Critique Jay Cutler all you want. He's not the only starter for the Chicago Bears that needs work this offseason.
Training camp is where many position battles are won and lost. The team is looking for all the new players to mesh as a whole. The players themselves, however, know that the new wave of talent puts their individual jobs in jeopardy.
Here's a comprehensive look at how each predicted starter for the Chicago Bears needs to improve during training camp to ensure they are still the starter when the regular season kicks off in September.
First-round draft pick Shea McClellin can provide two things the Chicago Bears defense desperately needs: youth and an improved pass rush.
McClellin isn't listed as the starter on the depth chart just yet, but he can earn the starting nod over Israel Idonije because of his obvious talent. Don't discount his age as a factor, either.
Brian Urlacher enters his 13th NFL season at the ripe age of 34. Idonije, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs are all 31 or older. The youthful presence of a talented rookie is huge for this unit.
The Bears finished as the fifth best NFL defense against the run in 2011, but they ranked 28th in pass defense. Chicago faces Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers in four games every year and needs to find a way to put more pressure on the quarterback.
McClellin will lock down a starting gig if he can convert his skills from that of a true outside linebacker to a dominant pass-rusher on the line.
He's got plenty to work on for that to happen, and the official depth chart switch may not happen until midseason.
McClellin first must increase his strength that allowed him only 19 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the combine. Pro Football Weekly's draft guide notes that McClellin can be "overmatched by power" and "pinballed by double teams."
Improving his pass-rush variety and average edge burst at the top of his rush is key.
Henry Melton has even more on the line this summer than most of his teammates. He is playing for a new deal as he enters a contract year after his first season as a starter.
If you want to know why that deal hasn't come yet, Melton will tell you himself. According to John Mullin of CSNChicago.com, he said:
I still have a lot to prove for this defense, and I do want to show that I am the guy of the future for this defense.
Melton recorded seven sacks in his first year with the starters. That's a promising result. The underlying numbers, however, are still concerning.
Mullin notes that Melton’s combined 56 pressures from 2011 equate to one every 12.1 snaps—less than one per six-play possession.
To become "the guy of the future for this defense," as he said, Melton needs to make a more frequent impact on the pass rush.
The Chicago Bears traded up in the second round of the 2011 draft for Oregon State’s nose tackle Stephen Paea.
It came as a peculiar move when considering Chicago's 4-3 defensive scheme. The vision became a little more clear this spring, however, when the Bears drafted Shea McClellin.
He's not yet listed as the starter on the depth chart, but Paea now appears to fit nicely alongside Henry Melton. The two will serve as a disrupting interior pair with inside push while McClellin and Julius Peppers pass rush from the edge.
CSNChicago.com's John Mullin compares this plan with that of another dynamic combo from a decade ago:
Paea is projected eventually to be either a starting under-tackle or a nose tackle in the impact tradition of Anthony McFarland, whom coordinator Rod Marinelli paired with Warren Sapp in a 2002 Super Bowl defense at Tampa Bay.
Knee problems cost Paea time in training camp last year. He started the season inactive for the first five games.
The sophomore must stay healthy so that he can develop into the dominant mobile inside presence the Bears drafted him to be. He must also prove his talent this summer against veteran interior blockers like Roberto Garza, Chris Spencer, Chilo Rachal and Lance Louis if he wants to pass Matt Toeaina on the depth chart.
Julius Peppers enters training camp as the best player on the Chicago Bears' roster.
He has served as a consistent force up front for an entire decade. Any advice on how he should improve would be petty nitpicking.
Peppers produced 11 sacks in 2011, giving him 100 over 10 seasons (tied for third-most in the NFL since entering the NFL in 2002). He produced at least one sack in nine different games, pressured the quarterback 55 times (at least once in every game) and made a tackle for a loss in three of the seven games in which he didn't finish with a sack.
Dominant consistency is Peppers' most significant contribution to Chicago's defense. At age 32, he just needs to make sure he can maintain that consistency. Providing some veteran leadership to the wave of rookies and free-agent imports would be a nice bonus.
