Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has always believed in building a defense starting with the big guys up front, and he's used three of the top five draft picks over the past two seasons on defensive linemen.
Now it's time for some of them to come up big, or at least contribute.
Angelo used his first choice, a third rounder (68th overall), on Jarron Gilbert in 2009. He was made famous by the YouTube video that showed him jumping out of a swimming pool onto the deck flat-footed. But Gilbert hasn't made a splash yet in the NFL – or even caused a ripple. He played very briefly in four games last year and did not record a tackle. He hasn't done much more than that in training camp.
"Jarron lost a lot of weight so he could be a little bit lighter so he can play on the outside as an end," Angelo said. "He had a handful of plays [in the preseason opener]. He looked OK. He's got to pick it up, obviously. We need to see something out of Jarron."
If not, Gilbert, who the Bears still list at 6-5 and 285 pounds, probably won't be cut. But he could spend most of the season watching on Sunday, especially if the Bears decide to activate only eight D-linemen, instead of the usual nine. Gilbert was inactive in Saturday night's second preseason game with a neck injury.
Henry Melton was drafted in the round after Gilbert (105th overall), but he spent his rookie season on injured reserve. He has bulked up some from the 260 pounds he weighed last year in order to compete for playing time at the three-technique tackle, but he's still undersized at around 265, although his quickness can cause mismatches. Melton also has the ability to play end in nickel situations as an extra pass rusher. He has been moist noticeable in training camp during two-on-two pass-rush drills, where his quickness is difficult for bigger players to contend with.
"Henry, we think he's really going to blossom this year," Angelo said. "He's put on some weight in the offseason. He's looked really good in certain aspects of the scheme. [Defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli is starting to play him a little bit outside as a defensive end. That's what he played in college. But he's got all of the necessary traits that we look for at the under tackle. Obviously, pass rush is what we see in his future with us."
This year, just as last year, the Bears were without draft picks in the first two rounds, but Angelo used his second choice to take Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton in the fourth round (109th overall).
Marinelli likes some of the intangibles that the 6-6, 270-pound Wootton brings to the table, although he has yet to make a major impact and needs some technique refinement.
"[He's] playing too tall. He stands up too much and plays too high," Marinelli said. "What I've really been impressed with is his mental toughness. I mean, every down, he plays hard and he's physical. He listens, he's not thin-skinned and he's getting better every day. I mean he plays hard. I'm impressed with that. He just plays too tall right now."
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"Caleb is further than I thought he would be," Martz said. "You go through growing pains, and we put a lot of pressure on him trying to get him ready and stress him out a little bit. He went through that phase, and he's fought through it real well and he understands what we're doing and he's done a real nice job. I was very pleased with him in that [first preseason] game."
Hanie completed 10 of 17 passes for 148 yards with one touchdown and one interception for a passer rating of 82.5, but his night ended early and painfully when he landed on his throwing shoulder while being sacked.
"There are some things that you don't want to him to do mistake-wise, and he's just got to make those mistakes in the preseason and clean them up," Martz said. "But he understands those things. He is better at this point than I ever thought he would be."
The problem now is that Hanie is in a holding pattern for the foreseeable future, while the backup work goes to sixth-round draft pick Dan LeFevour and street free agent Matt Gutierrez, who was signed Wednesday (Aug. 18).
"I like some of the things Dan LeFevour has done, being able to get more reps," coach Lovie Smith said. "We've seen improvement from him each day."
But the rookie is still a long way from being ready to play effectively in a regular-season game, as his performance in the first two preseason games suggests.
"We need a quarterback, No. 1," Smith said when asked what Gutierrez brought to the team. "He has some experience, and some of our coaches are familiar with him. I don't know a lot about him right now, but he's a quarterback who's played in the league. We're going to give him an opportunity."
Gutierrez, who was undrafted out of Idaho State in 2007, has thrown just two passes in three NFL seasons. When the Bears called, Gutierrez was home in California contemplating a gig with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL. It's possible he could be out of a job as soon as Hanie is healthy, but he could conceivably pass LeFevour for the No. 3 job, which probably means a spot on the practice squad.
"I'm just happy to be here and compete and get on the field and try to learn it as fast as I can," the 6-4 Gutierrez said. "Obviously, Coach [Martz] has had a lot of success with the offense, and it's for a reason."
Martz says he'll let each quarterback's performance on the practice field and in preseason games determine their fate.
"These guys will define their future in practice," Martz said. "I didn't know Danny or Caleb, and I'm very pleased with both of those guys. It's kind of fun having someone I don't know and am unfamiliar with just kind of come in and see what they do. I like those situations. You let them define who they are every day in practice. I'm looking forward to it." ...
Angelo is expecting big things from Matt Forte and the running game, even if the emphasis this year will be more on throwing the ball under Martz.
Angelo said Forte looks like a different player from the one who played hurt with knee and hamstring injuries most of last season.
"Matt has worked his tail off," Angelo said. "He's in the best shape he's been. It's just a matter of getting the opportunities. I expect big things out of Matt this year. This offense will create some for him in terms of using him as a receiver as well, which again will play in to his strengths."
The presence of veteran running back Chester Taylor gives the Bears depth they haven't had in the past.
"Chester is the real deal," Angelo said. "He's a great complementing back. He does a great job on third down. We saw that first-hand when we had to play against him in Minnesota. I think we have a real good tandem." ...
What did the Bears learn in their three weeks of practice at Olivet Nazarene University?
"We're good," safety Chris Harris said. "I feel we have a lot of the pieces in place to make a run and win the Super Bowl."
Defensive tackle Tommie Harris said: "One thing I've learned is that it's the same defense, but if we just toughen up the players, it'll become even better. So that's what we did this training camp."
Smith said that was part of the plan.
"I think this was one of the more physical camps we've had," Smith said. "We've gotten a lot of good work in, good contact. We have installed a lot, but we have great teachers out here and there was a lot of teaching going on." ...
Tommie Harris missed numerous practices last season when his post-surgical knee bothered him off and on all year. But he had perfect attendance at training camp practices.
"That happens," Harris said. "When you're injured, you don't practice. I wasn't injured this offseason. I didn't go through any surgeries, so I practiced like I did before I got injured."
The Bears are hoping Harris recaptures the form that got him voted to the Pro Bowl from 2005-07.
"He's looked good in practice," Angelo said. "No reason to believe Tommie isn't going to have a very, very good season for us. We're excited about that. A healthy Tommie, a practicing Tommie, should be a very, very good football player." ...
Devin Aromashodu was the Bears' leading receiver over the final four games last season, even though he only started two of the games. He's still listed as the team's No. 3 wideout behind Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, but Aromashodu could wind up leading the team in receiving this year.
"We've seen improvement, but he finished the '09 season strong, too," Smith said of Aromashodu's 22 catches for 282 yards and four TDs down the stretch. "He's been in that third receiver role for us. He's a different body type from Hester and Knox, a big target (6-2, 201). We know what he can do. We know he can perform under the lights and all of that."
Aromashodu has the responsibility of learning all three wide receiver positions, which has kept him in his playbook for much of camp, but the results have been worth the extra homework.
"He's learning to play this game at a high level," Martz said. "And the conditioning aspect for the receivers, for what we ask them to do, is incredibly important. He's learned that. He's been excellent so far. He has progressed every week, and we're making it hard on him now, making him learn three positions, and we put him in all three positions. We've made it very difficult for him, and he's done a good job of that. He's playing fast, and he's getting in game shape."
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