Top 9 Position Battles to Watch in Chicago Bears Training Camp
For the most part, the Bears are a veteran team that is trying to win a Super Bowl while the window is still open. I say that because the core of the defense is aging—Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman—all on the other side of 30.
Meanwhile, hope abounds, as the Bears traded for a real, honest-to-goodness No. 1 wide receiver in Brandon Marshall. Plus, they added critical depth at several positions, including running back and quarterback, so they will hopefully be able to win a couple games if Jay Cutler or Matt Forte get hurt.
Yet despite all that, there will be some positions for the taking. The Bears have draft picks and other players they have brought in that could compete for starting jobs and roster spots.
This brings us to the purpose of this article. I will take a look at a few of these potential position battles to see who is fighting for what.
May the best Bear win!
Despite Mike Tice and Lovie Smith's proclamations to the contrary, left tackle is as wide open as the Grand Canyon. I mean, if you consider the performance of J'Marcus Webb last season you will know what I mean. Statistically, he was the worst LT in the NFL last season.
Yet here is what Tice said (as reported by ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright):
"I think [general manager] Phil [Emery] and [head coach] Lovie [Smith] -- with the help of the scouts and the staff -- if we felt tackle were a dire need for us, I'm sure they would have answered the bell on draft day" Tice said.
And it is true that the position was not addressed in the draft. But that doesn't mean we have to suffer through another season of Webb allowing blitzes to get through him like a sieve.
For one thing, there is talk of moving Chris Williams back to his original tackle position. Now, that could be insurance in case Gabe Carimi can't come back from injury right away. Or, it could be to provide some competition for Webb.
While the idea of having Williams at LT doesn't exactly thrill me, at least it shows that the Bears may be realizing that Webb, despite being very young and athletic, simply isn't the answer—at least for 2012.
Yes, I know the scheme will change under Tice. There will be no more seven step drops and there will be more max protection. But still, even Mike Martz deviated from that at times last year and Webb still wasn't able to get the job done.
There could even be a battle between Webb and Carimi if they decide that Gabe is healthy enough to try to move back to the position he played most in college.
But there is also another option, although it would surprise me if the Bears went after this. Marcus McNeill is available and finally starting to generate some interest from teams. He may not be the left tackle he was back in 2007, but he is only 28 and could be worth the risk, if nothing else, to keep him away from the Lions.
I am not sold on Major Wright at the strong safety position and neither are the Bears. While Chris Conte has all but the free safety position locked up, at least to start the season, there could be a positional battle at SS.
Wright will be going against Craig Steltz, who played surprisingly well late last season. The Bears also drafted Oregon State's Brandon Hardin who I feel would be better inside the box than at free.
My money is on Steltz beginning the season as the starter, with Hardin slowly mixed in. 2013 should be Hardin's real chance at a starting job, barring injury this season.
As for Wright, he has shown flashes so perhaps the competition will bring out the best in him. However, he has coverage issues and will need to show much more to reclaim his spot on the depth chart.
Strong Side Linebacker
Strong side linebacker is another position where there will be competition in camp. Nick Roach just may lose his job to Geno Hayes, whom the Bears brought in as a free agent over the summer.
Hayes, the former Buccaneer, is only 24 and started 42 games for Tampa over the last three years, before losing his starting job late last season. He finished with 64 tackles.
Even if he doesn't push Roach, Hayes fits the profile of what the Bears are looking for at outside linebacker so he would fit in that role as well.
Personally, I don't think that Hayes will start for Chicago this season. I question whether he is a good fit on the strong side covering tight ends. But he certainly will compete, and I'm sure Roach has his eyes wide open.
Hayes has shown flashes of potential, and he played well in 2010. But, he overruns plays and is a bit undersized.
Then again, while Roach is steady, he's no Pro Bowler himself.
One of the reasons the Bears can afford to consider moving Williams to challenge Webb at left tackle is that, when healthy, the team has some depth at the right and left guard positions.
The guard position was a revolving door at times for Chicago last season due to injury more than anything else. In addition to Williams, the Bears have Edwin Williams, Chris Spencer and Lance Louis who can, and did, play the both the guard positions.
They also added Chilo Rachal to the mix this offseason. So, if Chris Williams does move to left or right tackle (if Carimi is not fully recovered), there will be quite the battle to replace him at left guard where Chris has started the past two seasons.
Louis played well at times last season, but by my count, finished second only to Webb in terms of sacks allowed. While it is difficult to assign blame for every sack, Louis was especially awful against the Chiefs in 2011.
