The Chicago Bears finished up their organized team activities (OTAs) on Thursday. While everyone looks good in shirts and helmets, a few key players have been able to drive up their stock. In other cases, players have set up a strong competition at their positions, and the winner will ultimately be decided when the Bears open training camp on July 25.
Still others have lost some ground as they have missed valuable playing time with new teammates and a new offensive scheme.
One thing is clear though: Chicago fans have a lot to be excited about. The preseason will have some great position battles, and it will be interesting to watch as the final roster begins to take shape. Here are some key highlights from this year's OTAs.
Perhaps the biggest winner of this years OTAs in Chicago is running back Michael Bush. Bush was signed during the offseason from Oakland after posting almost 1,400 yards from scrimmage and eight TDs last year. Bush was expected to be the backup running back to Matt Forte, but due to Forte's contract dispute, Bush has put in a significant amount of time with the first team offense.
Bush is doing a good job out here for us. We all know what Matt can do for this offense. We all expect to have Matt at some point. I don't think anybody in this building is really worried about Matt coming in here and doing what we'll expect him to do. When he gets here, he's going to step right in and fill that void.
According to a Chicago Tribune article, Bush is comfortable with a backup role as well, but he'll make the best of every opportunity that he gets.
"I'm sure (Forte) will be here," Bush said, "but when he gets here, my role doesn't change, as it was in Oakland. He's in, he gets tired, he goes out, I come back in or whatever. When it's my turn I know I'll be ready."
The longer Forte holds out, the more playing time Bush will receive.
One of the biggest issues on the Chicago offensive line is the uncertainty at both of the tackle positions. Last season, the Bears drafted Gabe Carimi to fill the role of right tackle, but he only played two games before being lost for the season due to a knee injury.
As the OTAs opened, Carimi was in attendance, but he was limited in practice because the Bears did not want him to re-aggravate his injury. However, as the OTAs drew to a close, Carami was on the field with the first team offense at right tackle.
This is very encouraging news for the Bears because if Carimi can stay healthy, it will lock down a position that gave them trouble last season, allowing them to focus on the other offensive line issue: left tackle.
Chris Williams is entering his fifth season with the Chicago Bears. Despite being the 14th overall selection in 2008, Williams has only started 38 games for Chicago. He has bounced between left tackle and left guard during that time, but this year he's back at left tackle.
Right now, he is splitting time with J'Marcus Webb, and the two will compete throughout training camp for the starting position. This is good news for Bears fans as the competition should bring out the best in Williams.
With his job on the line, hopefully Williams will be able to avoid some of the mental mistakes that he had last season and lock down the left tackle position for the Chicago offensive line.
J'Marcus Webb is the other guy who will compete with Chris Williams for the starting job at left tackle this year. Webb was drafted in 2010 to play tackle.
Although he has started in almost as many games (28) as Chris Williams (38) in half as many years, Webb has struggled with the position. Last season he struggled at left tackle, and he could definitely use the competition with Chris Williams to help keep him focused.
Despite the mental mistakes that plagued Webb last season, the Chicago coaching staff remains confident that he can still be successful at the left tackle position. This competition should get more interesting as the preseason wears on.
One could argue that the guy with the most to prove in this summer's OTAs is rookie first-round pick Shea McClellin. Fans and coaches alike want to see if this kid can become a true defensive end and provide additional outside pressure opposite Julius Peppers this season.
McClellin has been receiving a lot of one-on-one work and has spent a lot of time working with Peppers as well. However, as the OTAs drew to a close, he was still working with the second team, while Israel Idonije works with the first teamers opposite Peppers.
McClellin was a linebacker in college, but the Bears hope that his speed will allow him to transition over to defensive end to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. McClellin recently told Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago that "it's been great so far, it's been a relatively smooth transition. It's been great learning from the veterans on the team and coach (Rod) Marinelli."
A big key to determining the success of this year's draft will be if McClellin can become a solid pass rusher. While he's clearly making progress, he still has a long way to go.
Devin Thomas signed a one-year contract for $700,000 on March 28. The Bears hoped to upgrade their passing game and special teams, and Thomas has a lot of physical skill. However, he is has not lived up to the expectations of a No. 34 overall pick, and he has bounced around a lot in his first four seasons.
