Green Bay.
Stafford was in no way a problem that needed fixing this off-season, once his finger was allowed to heal after a one-sided playoff loss in Seattle. As he awaits probably the biggest quarterback payday in NFL history (surpassing the recent $25 million per season Derek Carr just got in Oakland), general manager Bob Quinn focused on fixing two areas, one of which has been a recurring theme, the other a new problem that arose last season.
The running game: It's almost mind-boggling to think what Stafford would be if he had a ground attack to supplement the growth he's made as a passer over the past four or five seasons. Get this: eight of Detroit's nine wins were fourth quarter comebacks, the most any quarterback has pulled off in NFL history. No Lions back ran for more than 70 yards in a game last season, and Stafford's had the benefit of just seven individual 100-yard rushing games over his entire eight-year career. That's astounding.
Quinn chose to attack the problem not by finding a replacement for the injury- and turnover-prone Ameer Abdullah (giving the 2015 second-rounder with speed and quickness to burn another chance), but investing in free agency in an offensive line where their recent high draft investments haven't paid off. The one that finally did pay off came last season, where Taylor Decker projected as the left tackle of the future. Then Decker tore a labrum last month, had surgery, and won't be back until November or December, if at all. This came after the Lions let recent high picks Riley Reiff (Minnesota) and Larry Warford (New Orleans) walk in free agency. They turned around and made an immediate free agent investment upgrade to their right side, tackle Ricky Wagner (Baltimore, $9.5 million a year) and guard T.J. Lang (Green Bay, three years, $28.5 million). Now they must hope second-year guard Joe Dahl, or castoffs Greg Robinson or Cyrus Kouandjio can do the kind of job in Motown in Decker's absence that the latter pair could not with the Rams and Bills.
The pass rush: A lot of this had to do with Ziggy Ansah's high ankle sprain, which limited him to just two sacks last season after 14.5 in 2015. There are other playmakers on this defense's back end: cornerback Darius Slay and safety Gloiver Quin. But this once-ferocious defense that recently boasted the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Cliff Avril and DeAndre Levy ranked 30th in sacks and 28th in takeaways. They were also 31st in third-down defense. None were around last season, with only the banged-up Levy on the roster.
Quinn chose to invest more heavily in a linebacking corps with big holes than up front, where former Illini Akeem Spence, ex-Bears Cornelius Washington and Ego Ferguson, and Jordan Hill of Jacksonville became the offseason additions. Kerry Hyder went from practice squad to the team sacks leader (8.0) last season, and Detroit's counting on a second-year boost from their 2016 second-rounder, A'Shawn Robinson of Alabama. First-round pick Jarrad Davis of Florida is expected to start from day one in the middle of a linebacking unit that had zero sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles last season. Tahir Whitehead piled up 132 tackles in the middle a year ago, but then got lost amidst Dan Quinn's need-for-speed defense. He will likely compete for the weakside spot with Paul Worrilow, a lunch-bucket guy who was among the league leaders in tackles a few years ago in Atlanta. Another SEC linebacker, Jatlen Reeves-Maybin of Tennessee, is a fourth-round big hitter who could also start on the strong side if he recovers from shoulder surgery in time for the season.
As head coach Jim Caldwell heads into a contract year, and with the Lions first five games coming at home against Arizona, at the New York Giants, home to Atlanta, at Minnesota, then hosting Carolina, these areas face an early test in a potential tone-setter for the season.