Youth Movement: Why the Chicago Bears Desperately Need Their Young Players to Step Up

Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Every team does its best to balance talent and youth. Obviously teams want to be the absolute best they can possibly be, but they also have to look at the future too and keep younger, less refined players on the roster to be ready to take over someday. As players age and begin to lose some ability, they are replaced by younger players. It is the cycle of the NFL.

The Chicago Bears have reached the youth phase of the cycle at a number of positions. However, the team’s window for a championship is closing quickly. Thus, they need these young players to step up and play like veterans, while hastening their development. The performance of these young players could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.

What makes the Bears’ situation desperate is their lack of options. At the positions where young players are featured, there are very few backup options if the young player fails. It is a bit of a dangerous situation, but the lack of fallback alternatives shows their faith in their talent evaluation of their young players. It remains to be seen whether that confidence is justified.

The Bears have a number of young players that they are relying on to improve, as does every team. These are the players that the Bears need to step up the most.

Alshon Jeffery (Age 23)

The Bears desperately need production from wide receivers not named Brandon Marshall. Jeffery was fairly productive in 2012 when he was healthy, on pace for 38 catches, 587 yards and five touchdowns. He had some issues with penalties a few times during the season, but he did pretty well for a rookie second-round pick.

Now with an offseason under his belt, the Bears need him to step up and be a legitimate number two wide receiver. Having the entire passing game flow through Brandon Marshall was not very effective, despite his 1500 yard season. New Bears tight end Martellus Bennett will help take the pressure off of both Marshall and Jeffery, but a lot is still dependent on Jeffery’s development.

If he steps up, not only will Jay Cutler have another excellent weapon to work with, but opposing defenses will be forced to pick their poison. In 2012, Marshall faced an almost constant double-team, but add Bennett and Jeffery to the mix, and teams will not be able to focus all of their attention on Marshall. If they do, Bennett or Jeffery will be left open.

And when defenses take attention away from Marshall, it will make it easier for him to get open. It is a win-win for the Bears, as long as Jeffery can step up.

If he struggles in 2013, the Bears do not have much of a backup plan at wide receiver. Earl Bennett is the third receiver, but he is more of a slot receiver. Rookie seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson, former undrafted free agent Joe Anderson, and veterans Devin Aromashodu and Eric Weems are the team’s other options at wide receiver.

Anderson has been impressive this offseason, and Wilson has a lot of potential, but neither has the ability to produce at the level the Bears need at the second wide receiver spot.

Hopefully Jeffery can become the number two receiver the Bears desired when they traded up to get him in the second round.

Kyle Long/James Brown (Both Age 24)

Everyone and their grandmother knows how bad the Bears offensive line was in 2012 and years prior. It has been an over-discussed storyline. The team has done a lot this offseason to fix the line, including using a first round pick on guard Kyle Long out of Oregon. Long enters training camp as the favorite to win the starting right guard spot, but he is not guaranteed a starting spot just because of his draft position.

He is however expected to be the starter when the Bears host the Cincinnati Bengals week one. He is one of the Bears’ biggest question marks left on the offensive line. Long started four games in 2012 at left guard at Oregon, and that is about it for his starting experience in college. He is extremely raw, and the Bears are throwing him into the fire from the start. He needs to learn on the fly in order to play at the level that the Bears need.

If Long falters, there is another young guard behind him in James Brown who would be next in. He is also competing at the left guard position with Matt Slauson, but as of now he is the “swing” guard. Slauson is a bit of an unknown at this point, signing with the Bears on a one-year deal after a decent season with the New York Jets. If either Long or Slauson struggles, the Bears would count on Brown to step up.

An undrafted free agent out of Troy, he started three games last season after injuries and a lack of talent decimated the offensive line. He showed a lot of talent in his few starts, and he has received the praise of the coaching staff this offseason. Even if neither Long nor Slauson struggles, Brown still could find himself as a starter at either guard spot due to his ability.

It would be great for the Bears if he and Long stepped up and were the team’s starting guards in 2013.

