The 10 most important Bears for 2012

If this group doesn't produce, you can kiss playoffs — and Lovie — goodbye

As we continue to peel away the calendar pages — only 12 days left — until the Bears arrive in Bourbonnais, the assignment is determining the 10 most important players in 2012.

Let's first establish the criteria for "important." To me, it means the players from whom Lovie Smith needs maximum production if his Bears are going to be a playoff team. Without consistently solid play from this 10-pack, the Bears' postseason hopes — and Smith — are goners.

10. Shea McClellin: Phil Emery won't be graded on his first first-round pick this season, but if the pass rush isn't better, it will be a tough year. Emery is convinced McClellin is an every-down, hand-on-the-ground end. Many scouts had the Boise State star pegged for outside linebacker.

9. Chris Conte: The second-year pro out of Cal is wiry and inexperienced, but he has good football smarts and showed flashes as a rookie. The Bears have botched more personnel decisions at safety than any other position. Conte needs to make a difference if the secondary is going to be respectable.

8. Henry Melton: Melton has been inconsistent but has the skills to be a difference-maker as the three-technique tackle. He had seven sacks last year but needs to be more explosive and shed blockers more quickly if the front seven is going to be as formidable as Smith demands.

7. Matt Forte: After he swallows the bitter pill and accepts his almost $8 million franchise-tag salary, Forte should return to the form that made him one of the NFL's most complete running backs in three of his first four seasons. Michael Bush, who drew raves in the offseason program, provides insurance.

6. Jay Cutler: I don't worry too much about this cat anymore. Cutler should be even better with confidant Jeremy Bates and Mike Tice replacing the odd Mike Martz. Given good health, he will be among the NFC's top five quarterbacks.

5. Gabe Carimi: Plausible arguments can be made for several offensive linemen. I chose Carimi because if he can't play right tackle — either because of his chronically injured knee or because he's not NFL stock — that depletes the "depth" on the left side, where J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams are battling.

4. Charles Tillman: He's 31 and will draw the opponent's best receiver every week. That means two dates against Calvin Johnson and Greg Jennings. With Tim Jennings, Kelvin Hayden or Jonathan Wilhite at the other corner, it's critical Tillman remains healthy and good.

3. Brian Urlacher: It's difficult to shake the image of Urlacher's knee buckling in the season finale, but everybody in Lake Forest insists the 34-year-old middle linebacker will be fine. He better be. We saw in 2009, when Urlacher went down opening night in Green Bay, how vulnerable the Bears are without him.

2. Brandon Marshall: He has great size. He's tight with Cutler. He has been to three Pro Bowls. He's also on his third team in seven years. If Marshall and the Bears manage his psychological issues as diligently as they handle the football aspect, Emery will have fleeced the Dolphins.

1. Julius Peppers: The Vikings' Jared Allen lost fellow end Ray Edwards last year and led the NFL in sacks. All I hear is how the Bears need to find help for Peppers. Nonsense. No more excuses. The Bears are paying Peppers like an elite pass rusher. He has to play like one to keep the secondary from being exposed.

Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
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