The burden of high expectations is on tight end Greg Olsen this year, but that doesn't appear to be nearly enough to stall a career that seems to be blasting off for stardom.
"He's to that point is his career where he's ready to step up and have a huge year," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "He's gotten better and better every year, and [when] you get a better supporting cast around him, then obviously he's going to do better. He's playing with a lot of confidence and playing very fast right now."
Olsen has had star potential since the Bears selected him in the first round (31st overall) in 2007. But great expectations have haunted most of Bears' first-round picks in the past decade. First-rounders Curtis Enis (1998), Cade McNown (1999), David Terrell (2001), Marc Colombo (2002), Michael Haynes and Rex Grossman (2003) and Cedric Benson (2005) have all fallen somewhere in between major disappointments and outright failures.
Olsen has already surpassed all of those predecessors with two solid seasons. As a rookie he caught 39 passes for 391 yards, and last season he had 54 receptions for 574 yards and a team-best five TD catches.
The combination of early production, steady improvement and an enviable array of physical talents, plus the addition of Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, have optimists predicting a monster season for the 6-5, 255-pound Olsen. He's always had the speed and soft hands of a wide receiver, and now everything is coming together for him.
"When you're watching him, you see a lot of talent," Cutler said. "There are very few things he can't do on a football field as far as running routes and blocking. You don't very often find a guy with that kind of motor and, as big as he is, just the way he adjusts to balls. A lot of guys that big are kind of stiff and they can't do some of the things he can. He's a huge target, and we just have to use him the right way."
If the first week of training camp is any indication, it looks like Cutler will be utilizing Olsen more frequently than any Bears tight end has been used since some guy named Ditka back in the 1960s. Cutler has gone to Olsen repeatedly in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, connecting on quick slants, deep sideline routes and everything in between. Through the first week of practice, Olsen had dropped just 1 pass.
"We're a week into training camp and I feel pretty good, and a lot of it has to do with being more confident because it's my third year," Olsen said. "As guys get more comfortable, they're able to go out and just do what they have to do instead of thinking about it."
Turner considers it a natural progression for Olsen to have his best season yet.
"He was ready to take the next step even without Jay," Turner said. "But they've already developed a good chemistry. Jay has a lot of confidence in Greg, and I think he's primed to have a really good year.
"The skill level obviously was always there, but he is playing faster, and he's doing a lot of the little things. I've mentioned it many times when we're in there watching film. Whether it's blocking with his pad level down, his footwork on blocks or the way he runs routes against press coverage. A lot of the things he's doing, he's doing so much better than he did last year and the year before."
Cutler and Olsen could be productive together.
Getty Images: Jonathan Daniel
Much was made over Olsen's promotion to No. 1 tight end ahead of 11-year veteran Desmond Clark, but that writing was on the wall well before training camp began. The changing of the guard was inevitable, even though Clark has always been a better blocker than Olsen and has caught more than 40 passes in each of the past three seasons. Olsen has the speed to stretch a defense, and he's worked hard to improve his deficiencies as a blocker, as Clark graciously points out.
"One thing you have to appreciate about Greg is that he's a guy who came into the NFL with probably only one glaring weakness," Clark said. "For the last three years, that's primarily what he's been working on getting better at, trying to improve his strength, trying to work on his footwork so he could be that complete tight end. When you see a guy that has as much talent as he does working on the weaknesses, you just know there's going to come a day, and it's probably going to come very soon, where he's the complete package."
That day may have already arrived.
NEWS AND NOTES
Even though Clark has relinquished the No. 1 spot at tight end to Olsen, it doesn't mean the 11-year veteran from Wake Forest isn't still a key cog in the offense.
In Friday's 7-on-7 red zone session Clark caught TD passes of 17 and 9 yards from Cutler in a three-play sequence, although he dropped a slippery ball earlier in rainy conditions. Rumors of Clark's demised have been somewhat exaggerated.
"I wouldn't say I was running with the No. 2s," he said. "I still run with the first team."
That's because the Bears often operate out of a two-tight end formation with Olsen and Clark both on the field. The 32-year-old Clark has more than 40 catches in each of the previous three seasons and has started 64 straight games at a position that has a high attrition rate.
"It's not a situation where I'm a 25-, 26-, 27-year-old in this game," he said. "So the situation is what it is. I just have to make the best of it. I don't want to sit here and act like I want to go to another team or something like that. I just do what I have to do and they pay me well, so I keep playing." …
DE Mark Anderson is a major reclamation project after slipping from 12.0 sacks as a rookie in 2006, to 5.0 in '07 and just 1.0 last season.
Friday's practice may have been his most impressive of camp. Near the end of the day, he hammered running back Kevin Jones behind the line of scrimmage.
"I want to try to be more complete about my game," the 6-4, 255-pound Anderson said, "so I've been working hard in the weight room, off the field and just trying to get a little stronger so I can be able to hold up against the run, too."
The early results are encouraging.
"Mark has had a good camp – not only [Friday], but throughout," coach Lovie Smith said. "He's getting good competition, going against a good tackle a lot of the time in Chris Williams. Both of them making each other better."
The competition was so spirited Friday afternoon that Anderson and Williams skirmished, causing both lines to briefly join the dispute.
"It's all love," Anderson said. "At the end of the day we're still brothers. Just a little brotherly love, just a little head tap here and there. It's all love, though." …
The day before training camp practices began, Smith addressed the health of DT Tommie Harris, who has been plagued by bothersome knee injuries the past two seasons. It seemed Harris would be fine.
"Tommie wasn't 100 percent during some of the offseason work. He is now," Smith said a week ago. "Our plan is for Tommie to get right into the mix just like the rest of our players. He's ready to go, and he's healthy right now."
Based on his inactivity in every practice so far, Harris doesn't look healthy. He is rarely on the field in 11-on-11 drills or in individual drills that involve contact. He has taken fewer practice reps than any of the first- and second-team defensive linemen.
"Tommie is working the amount that we would like him to right now," Smith said. "We know what he can do. He's had some injuries in the past. He's getting great individual work. Yeah, we've limited some of his team reps. We've done that at other positions, too. But there are no problems with Tommie. He is just going on the routine that I want him to go on." …
Cutler couldn't help but to take note of the contract extension of Eli Manning. The Giants' quarterback received a six-year extension worth $97.5 million with $35 million guaranteed.
That rising tide is sure to lift Cutler's financial boat if he continues to play at a Pro Bowl level. But he's got two more seasons left on his original six-year, $48 million rookie contract of 2006, so he's not interested in even talking about an extension just yet.
"There's going to be a time and a place for that," he said. "This year, I still have to go out and play and prove myself on the field. And then, maybe after this season, maybe after the next season, we'll sit down and talk and see what we can do."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"He's in a different role this year, so we're getting a chance to see him in a different place. It seems like whenever we've thrown him the ball, he's been able to make plays." – Coach Lovie Smith on Greg Olsen, who has supplanted Desmond Clark as the No. 1 tight end.
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