TRAINING CAMP GOALS
1. Better protection for quarterback Jay Cutler. The Chicago Bears have jacked up and fortified their offense at the skill positions, but they must still decide on their best five offensive linemen, or at least the five who work most cohesively. Offensive line is clearly the biggest concern for a team that believes it was playoff caliber last season (7-3 before Cutler was lost for the season with a thumb injury) and is better in 2012. The return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi is expected to make the line better at right tackle, where the former Badger showed great promised before a knee injury ended his rookie season after two games. But left tackle remains a major concern with last year's disappointing starter, J'Marcus Webb, and 2009 first-round pick Chris Williams expected to battle for the starting job.
2. Continuity in the secondary. The revolving door at both safety positions has rarely paused during coach Lovie Smith's eight-year tenure and there is again uncertainty in the secondary this year. Eight different safety combinations were utilized last season, none of which worked well enough to make coaches abandon their never-ending search for the optimum mix. Third-round pick Chris Conte started nine games at free safety as a rookie in 2011 before finishing the season on injured reserve with a foot/ankle injury. Major Wright, a third-round pick in 2010, has been unable to lock down a starting spot because of minor injuries and inconsistent play. As usual, the Bears used another third-round pick on a safety this year; big, athletic Brandon Hardin; and veteran Craig Steltz remains in the mix after getting four late-season starts in 2011.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall. He is the big (6-4, 230-pound), dominant wide receiver that the Bears have never had and Jay Cutler hasn't had since the two played together in Denver, where Marshall put up back-to-back 100-catch seasons in 2007 and '08. Because of Marshall's many off-the-field episodes, the Bears had to spend just a pair of third-round picks to acquire a difference-maker who is still in his prime. He should be the key to transforming a mundane offense into a state-of-the-art attack, given the success of his past relationships with Cutler on and off the field. Still, it's assumed that Marshall's next transgression will result in a league suspension, which would disrupt an offense that figures to depend on him to do most of the heavy lifting in the passing game. Oh, by the way, he's also dealing with a diagnosed case of Borderline Personality Disorder, and it remains to be seen how he will continue to handle that situation.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears traded away a good chunk of their future for Cutler prior to the 2009 season (two first-round picks, a third-rounder and quarterback Kyle Orton), and they are paying him as a franchise quarterback. But Cutler has yet to approach the elite level of play the Bears envisioned. His cumulative touchdown-interception ratio of 63-49 and yearly passer ratings of 76.8, 86.3 and 85.7 are good but far from great. Now Cutler has an impressive array of weapons to work with, including receivers Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and second-round pick Alshon Jeffery; and running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Much more will be expected from the leader.
--Linebacker Lance Briggs told ESPN Radio in Chicago he doesn't know if running back Matt Forte will be in training camp if he hasn't signed a long-term contract by July 16. After that date, Forte can only play under the one-year franchise tag.
"I hope ... I don't know, I don't know," Briggs said. "I've been in similar situations with what Matt Forte is going through, but like I said, I don't know. I hope so. I want him there. But I also want him to get paid the way he needs to get paid."
--The Bears finished 28th in passing yards allowed last season, permitting an average of 254.1 yards per game, more than all but four teams in the league. Still, coach Lovie Smith took exception to an inference that the secondary struggled in 2011.
"I don't see it like that," he said. "A few games, maybe you have a little bit of trouble with the pass. I think we played the pass fairly well."
Cornerback Charles Tillman made his first Pro Bowl, but no one else in the Bears' secondary stood out and, as usual, the safety position was a revolving door. Eight different starting combinations were utilized, a trend that has become the norm throughout Smith's eight seasons in Chicago.
--Even as a rookie without the benefit of an offseason last year, third-round pick Chris Conte started nine games at safety. He's far more comfortable now with a year in the system.
"It's crazy," he said. "I've been living out here for a year. I know this place. Coming to Bourbonnais (last July) I had never even seen Illinois before. But it was a fun experience. It's just nice being able to feel much more comfortable, knowing the guys, knowing what to expect."
--Just six months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, long snapper Patrick Mannelly appears way ahead of schedule as he prepares for his 15th NFL season.
"It's real good to see him back," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "He got back the last part of OTAs. We've had him the whole minicamp. He looks real good. He's running down on punts and protecting. He's in all the team drills."
QUOTE TO NOTE:"I feel like this is a pretty good football team on paper before we had a chance to get on the football field to start offseason work, and most of the stuff we wanted to get accomplished I feel like we have." --ears coach Lovie Smith at the conclusion of last week's minicamp.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With more talent and depth at the quarterback position (Jay Cutler, Jason Campbell and Josh McCown) than at any time in recent memory, coach Lovie Smith expects a more productive offense than last year's group, which was 17th in scoring.
