Bears finally loaded at key positions

For 1st time in long time, they have assembled top talent, albeit aging, across board

Bears rookie linebacker Jon Bostic on fitting in and getting better.

Here is a fun game to play with friends: Name the best or deepest position on the Bears. Where are they at their best? Is it their depth at defensive line or running back or in the secondary, perhaps?

"Cornerback,'' cornerback Tim Jennings said.

"Safety,'' safety Chris Conte said.

Nope. The real strength of this team can be found at the front-line spots. For the first time in forever, the Bears have both the who and the where covered.

This team is loaded at premium positions. Name a place where you need a building-block player and you find a former or current Pro Bowl talent. From Jay Cutler at quarterback to Jermon Bushrod at left tackle to Brandon Marshall at wide receiver to Matt Forte at running back, across the defensive side to stud pass rusher Julius Peppers, cornerback Charles Tillman and weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, the Bears look pretty fearsome at all levels.

Once upon a time, the Bears' best player at his position was long snapper Patrick Mannelly. Nice piece to have, but frankly you would rather have a quarterback. Now the Bears have players potentially at the top 5 or 10 in the league at every position that counts.

"It builds confidence, yes," Briggs said. "But last year Philadelphia had the dream team … you have to perform.''

Accountability is one of the themes coach Marc Trestman has been preaching since taking over for Lovie Smith, and you usually get that with the kind of veteran group the Bears have put together at the most important positions. There isn't an aforementioned player who doesn't understand what Briggs means and doesn't expect it from himself and his teammates.

"It's a credit to (GM Phil Emery) and those guys putting this team together,'' backup quarterback Josh McCown said. "It's very rare you can catch it like this. That is why we have to have such an urgency as players to get it done right now. Because of the way the (salary) cap is, it's just very rare.''

The Bears might be built to win but they are not built to last. The front-line talent includes key players such as Cutler and Tillman heading into the final year of their contracts and plenty of other players on big-time money hitting ages that underscore a lack of sustainability.

The team's premium plus has been built largely on free-agent signings and a trade for Cutler as opposed to building through the draft. Running back no longer might be a premium position in the modern NFL, but it is one of the few in which the Bears actually had had some success with a high draft pick in former second-rounder Forte perhaps a dark-horse league MVP candidate at 27. Forte is the rarest of crucial Bears, a guy with maybe his best years in front of him if he can avoid the attrition at his position.

Maybe you can argue three-technique defensive tackle Henry Melton should be considered part of the crucial core because of the importance of his role in the defense and the whopping $8.45 million he's earning this year under the franchise tag. Melton won't turn 27 until October.

The rest of the key players on this team all are at or above the danger age of 30. Peppers is 33, Tillman and Briggs 32, Cutler 30 and Marshall and Bushrod 29. Being loaded at important spots hardly guarantees the Bears simply will be able to grind opponents to dust. Football is a violent game and as such there is an element of malicious uncertainty to the proceedings. Man game-plans, God laughs.

The Bears have done a nice job in the last couple of exhibitions of overcoming absent or vacant performances from crucial players. Peppers sat out against the Chargers, but Corey Wootton, Shea McClellin and Nate Collins all produced sacks. Marshall dropped a few passes against the Raiders, but Alshon Jeffrey had a career exhibition game, if there is such a thing.

The key player at the key position remains Cutler, who never gets mentioned as a top-five or top-10 talent, but he certainly has that potential. He has been on the verge of breakout years before without proving he can attain the next level.

Regardless, the Bears are operating without much of a safety net behind him. All the inner strength and fighting spirit and mental toughness in the world isn't going to help much if anything happens to Cutler. Nobody is calling quarterback their deepest or best position.

Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.

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