Shea McClellin (Age 23)

The most scrutinized Bears’ player since J’Marcus Webb, McClellin was the team’s first round pick in 2012, and he struggled mightily during his rookie season. Much has been said about McClellin, but one thing remains clear – he needs to step up in 2013, for both his sake and the team’s. He, like Jeffery, faced some injuries last season, but his two and a half sacks in 13 games was an extreme disappointment for the first-round pick.

While he did not receive a huge amount of snaps, he showed limited pass-rushing moves and strength. These are two things that he has been able to work on this offseason, and it will be interesting to see how much he has improved. McClellin has remained relatively quiet this offseason, with very little news about his development, and hopefully he comes to training camp and surprises some people.

With Israel Idonije now on the Detroit Lions, the Bears will need more production from their other pass rushers. Idonije was second on the team in sacks in 2012, and now McClellin will step into his third defensive end spot. The team needs him to start getting to the quarterback more often to keep the defensive line potent. They also need him to step up to show fans why they invested a first-round pick in him.

If he doesn’t step up, he will widely be viewed as a bust, and at that point, it is hard to win fans back. Behind him on the depth chart are veterans Kyle Moore and Turk McBride, along with rookie sixth-round pick Cornelius Washington. While Moore and McBride have had some success in the past, neither have shown enough production to fill the void left by Idonije.

2013 will be a defining year for McClellin. Which will it be, bust or emerging pass rusher?

Stephen Paea (Age 25)

On the interior of the defensive line comes another young player who needs to step up. Paea is the team’s starting nose tackle, and he has done a respectable job in that position. Still, the Bears need him to take that next step in his game and become a great defensive tackle. The nose tackle position he plays is not relied on for significant pass-rushing, and Paea has fared about as well as expected, with two and a half sacks in 2012, his first season as a starter.

Where the Bears need him to step is in the running game. While it is difficult to statistically measure his impact in stopping the run, there are a few measuring sticks to compare. His 13 tackles in 14 games were among the bottom five in the league among starting defensive tackles. While that is not necessarily indicative of poor run-stopping, it is concerning nonetheless.

Another way of measuring his run-stopping ability is through Pro Football Focus. In 2012, they rated him a positive 1.7 overall, but gave him a negative 4.1 in run stopping. That is not absolutely horrible, but it is still bad. The Bears need him to step up and be a force in the middle of the defensive line if they hope to maintain their top-ten rushing defense.

It is hard to imagine a scenario where Paea regresses, so for him, it is all about improvement. He is a decent starting nose tackle, but can he become the player the Bears hoped for when they traded up to get him in the second round? They don’t need him to be elite, but they want him to be great.

J’Marcus Webb (Age 24)

Webb has faced a lot of criticism throughout his career, arguable the most a seventh-round pick has ever received through his first three seasons. The main culprit is the fact that he was the team’s starting left tackle. He protected Cutler’s blindside and was often left on an island against elite pass-rushers.

The Bears ended much of the left tackle debate when they signed Jermon Bushrod this past offseason, which moved Webb back to his natural position at right tackle. He will face much less pressure on that side, and it is a position that he is better suited to. He does not have the finesse required to move quickly as a left tackle, but he has the size to be a massive right tackle.

He was not completely awful at left tackle, and moving him back to the right side should help him improve, so the Bears should see a better player in 2013. If he continues to struggle, the Bears have a few options behind him, but none of them are very enticing.

Rookie fifth-round pick Jordan Mills is an intriguing prospect, and he could be a great player in a few years, but as of right now, he is not ready to step in and start at right tackle if Webb struggles. The other option is veteran Jonathon Scott, who started seven games last season for the Bears at right tackle. He struggled mightily, but he was their best option last season. The Bears would like to avoid starting him in 2013.

If all goes as planned, Webb will be a fine starter at right tackle in 2013. He is also in a contract year, so it is fair to assume that motivation will not be a problem. He needs to show that he can be a quality right tackle to both the Bears and other potential suitors in free agency. If not, the Bears could be in trouble on the right side of the line.

A lot of the Bears’ success in 2013 and beyond is dependent on these and other young players stepping up. There is a lot of risk involved but they could pay off. If not, Phil Emery will have some explaining to do. If the young players step up, it could mean great things for the future as these players continue to improve. Developing players is a huge part of every team’s success, and the Bears sure are counting on it in 2013.