"I feel like we're going to be able to put more points on the board, which we will have to do," Smith said. "The team that led the league (the Packers) averaged 35 points a game last year, and we were about at 22. We have to improve on that."
--LB Brian Urlacher didn't participate in offseason work because of a knee injury suffered in the final game of the 2012 season, but he said it's "for sure" he'll be on the field when training camp opens. Said Urlacher, "I could have participated in minicamp, but there was no reason to. It was three days of stuff that I'm going to be doing at training camp, so there was no real reason to push it."
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Jay Cutler. Backups - Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Matt Blanchard.
The Bears were averaging 26.8 points per game with Cutler running the show in 2011. But in the six games after he suffered a season-ending thumb injury, they averaged 13.8 points. Prior to last season, the durable Cutler had missed just one game because of injury in his first five years in the league. He has more than enough arm strength to make all the throws, and he can elude the rush and run for positive yardage. His accuracy occasionally suffers because of inconsistent mechanics, but the Bears are a playoff team with him on the field. He has yet to post great numbers in Chicago, but he's had to work with a mediocre supporting cast the past three years. The talent around him is better this year. Jason Campbell is big, physical, athletic and by far the best backup the Bears have had in coach Lovie Smith's tenure. Campbell has 70 NFL starts and has put up numbers similar to Cutler's. When he got a chance to start the final two games last season, No. 3 Josh McCown played better than backup Caleb Hanie, even though he was signed off the street a few weeks earlier. He's also a big, athletic veteran with 33 NFL starts.
Forte is about as talented an all-around back as there is in the league. His contract situation has become contentious, and he is unhappy as the Bears' franchise player. But Forte is expected to show up ready to play, as he did last year, even if that doesn't happen until well into training camp. He was leading the league in yards from scrimmage last season when he suffered a season-ending sprained knee in Week 13. Just in case Forte's unhappiness affects his performance, unrestricted free agent Bush was signed. He is capable of being much more than a complement, as he proved last season with 977 rushing yards and 37 receptions. At 245 pounds, he's also effective in short-yardage situations. The unspectacular but versatile Bell showed he could do some of the same things Forte does late last season. Clutts won't get many carries, but he has some versatility and can contribute on special teams. Allen is a quick, undersized, change-of-pace alternative. Unga has the size and strength to push the pile or function as a lead blocker.
Under former offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Davis and Matt Spaeth were blockers first and foremost. Both players have shown they are more than capable in that aspect of the job. But Davis still led the team with five touchdown receptions last season on just 18 catches, and coaches believe he can be a much bigger factor in the passing game. He is a huge target with a wide wingspan and enough athleticism to make difficult catches. Spaeth also presents a large target, but is more of a possession/underneath guy. Undersized rookie Rodriguez is more of an H-back type and should factor much more as a pass-catcher than a blocker since he lacks the size to function as an in-line blocker.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett. Backups - Alshon Jeffery, Dane Sanzenbacher, Devin Thomas, Eric Weems, Johnny Knox, Joe Anderson, Terriun Crump, Brittan Golden, Chris Summers.
If Marshall puts up numbers similar to those he did when Cutler was his quarterback for their last two years together in Denver, he'll be the most productive wide receiver the Bears have ever had. The 6-4, 230-pound Marshall provides Cutler with the go-to guy he's never had in Chicago, and he's also the big wide receiver the Bears have always lacked. Hester has regressed in each of the past two seasons, and he may be relegated to a lesser role in the offense, but he's still a legitimate long-ball threat who must be accounted for. Slot receiver Earl Bennett, when healthy, has been Cutler's security blanket, and he's the team's most reliable underneath possession receiver and a strong runner after the catch. Jeffery, the 6-3 rookie, provides another big target, and his presence could give the receiver position a whole new look this season, especially in the red zone, where his size should create matchup problems. Sanzenbacher is smart, quick and crafty, but he dropped way too many passes last year for a possession receiver who lacks speed. Thomas and Weems figure most prominently on special teams, but there is room for advancement at the bottom of the depth chart. Knox is not expected back this season after last year's devastating hit that resulted in back surgery and will require a lengthy rehab period.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Chris Williams, LG Chilo Rachal, C Roberto Garza, RG Chris Spencer, RT Gabe Carimi. Backups - RT/G Lance Louis, T J'Marcus Webb, G/C Edwin Williams, G/T James Brown, G Ricky Henry, T Tyler Hendrickson, T A.J. Greene, G Nick Pieschel.
