A couple years ago, linebacker Jamar Williams appeared to be on the fast track to a starting job, especially when the Bears' contract talks with Lance Briggs became contentious.
After being drafted in the fourth round in 2006 out of Arizona State, Williams played in all 16 games the following season and started once. When Briggs suffered a hamstring injury just before halftime against the Cowboys in '07, Williams stepped in and made a career-best 12 tackles.
But last season, Williams seemed to regress. He was passed on the depth chart by Nick Roach, who replaced Hunter Hillenmeyer as the starting strong-side linebacker while Williams was relegated to special teams, where he finished as the Bears' second-leading tackler.
"It's tough for anybody when somebody moves in front of you," Williams said. "But at the same time I trust the coaches' decisions, and Nick did a great job filling in there. This year, hopefully I can get in at a position where I can compete for the third starting job. But whatever happens, I just want to go out here and work my hardest to make sure this team gets to the Super Bowl. That's No. 1 to me."
If the offseason is a good indication, Williams may be back as a contender for a starting job – or at least as the top backup. He has been arguably the Bears' most impressive player in the offseason.
"You can see the athlete that he is," general manager Jerry Angelo said on the team's official Web site. "It's his awareness and confidence levels that stand out."
Angelo added that last year's decision to move Roach past Williams was a difficult one.
"To me, it was a photo finish," Angelo said. "We've always liked Jamar. I think he's a three-down player. He's bright, he's athletic, he's fast and he's tough. There's nothing not to like about him. What we're seeing now is what we saw when he was in college and what we drafted."
Williams has made coaches take notice of his play on an almost daily basis during OTA practices.
"He had three picks in five days," defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bob Babich said. "He's made some big plays. He's really progressed. This is his fourth year in the system, so we expect Jamar to do those type things."
But Williams might have an even tougher time getting on the field with the defense this season. Not only will he be competing with Roach and Hillenmeyer for the job on the strong side, but the Bears have added standout veteran Pisa Tinoisamoa, who led the Rams in tackles in four of his six seasons in St. Louis.
Williams has been one of the most impressive performers on defense throughout OTAs.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
NEWS AND NOTES
Running back Matt Forte, who limped off the field near the end of the June 3 OTA practice with an injury to his left hamstring, is still not practicing, although his inactivity is more of a precautionary measure.
Forte's practice time is likely to be limited in the remaining OTAs, which end on June 17, but he is expected to be 100 percent long before the first practice of training camp on July 31.
Backup running back Kevin Jones is likely to see more time with the first team next week. He could also give Forte more rest in the regular season if, as hoped, Jones is completely recovered from the knee injury that ended his 2007 season and limited him last season. He had 30 carries for 107 yards in the first five games, but just four carries for two yards the rest of the season.
"Kevin will fit in real well," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We're excited about him. He'll have had a [full] offseason. Last year when we got him, he was coming off that knee injury and wasn't in the best of shape. He's had a year to learn our system and a year to get that knee better." …
Despite improving from 20 receptions in 2007 to 51 last season and increasing his receiving yardage from 299 to 665, Devin Hester was disappointed in his 2008 performance.
He did not have a single return touchdown after scoring seven times on punt returns and four times on kickoff returns in his first two seasons. Hester's punt-return average of 6.2 yards was less than half the 14.1 yards he averaged in his first two seasons, and he lost the kickoff-return job to Danieal Manning midway through the season.
"I hate to say it, but the season that I had last year wasn't up to my high expectations," Hester said. "This year, I'm coming out trying to be better than I was the first two years. My goal is to just come out and make big plays like I normally do."
The proof of Hester's subpar 2008 has been staring him in the face all offseason.
"I was kind of getting upset because when they show commercials on ESPN and NFL Network, I'm not one of the players they show,” he said. "I know there's a reason why: because of the season I had last year. This year, hopefully during the middle of the season, I'll be on some of those commercials." …
Briggs, a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker, says he won't be satisfied even if the defense recaptures the form that led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, before suffering huge drop-offs the past two seasons.
"I don't want to revert back to that form,” Briggs said. “I want to revert to a better form. I think that's what we all want. We're all aiming toward something better – better than where we were. You hear coaches out here yelling at everybody on every play. That's what we need. We've got to be yelled at. We have to put our grind in if we want to be successful."
Head coach Lovie Smith believes he has improved his staff by adding defensive line coach/assistant head coach Rod Marinelli and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke, so Briggs says it's only natural now to put pressure on the players to create a better product this season.
"That's why they pay us the big bucks," Briggs said. "We might have had some down years, but they pay us big bucks because they believe in us, and we've got to show up this year." …
As enthused as Turner is to have Jay Cutler running his offense, the Bears' offensive coordinator realizes that the quarterback's assimilation is a work in progress.
"I'm excited, but I also realize that it's not going to happen overnight," Turner said. "It's not all of a sudden it's going to come together. It's going to take time. It's going to take a lot of work.
"Jay has generated a lot of excitement in the locker room, and I think we have a lot of good players around him, but it's going to take a while for everything to mesh. It doesn't just happen. We need a lot of reps. We're not going to be as good Sept. 13 as we will be later on in the year, but we'll be good enough to go out and execute and move the ball and score some points hopefully." …
Cornerback Charles Tillman returned to the practice field Wednesday, and he was glad to be back following a rehab period after postseason shoulder surgery.
"My shoulder feels fine," he said. "It's nice to be able to be out here. It's full strength now. The doctor said after the surgery I should live until I'm 102. So I'm good."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"He's making it something where you're just constantly doing it on an every-day basis. And he makes you want to do it. He makes you want to come through these doors and be the best at what you do." – DT Tommie Harris on what makes Rod Marinelli such an effective teacher.
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