Coming into the 2012 OTAs, Thomas was set to compete with Dane Sanzenbacher for a roster spot. However, Sanzenbacher has been impressive over these last few weeks, running tight routes, showing solid hands and consistently making the catch in one-on-one drills.
Thomas has more value on special teams, but Sanzenbacher is the better receiver. This battle is going to run deep into the preseason and may not be decided until the final cut before the regular season. Stay tuned...
Undrafted rookie Chris Summers from Liberty has been making the most of the OTAs this year. While we highlighted Summers and his accomplishments at the end of May, he is facing stiff competition from several veterans for a roster spot. He knows that he has a long way to go, but he's willing to do whatever it takes. He recently spoke with Beth Gorr from Scout.com:
What do I need to work on? Obviously the playbook is something that needs attention. Any rookie will tell you that. It isn’t difficult to understand but there is quite a bit of material there. Also, I need to work on all the small aspects of my technique. That’s a matter of deconstructing every move and making it better. Perfection is expected at this level. I have a very strong work ethic and am eager to learn so this is enjoyable for me.
Look for Summers to compete for the final roster spot on the Bears during the preseason or land on the practice squad if he can't beat out the veterans in front of him.
By all accounts, Tim Jennings has been pretty good over the last three weeks of OTAs. He has played hard and looks good in both 1-on-1 and 7-on-7 drills. He even made a great play this week, stepping in front of WR Earl Bennett to intercept Jay Cutler on Wednesday.
Yet despite increased playing time with Charles Tillman on the sidelines, it appears that Jennings is not a lock to start this season. Former Falcon Kelvin Hayden has been missing time due to injury himself, but he is now healthy enough to start with the first team defense. Former Bronco Jonathan Wilhite and rookies Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy will also compete for roster spots at corner.
Jennings is comfortable with the competition though, and is ready to accept the challenge. In a report by Jeremy Stoltz of Scout.com, Jennings said:
You’ve seen the moves they’ve made in the offseason. They brought in some corners. We drafted [two more]. There’s a lot of talent. It’s just going to have to make me step up my game a little bit more and get me to go out there and continue to work hard and get better at some things.
For now, Jennings is the starter, but this battle will go on throughout training camp.
Matt Forte remains locked in a bitter contract dispute with the Chicago Bears, and he has skipped every practice in protest. In his absence, Michael Bush continues to get reps with the first team. The longer Forte holds out, the more time Bush has to show the Bears that he belongs in the starting lineup.
Forte is still expected to get something worked out and be ready for the regular season. However, new offensive coordinator Mike Tice has installed a new offense with different schemes, and Forte needs to get some repetitions under the new offense to properly understand his blocking assignments. If Forte holds out until deep in the preseason, he may lose significant playing time while he gets up to speed with the new offense.
Recently in an NFL Network interview, Forte commented on his current situation.
"It's unfortunate that the organization (can) treat it as a business, when the player does he gets frowned upon," he said. "But you have to make due with what's best for you and your family. All my teammates know I'm going to be there for them and give them the best in my heart out there on the field."
Forte needs to sign his tender offer and get into camp, or it will impact how well he is able to start the season.
Johnny Knox was the leading Chicago Bear receiver of the 2011 season, finishing with 37 receptions for 727 receiving yards and two touchdowns. But after the severe spinal injury and subsequent surgery that Knox had at the end of last season, many people expected him to miss significant playing time this year.
While Knox has been attending the OTAs, it is clear that he is far from 100 percent. Any hope of a quick recovery is now gone, and it is more of a question of how much of the 2012 season Knox will miss.
Given the offseason additions at wide receiver, it looks like even if Knox were able to practice, he would be fighting for a roster spot with some of the guys who have been mentioned here. At this point, it looks like Knox will begin the season on the Physically Unable to Play (PUP) list.
Unless he makes an incredible recovery and the Bears lose a starting WR to injury, Knox will probably be placed in injured reserve. He is a free agent at the end of the 2012 season, and even if he is able to fully recover, he may not be with the Bears in 2013.