Nick Roach comes to training camp entrenched in one of the fiercest position battles on the team.
The Chicago Bears didn't bring in Geno Hayes just for depth. He will challenge Roach for regular starts as the third linebacker.
Roach made 15 starts in 2011 and has played in 47 games over the past three seasons. This will be his sixth year in Chicago's defensive system, and he understands all the linebacking positions employed by the team.
All of this gives Roach a leg up on keeping his starting role. But Hayes played a significant role for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and understands the scheme well enough to compete for Roach's job.
Roach was on the field for 48.1 percent of the snaps last year and posted 61 tackles. His one tackle for every 8.52 snaps compares well to fellow Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, who made a tackle every 7.35 snaps.
Roach must maintain a high level of productivity if he wants to hold off Hayes.
If Julius Peppers isn't the best Chicago Bears player, that title then certainly belongs to Brian Urlacher.
The Lovington, New Mexico, product doesn't need to improve his skills much this training camp. He does, however, have a lingering MCL and PCL injury in his left knee to focus on.
Urlacher sprained his knee in the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. The injury did not require surgery. ESPN Chicago reports that he will be fully ready for the team's first day of full pads on July 28:
"I'm full go for everything, so I won't be missing anything," Urlacher told "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "One hundred and ten percent, I'm good to go. The vet days that we get every once in a while, we'll take those when we can, but other than that, I'm good to go."
Peppers may be Chicago's best player, but Urlacher is the team's most important player. The Bears' defense hinges on what he does in the middle next to Lance Briggs. His leadership as quarterback of the defense cannot be understated.
Urlacher must make sure he stays healthy for the regular season. The condition of his knee is vital to maintaining his range over the middle third of the field.
Locking up a new deal before starting a contract year to limit any extra distractions would help as well.
Lance Briggs led the Chicago Bears defense in tackles in three of the last four seasons and was voted to his seventh straight Pro Bowl in 2011.
He not only played in all 16 games last year for the fifth time in nine seasons, but was on the field for all 1,081 defensive snaps. His range, lateral quickness, instincts and sure tackling ability leave him with very few (if any) weaknesses against the run or pass.
The Bears linebackers may be an aging group, but every NFL team would love to age like Chicago's monsters in the middle. Their experience and talent make them a savvy bunch that even the youngest teams envy.
Briggs finally received a much deserved contract extension in April. All that's left for him to do in training camp is to ensure he remains a consistent defensive force on every single down.
Tim Jennings holds the starter's position at left cornerback for now. If Kelvin Hayden can find a way to finally stay healthy, however, that may not last long.
The main thing Jennings needs to do to hold off Hayden is create more turnovers. He only intercepted two passes and forced one fumble last season. Chicago's coaches will be looking for signs of more production than that in training camp.
Here's what secondary coach Jon Hoke said while discussing the matter with Larry Mayer for the team's official website:
Tim’s very instinctive. He’s tough and he fits well with what we do. We would like him to create a few more turnovers, and he’s worked extremely hard this offseason on that. He had quite a few interceptions in OTAs, but it’s just a starting point for him. He’s definitely focused on it.
Jennings' one-game demotion in Week 16 tells you that his starting gig is far from secure. He did come back strong in the season finale, though, so it's still his job to lose.
Hayden has not played 16 full games since 2007, but Jenning's struggles and lack of production means that it's open season for the starting job if health will allow him to win it. Hayden finished 2011 with just as many interceptions as Jennings while playing just over half as many games.
Chris Conte will benefit greatly from a full offseason.
The sophomore entered his rookie season in a lockout-shortened summer, stripping him of adequate time to learn his new defense. Returning to secondary coach Jon Hoke's interview with Larry Mayer for the team's official website reveals that the extra prep time is already paying huge dividends:
(Conte) was good in OTAs. I think he’s more comfortable in his role. He’s matured as a player and it shows. His athletic ability back there has shown up. His anticipation has shown up. You can tell he’s an instinctive player who’s also a very good athlete. We’re very excited about where Chris is right now.
