Depth Perception: How Phil Emery Has Strengthened the Chicago Bears From its Core

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Depth is one of the most important facets of a strong NFL team. It is one of the things that separates the good teams from the great ones. All of the top teams have great players that start, but the backups and the bench-warmers are what makes a team successful. It’s a huge reason why the Green Bay Packers were able to win the championship in 2010.

That Packers team had 41 different players on the injury report for two or more games, 14 players on injured reserve, and three players start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. With key contributions from then-little known players like Desmond Bishop, Sam Shields, Jordy Nelson, and Brandon Jackson, among others, the Packers overcame massive injuries and won the Super Bowl. That is the kind of depth that every team strives for.

In years past, the Chicago Bears have really lacked depth. In 2012, the Bears were very thin on the offensive line, and their lack of depth was displayed after Chilo Rachal left the team and the injuries that would follow. The linebacker group too lacked support. The only “significant” backup on the team was Geno Hayes, with the rest of the bench players being mostly special teams guys.

2011 was the same story. The wide receiver group consisted of Devin Hester, Roy Williams, and Earl Bennett. How that passed as a starting unit, I’ll never know. Behind them was undrafted free agent Dane Sanzenbacher and Max Komar, who is now out of the league. If one of the three top receivers had gone down, the Bears would have been absolutely screwed at the position. That team too had horrendous linebacker depth, with special teams player Patrick Trahan as the main backup. The Bears were fortunate to remain healthy at those positions.

Recognizing this problem, Phil Emery has done an excellent job of acquiring depth. The only positions that really lack depth on the current Bears roster are defensive tackle and fullback. Very few teams have much fullback depth, so defensive tackle is the only spot where it is concerning. They addressed the problem by signing Sedrick Ellis, but even with him, the position is thin.

Under Lovie Smith, the Bears typically kept five defensive tackles around, due to their importance in the Cover-2 system. Currently, the Bears have four talented tackles (Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, Nate Collins, and Ellis) and a plethora of young and unproven players, including three undrafted free agents. It is expected that the Bears will only keep the four aforementioned players, so an injury to anyone of them could be a big problem.

Besides those positions, the Bears have great depth across the board. At quarterback, they have Josh McCown and young developmental quarterback Matt Blanchard. At running back, they have Michael Bush, Armando Allen, and undrafted free agent Michael Ford out of LSU, who looked impressive at mini-camp. He has a good chance of sticking around on the practice squad, and could be elevated if an injury occurred.

Wide Receiver has a great competition going for its bottom roster spots, between rookie Marquess Wilson, Joe Anderson, Eric Weems, and Devin Aromashodu. The players who stick around will have been playing at an elevated level in order to win the competition, and the players who lose can be brought back if an injury happens. Similarly, the tight end position has a great competition going for its backup spots. Kyle Adams, Steve Maneri, Fendi Onobun, and Gabe Miller are among those competing for what is expected to be two backup roster spots.

The offensive line is a little light on depth, but not alarmingly so. Most teams do not typically carry a lot of offensive lineman, and the Bears have at least 10 that are good enough for a roster spot. They have solid backups on both the inside and out, with players that can step in and start if needed, most notably guard James Brown, who was an undrafted free agent last season and has impressed the new coaching staff.

At defensive end, the Bears have some of the best depth they have had at the position in a long time. Behind starters Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton, they have last year’s first-round pick Shea McClellin, this year’s sixth-round pick Cornelius Washington, veterans Kyle Moore and Turk McBride, and second year players Aston Whiteside and Cheta Ozougwu. All of those players were on an NFL roster last season, except for Washington, who was in college, and Whiteside, who was on the Bears practice squad. Needless to say, this group is deep.

The linebacker corpse got a huge boost in depth with the picks of Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene in this year’s draft. Bostic, out of Florida, is competing for the starting middle linebacker job with D.J. Williams, although at this point, it is a long shot. They give this group a lot of depth, and either could step in should an injury occur at any of the three spots.

Cornerback is a position at which most teams value depth, and the Bears are no exception. Behind Pro-Bowlers Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, they have solid third and fourth guys in Kelvin Hayden and Zack Bowman, respectively. Behind them are special teams ace Sherrick McManis and 2012 sixth round pick Isaiah Frey, who will likely find himself on the practice squad once again. An injury to one of the Pro-Bowlers would be devastating, but it would be even worse without this depth.

Finally, safety is one of the deepest positions on the Bears. After starters Major Wright and Chris Conte, they have four players competing for what will be two or three roster spots – veterans Craig Steltz and Tom Zbikowski, and the young Anthony Walters and Brandon Hardin, who was the team’s 2012 third round pick. All four of them are great players, and the winners will prove to be excellent backups.

Just as important as the depth itself is how Emery has built this depth. Look at the backups. They have youth at every position, built from the draft. Hardin, Frey, Bostic, Greene, McClellin, Washington, offensive linemen Jordan Mills and P.J. Lonergan, Adams, Allen, Ford, and Blanchard are all either draft picks or recent undrafted free agent signings. He has not just thrown together a bunch of veterans; he’s actually built up the team and developed young players.

As you can see, the Bears have fantastic depth this season. Injuries are inevitable in the NFL, and they really are a matter of luck. Teams can not control injuries, but what they can control is depth — Emery has done an excellent job stocking up the team. Depth rarely overcomes multiple significant injuries, but when it comes to the expected minor injuries, even in bunches, the Bears are pretty set.

Depth is one of the most underrated parts of a team, and it is huge that the Bears are strong in that area. It will prove to be their advantage.