Assuming that Roberto Garza doesn't become a cap casualty, Spencer will be a favorite to win one of the guard spots if Chris Williams moves to tackle. Louis may be the right guard, however, it will be interesting to watch.
Welcome to the modern NFL offense, Bears fans. With Martz gone, and Tice in as OC, the position once again becomes more than just a blocking position for the Bears.
Meanwhile, they surprisingly drafted a TE who will compete with Kellen Davis for the starting role. Despite Lovie Smith's positive statements about his belief in Davis as a pass catcher, the Bears drafted Temple tight end/H-back Evan Rodriguez.
The player that Rodriguez is most often compared to is New England's Aaron Hernandez. They are a sort of hybrid tight end—not as tall as some (Davis included), but quick and athletic.
His blocking needs improvement, but then again, Davis isn't the best blocker either. So I do believe Rodriguez can come in and challenge Davis for the starting position.
Since the Bears insist that Shea McClellin will play the end position in the cover-2, there should be a positional battle between him and Israel Idonije.
One of the reasons that I was shocked when the Bears selected McClellin (other than wanting Whitney Mercilus) is that I feel he's better suited as an outside backer in a 3-4 defense. But that said, he is athletic, and Idonije was inconsistent last year. He finished strong, but was missing in action for parts of the season.
The Bears need to generate a better, more consistent pass rush in 2012. They didn't go out and draft or sign a true starting corner to go along with Tillman, so if you want to stop QBs like Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, you need to get to them before they pick you apart.
Listen to Lovie Smith talk about McClellin playing only end, and you tell me whether or not Idonije should be concerned (courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Potash).
''That's all he'll be playing for us,'' Smith said. ''If you watch practice, I don't think you saw him pass-dropping or anything like that. He had his hand in the dirt, trying to become a better pass rusher and that's what it's all about. You have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback. We feel like we've gotten better with our pass rush by bringing him in."
No. 2 Wideout
We all know that Marshall will be the No. 1 wideout for the Bears, and deservedly so. In fact, he may be the best Bears receiver ever. No, I am not exaggerating.
But the question of who will line up opposite Marshall in the first game of the regular season is up in the air.
Devin Hester is no longer going to be out on the field as often, though they have attempted to placate him by suggesting there will be a package designed just for him. I would simply tell him he is not a receiver, but that's not the politically correct thing to do if you want to keep a player motivated.
Johnny Knox may never be the same, unfortunately, and Devin Thomas and Eric Weems were added through free agency. Dane Sanzenbacher is still hanging around also.
But the real battle should be between second round draft pick Alshon Jeffery and everyone else, with Earl Bennett coming out of the slot.
Jeffery is a big edge wide receiver who has already impressed the coaches in workouts. Depending on how many three (or even four) receiver sets Tice employs, Jeffery could end up being No. 2 for Chicago.
The Bears envisioned Stephen Paea as a three technique when they drafted him, but they moved him to nose tackle. This year, with a full training camp and better health, he should compete for a starting job.
Henry Melton had a solid season last year, and had the second highest sack total among DTs in the league. He and Matt Toeaina will be difficult to unseat, but the Bears like Paea—so do I.
With the departure of Amobi Okoye and the release of Anthony Adams, Paea is the only defensive tackle on the roster with experience.
Last season, The Bears relied on a rotation of five players—Melton, Toeina, Okoye, Paea and Adams—last season at defensive tackle.
Training camp could see quite the battle as Paea looks to make his mark. We might also see more from some of the younger players, like Jordan Miller.
We all know that Tillman is the main starter at the corner position. But I feel that Tim Jennings may have a battle on his hands to start opposite of Tillman this season.
Except for the Denver game, Jennings played decently in 2011, though he struggled at times. He also got into Lovie's doghouse and could be in for some competition with Kelvin Hayden.
In fact, Hayden's main competition may not even be Jennings, but his own health.
Hayden tried to play with a dislocated toe last season in Atlanta, and the Falcons eventually placed him on injured reserve. He has started just 47 games in seven seasons, and he also failed multiple team physicals in the past. Hayden has dealt with a neck injury, and still hasn’t fully recovered from the toe injury that ended his season.
Jonathan Wilhite is another potential starter, though the Bears probably view him as a backup. Isaiah Frey was a sixth round draft pick for Chicago and Greg McCoy was picked in the last round, but neither will challenge for a starting job.
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