Now that the Bears have set their 53-man roster and are beginning their game prep for the Bengals on Sunday at Soldier Field, who are the players that must prove their value under new coach Marc Trestman?
After looking at the roster, here are the five I chose to put under the spotlight as we get closer to the kickoff of the 2013 NFL season.
Quarterback Jay Cutler
I know it's easy to list Cutler here, but there is no question the season rides on his ability to produce and protect the ball in Trestman's offense during a contract year.
Looking back at the preseason, this playbook can be a fit for Cutler if he delivers the ball on the time and takes advantage of the multiple options in the passing game. Plus, with a new scheme that caters to running back Matt Forte's skill set, Cutler should be set up to play at a high level.
As a former player, I would love to be in Cutler's situation. Produce and you get paid. And at the quarterback position, that means $12 million to $15 million a year in this league. Hey, that's good living.
But even after the offensive upgrades general manager Phil Emery made through free agency and the draft to put his quarterback in a position to succeed, it still comes back to Cutler's ability to make smart decisions with the football. That's how we will determine his value this season.
Defensive end Shea McClellin
McClellin showed signs of improvement as a pass rusher throughout the preseason. The second-year pro flashed some speed on the edge and also displayed a better feel for his technique (hand placement) at the point of attack. Those are positives for new coordinator Mel Tucker and present opportunities for the Bears to maximize their personnel along the defensive front in nickel situations.
However, can McClellin consistently produce in his situational role as a pass rusher and begin to develop as a three-down player?
The majority of pros make their biggest jump from a developmental perspective going into their second year. The game will slow down, technique becomes a priority and the rookie mistakes are corrected.
That's what the Bears should be counting on from McClellin to get the return on their first-round investment from 2012.
Tight end Martellus Bennett
The lack of production at the tight end position under Mike Tice in 2012 was a major issue. The Bears didn't have a reliable option in the middle of the field and that can cripple a game plan in crucial down-and-distance situations.
But with Bennett in the mix, Cutler should have the opportunity to expose matchups inside the numbers, move the sticks on third down and target the tight end versus a safety or linebacker in the red zone.
Bennett wasn't a prime target throughout the first three exhibition games, but from a playbook perspective, Trestman is going to align the tight end in multiple positions to get the favorable matchup for his quarterback.
And now it's on Bennett to prove his value (and contract) by finishing plays in an offense that will work the ball in the middle of the field.
Kick returner Devin Hester
During the preseason, Hester displayed some of the abilities that have made him one of the top returners to play in the NFL.
The veteran didn't show any hesitation or wasted lateral movement in getting vertical on returns to create field position, plus he was quick with his decision-making to find running lanes. This allows Hester to attack coverage units, showcase his straight-line speed and set up the offense with scoring opportunities.
But we have to remember the Bears dedicated a spot on the roster to a non-position player.
Trestman's staff looks pretty smart after eliminating Hester's role as a wide receiver and allowing him to focus specifically on the return game. This could be one of the best moves of the season if the production continues.
Right tackle Jordan Mills
With all of the attention paid to first-round pick Kyle Long — and his quick learning curve throughout the preseason — it's easy to forget about Mills. But as the Bears attempt to put a stop to the game of musical chairs at right tackle, there will be plenty of pressure on the fifth-round rookie.
Mills doesn't have to be an All-Pro is his first season and I wouldn't expect that from a rookie tackle. He will make some mistakes once the speed of the regular season begins, and there is no doubt he will be tested against the Bengals ridiculously talented defensive line.
The days of J'Marcus Webb giving up sacks are over. Now, it's up to the rookie to show his value as a starter. And that means playing at a level that allows this Bears offense to move the ball with some consistency.