The running back position was a major disappointment for the Bears last season, but they're confident they've significantly upgraded with the addition of one of the league's best backups: Chester Taylor.
The former Viking was added in free agency to complement and compete with Matt Forte, whose production plummeted last season after an encouraging rookie campaign that may have worn him down with 379 touches. Coach Lovie Smith said he still considers Forte the starter, though he'll have to prove he deserves top billing.
Forte's average per carry dropped from 3.9 as a rookie to 3.6 last year. He seemed to be a step slow and not as quick as he was in 2008, but he didn't get much help from the offensive line. Despite a sophomore slump, Forte still caught 57 passes last season for 471 yards. But he needed 258 carries to gain 929 yards. Not counting runs of 61, 53 and 37 yards against the Lions, Forte did not have a run of longer than 16 yards last season.
Taylor is 30 but has low miles since he's only been the featured runner in one of his eight NFL seasons.
"When you haven't been the guy who's taken every snap, that has to help you," Smith said. "That's the case with Chester. He doesn't have the wear and tear you would think."
However, Taylor's yards per carry have dropped in each of the past two seasons, from a career-best 5.4 in 2007, to 4.0 in '08 and down to 3.7 last season, when the Vikings also had difficulties run blocking.
RB Matt Forte
AP Images: Carlos Osorio
Like Forte, Taylor is a versatile back, combining inside and outside run skills with good hands and blocking ability. Taylor has caught more than 40 passes in four of the past five seasons.
The question everyone wants to know is: How will carries be divided between Forte and Taylor? Performance is likely to decide that, with the hot hand getting most of the touches, but it could be the work gets divided evenly.
"Chester Taylor was a real good fit as well, and we just brought [him] in because we wanted to bring in another quality back," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo
said. "It's nothing to do with any pecking order. The players always determine that, as well as the coaches."
NOTES AND QUOTES
Smith said it was difficult to release defensive end Alex Brown last week, but he's confident that players like Israel Idonije and Mark Anderson will fill the void.
"It was really hard to have to let a player like Alex Brown go, but it's a new year and we're going in a different direction," Smith said in his first public comments about Brown, a 16-game starter in six of the last seven seasons. "That allows us an opportunity to release a player like Alex because of what we feel about what 'Izzy' can do, and not only Israel Idonije but also Mark Anderson.
"Every day I've been the head coach for the Bears, I've seen Israel Idonije there. [He's done] everything we've asked him to do. We've asked him to sacrifice for the football team so much."
Idonije returned last week from his third trip to Africa, where he donated thousands of pairs of athletic shoes and brought along a medical team of five doctors and six nurses to treat patients in Nigeria. He jumped right from that into the Bears' offseason program, where the competition with Anderson to replace Brown has begun.
Throughout his Bears career, Idonije has bounced back and forth between end and tackle, gaining weight when he played inside and cutting pounds when he played end. This year he'll play between 260 and 265 pounds. He's weighed as much as 305 in the past. The one constant for Idonije is that he always has to earn a spot on the roster, and this year isn't any different, even with Brown gone.
"For me, the situation hasn't changed," Idonije said. "I have to come into camp in great shape, and I have to be ready to play and compete, like every year. Every year I've been here, there's been serious competition on the D-line. I'm excited about the opportunity to play end. That's the goal: To come in and be able to rush off that end, whatever side they ask, and just get after the quarterback." ...
The Bears got younger last season with 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams and 27-year-old Frank Omiyale moving into the starting lineup, but they didn't get much better. This year, with Williams entrenched at left tackle, where 34-year-old Orlando Pace struggled last season, the group should do a better job of protecting Jay Cutler and opening holes for the running game.
Omiyale will be at right tackle or left guard, depending on who the Bears are able to add to the roster in free agency and the draft.
Williams started the first 11 games at right tackle then moved to the left side, where he is expected to remain for many years.
"To have Chris Williams finish up the season [at left tackle] was big," Smith said. "We drafted him to be our left tackle. He finished off the season strong." ...
The Bears still haven't decided which end prize free-agent acquisition Julius Peppers will line up at or whether he will move back and forth, meaning Idonije and Anderson, who are competing for playing time at the other end spot, would also play both sides.
"You have to keep your options open," Smith said. "[At the] beginning of April, I think it would be an injustice to say we're just going to do this right now. That'll all answer itself. We haven't worked with [Peppers] on the football field yet. Next week we go to a different phase of our offseason program, where we get a chance to work with some of the players on the field a little bit." ...
There are some notable absentees from the voluntary offseason program – restricted free agents Danieal Manning and Jamar Williams – but Smith is satisfied with the overall attendance.
"We would like to have everybody here every day to get a chance to work together as a team, but it's never like that," Smith said. "We have over 90 percent of our players here, maybe even about 95 percent. That's a great number. But we would like to have 100 percent, and hopefully in time we may be able to get that."
Manning, a contender for a starting safety spot, is unhappy with his low tender offer of $1.176. Williams, who received the same offer, is expected in soon. ...
Eight-year veteran FB Jason McKie was cut earlier in the offseason, leaving a void, although that position isn't vital in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's offense. The only two fullbacks currently on the roster are first-year players Eddie Williams and Will Ta'ufo'ou, who spent most of their time last season on practice squads.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We have time still. We don't have to play tomorrow, so maybe having a position not solidified the way we would like for it to eventually be ... I think in time all those things are answered." – Coach Lovie Smith, when asked about addressing an upgrade at the safety position, which he said earlier in the offseason was a necessity.
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