Cedric Benson appears to be right on schedule for a complete recovery from the fractured ankle that ended his 2007 season in late November and put his future as the Bears' featured runner in jeopardy.
But it remains to be seen if Benson, even if he's healthy, will perform well enough to withstand the challenge from second-round draft pick Matt Forte.
Despite last season's career-worst 3.4-yard average per carry, Benson recently received a vote of confidence as the starter from Bears head coach Lovie Smith. During Wednesday's third day of organized team activities at Halas Hall, Benson lined up with the first team and ran and cut without any trace of a limp. But even if he goes to training camp on July 22 as No. 1 on the depth chart, Benson's hold on the starting job is tenuous with Forte waiting in the wings.
"I think it's always been a challenge," Benson said. "Garrett Wolfe came in last year. The first two years, [it was] with Thomas Jones. It's always been a challenge. I wouldn't expect anything less or any different."
Benson's future in Chicago seemed to be imperiled early this month when he was arrested on Lake Travis near Austin, Texas and charged with boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest, charges that he will fight in court and which have been disputed by impartial observers. His next court date is June 30, although he is not required to attend. Benson said he is not presently considering a lawsuit in the case but only looks forward to having it resolved and being vindicated.
"It'll be nice to get it cleared up and over with, but I don't really spend too much time thinking about it," he said. "I'm sticking to my story and the truth will come out sometime, whether it'll be now or a year from now or whenever."
At the time of the arrest, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, while referring to Benson as a victim, also questioned the player's judgment and said he allowed himself to become a victim. Benson disagrees with that characterization of his actions.
RB Cedric Benson
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
"He'd have to explain to me how I put myself in a situation to be a victim," the four-year veteran said. "I was enjoying myself, enjoying my offseason."
Hall-of-Fame running back Earl Campbell, like Benson a former Texas Longhorn superstar, also questioned Benson's behavior and predicted he might be remembered more for the boating incident than his so-far disappointing NFL career. Again, Benson took exception.
"Earl must have forgot how young I am," Benson said with a smile. "I've still got some football to play."
How much more he'll play with the Bears might be decided in training camp and by how Forte performs. Just six months removed from the latest setback in an injury-marred career, Benson, who is about 10 pounds lighter than last year when he weighed 220 pounds, said he's ready to compete.
"I feel great," he said. "Y'all didn't see? I hope y'all had the cameras on all practice. I feel faster, quicker, just smarter, smoother, freer. I feel everything on a positive note."
To keep Forte at bay, Benson will probably have to demonstrate all those attributes and play as he did in the second half of the 2006 season, when he averaged 5.0 yards per carry before suffering a sprained knee in Super Bowl XLI.
"I would hope I'd have to do something to keep [the job]," he said. "Nobody wants to be given anything. It makes it more fun and more exciting when you've got a challenge going. I'm just going to be me and make plays."
Make or break time could come as soon as training camp for Benson.
"I haven't really thought about that," he said. "But if it is, I'm sure I'm going to make it happen."
NEWS & NOTESIn addition to Brian Urlacher, who is boycotting voluntary offseason workouts because he's disenchanted with his nine-year, $56.65 million contract that still has four years remaining, defensive tackle Tommie Harris, defensive end Alex Brown and cornerback Charles Tillman were not at OTA practice at Halas Hall on Wednesday.
Wide receiver Mark Bradley was at Halas Hall, but not on the practice field as he recovers from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee early this month to clean up old scar tissue. Bradley, who wore a brace on his right leg, said he would be ready for the start of training camp, although the team said he was questionable for the start of camp.
Return specialist/wide receiver Devin Hester, tight end Desmond Clark, linebacker Jamar Williams and defensive end Dan Bazuin were in attendance Wednesday but did not practice.
The move of veteran offensive tackle John Tait from left tackle to right tackle is well under way.
OT John Tait
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
Tait took all his snaps with the first team at right tackle in Wednesday's organized team activity practice, while veteran John St. Clair lined up at left tackle – a temporary situation with first-round pick Chris Williams taking over on the left side by the end of training camp, if not sooner. Williams has been the left tackle on the second unit in offseason practices.
Tait has been the Bears' starter at left tackle the past three seasons but started at right tackle the previous three seasons, the first two with the Chiefs, where he began his career as a left tackle in 1999.
The left guard position remains unsettled, although it appears Terrence Metcalf will get the first opportunity to win the job – he worked with the starters Wednesday.
Safety Mike Brown, who recently had his contract restructured to limit the Bears' financial responsibility if he suffers a debilitating injury for the fifth straight season, was running with the first team Wednesday.
Brown suffered a season-ending torn ACL in last year's season opener and has missed 43 of 64 games the past four seasons after playing in 64 straight – and starting 63 – in his first four seasons.
Brown's base salary for this season was scheduled to be $2.44 million in the final year of the five-year, $17 million extension he signed in July 2003. Brown now has a base salary of $950,000 for 2008. The $1.49 million difference can be made up with unlikely-to-be-earned incentives based on playing time. If Brown is injured before the season starts and released, he would be paid just $320,000.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"The things they've had to say about it have been really great. They've been very supportive. Of course, there isn't much they can really do about anything, and I don't expect them to. But the fact that they're just letting me know that they've got my back is good." – Cedric Benson, talking about support from teammates after his arrest in early May for boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest, charges which appear to be questionable and he will challenge in court.
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