The position most in need of upgrade is left tackle, where Webb struggled last season, allowing 12 sacks. Chris Williams was originally drafted in the first round in 2009 to be the left tackle of the future, but he failed to hold that job and was then moved inside to guard, where he played to mixed reviews. He'll get a chance to reclaim his original job if he can outplay Webb in training camp. Carimi is basically a redshirt freshman who impressed enough in camp last year as a rookie to win the starting job, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2. For the Bears to return to the postseason, this group has to protect Cutler better than it did the past two seasons, when it allowed 105 sacks. The only completely new addition is Rachal, but there are plenty of guys who can play inside already on the roster. In his second season at center, long-time guard Garza is expected to help solidify a shaky unit. Garza filled in admirably last year after Olin Kreutz was released, and he should be better with a year as the line leader under his belt. Spencer played mostly center before he moved over to guard last season but will face competition from Louis and Ed Williams.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Israel Idonije, 3T Henry Melton, NT Stephen Paea, RDE Julius Peppers. Backups - E Shea McClellin, T Matt Toeaina, T John McCargo, E Corey Wootton, T Jordan Miller, E Chauncey Davis, E Thaddeus Gibson, T Demario Pressley, E Cheta Ozougwu, T Nate Collins, T Ronnie Cameron.
Peppers remains one of the league's top players, but he needs more help in pressuring the quarterback. The Bears hope that comes from first-round pick McClellin, who had 16.5 sacks in his final two seasons at Boise State. Incumbent left end Idonije was re-signed for one year, and he is solid vs. the run, but had just five sacks in 2011. Melton flashed some pass-rush potential at the 3 technique, but he needs to show up on a more consistent basis. Paea contributed as part of the rotation inside as a rookie last season, even though he was hindered by a balky knee injury. He is expected to take a big step this season and become a starter. For now, Toeaina is a better run stuffer, although he's limited as an athlete. McCargo is expected to contribute in the rotation at both tackle spots. Wootton has only flashed pass-rush potential and needs to make a move this year if he wants to remain part of the program.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Nick Roach. Backups -- LB Geno Hayes, SLB/WLB Patrick Trahan, MLB Dom DeCicco, SLB Jabara Williams, LB J.T. Thomas, LB Adrien Cole, LB Ronnie Thornton.
It would be easy to question how much longer Urlacher and Briggs can play at their current elite level. Urlacher turned 34 in May and Briggs will be 32 halfway through the season. But in 2011 Urlacher was voted to the Pro Bowl for the eighth time, and Briggs made it for the seventh straight time. Roach is underappreciated as the other starter, but he has 41 starts over the past four seasons. Veteran Geno Hayes was added to compete with him and to provide depth, which remains dangerously thin. DeCicco was a standout on special teams and Williams is an athlete who can run. But neither player is ready to step into the starting lineup.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Tim Jennings, RCB Charles Tillman, FS Chris Conte, SS Major Wright. Backups -- CB D.J. Moore, CB Kelvin Hayden, S Craig Steltz, S Brandon Hardin, CB Jonathan Wilhite, S Anthony Walters, CB Isaiah Frey, CB Greg McCoy, CB Donovan Warren, S Trevor Coston, S Jeremy Jones.
Tillman has the size, strength and toughness that makes him an ideal Cover-2 corner in the Bears' scheme. He went to his first Pro Bowl last season at 31. Jennings is just 5-8, but plays bigger and tougher than his size. He was re-signed, but the Bears would like to upgrade there. Both safety positions have been a revolving door during Smith's tenure. Conte showed promise as a rookie last year, starting nine games, while 2010 third-rounder Major Wright has been inconsistent and frequently nicked up. Wright appears to have the physical tools for the job but must stay healthy to be able to master the mental and technical aspects of the job. Moore is undersized but always seems to be around the ball, and his lack of size doesn't prevent him from playing with an attitude. Reinforcements were added to a unit in need of improvement, but it remains to be seen if the news guys - veterans Hayden and Wilhite, along with rookie Hardin - do more than provide depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Robbie Gould, P Adam Podlesh, PR Devin Hester, KR Eric Weems, LS Patrick Mannelly.
Under Smith, this has always been a priority, and one of the best offseason signings was the two-year extension given to special teams coordinator Dave Toub, who annually puts together a top-10 product. The presence of Hester helps, but there is depth there as well, with unrestricted free agents Eric Weems and Devin Thomas plus TCU rookie Greg McCoy. Gould is the fifth-most-accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history. He lacked length earlier in his career, but hit 6-for-6 from 50 or farther last season, and his kickoffs have gotten stronger as well. Podlesh established a franchise record for net average (40.4 yards) in his first season in Chicago. Mannelly, steady as a rock the past 14 years, vows to come back as good as ever after last season's torn ACL sidelined him the final six games, and he's ahead of schedule in his rehab.
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