Conte's biggest challenger for the starting free safety job is rookie Brandon Hardin, who is listed as a strong safety but is being groomed as a free safety. Hardin faces a high learning curve, however, so the gig belongs to Conte for now. Continuing to pick up on all the little details of the new system will only further entrench him in that role.
Brandon Hardin isn't listed as a starting safety yet, but he will be in the near future.
The Chicago Bears didn't draft him in the third round just to play special teams.
Hardin has much to learn as he transitions from a college cornerback to an NFL safety. He is also switching from a man-to-man scheme to a zone concept in which even the language is foreign to him.
The extreme learning curve means that Hardin probably won't win a starting job by Week 1. Once he fully acclimates, however, Craig Steltz and Major Wright better look out. Hardin, with his large 217-pound, 6'3" frame, is coming quickly with plenty of raving reviews from the summer already to his name.
The NFC North is loaded with pass-catching tight ends. Jermichael Finley and Brandon Pettigrew in particular create match-up nightmares against opposing safeties. Hardin's size gives him a better chance than most to take on these assignments. His coverage experience as a college corner will come in handy, too.
Dan Pompei reports for the Chicago Tribune that Hardin is actually learning the free safety position right now. That is where his skill set projects best. But Hardin is currently listed as a strong safety on the depth chart, and Pompei notes he will learn that position once "his head stops spinning."
The Chicago Bears have featured a revolving door at safety under Lovie Smith. It will take some time, but Hardin looks poised to swing into a starting position eventually as he adjusts to his new team, league, position and scheme.
Charles Tillman finally earned his first Pro Bowl appearance last year after serving as one of the few stable presences in Lovie Smith's ever changing secondary in recent years.
Tillman is the only sure thing among the Chicago Bears back four these days, which is ironic because he was not one of Smith's favorites when he first arrived. But Tillman has now played in 130 games for the Bears while missing only six games over the last seven seasons.
Even at 31, Tillman will continue to draw the toughest coverage assignments. He will take on Calvin Johnson twice. Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are also on the schedule, as is old nemesis Randy Moss.
With so much youth and turmoil in Chicago's secondary, Tillman must remain a consistent, veteran presence on the last line of defense. Staying healthy and sharp as he ages is just the start. Youngsters like Brandon Hardin and Chris Conte could use some leadership as they adjust to life in the NFL.
Kellen Davis will benefit greatly from the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
Davis has dressed for all 64 games of his career. He finally took over the starting tight end spot in 2011 after Greg Olsen was traded to the Carolina Panthers but caught only 18 passes for 206 yards while playing in more than 70 percent of the Bears' offensive snaps as 15-game starter.
Tight end Jermaine Wiggins led the Vikings in receptions during Mike Tice's final two seasons in Minnesota. Tice's promotion to OC in Chicago likely means a huge increase in production for Davis just by volume of work alone.
Davis' new contract also indicates an expanded role. Even though Davis has fewer than 30 career receptions, the Bears gave him a $2.7 million signing bonus on a two-year, $6 million contract.
Coach Mike DeBord confirmed all the speculation in an interview with Larry Mayer for the team's official website:
(Davis) has great potential. No. 1, it starts with his work ethic. He’s worked extremely hard on and off the field to learn his plays and the concepts on offense. I really believe that now he’ll get highlighted in this offense in the throw game. We’ll do a lot of things where he has an opportunity to catch a lot of balls. I expect him to have a great year.
Last year he proved himself as a blocker without a doubt. One of our best plays was running the ball outside, and a lot of it started with him. Now he’ll be more highlighted in the pass offense, so I think he’ll be able to show all of his abilities.
Davis has a huge chance to emerge as an offensive weapon in Chicago's new offense. He needs to spend training camp learning the new role so he can churn out big production during the regular season.
The position battle between J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams leaves the optimist saying that the Chicago Bears have two left tackles.
In reality, however, they have none.
Either player can win the starting job. The competition is a dead heat right now, but we'll give Webb the nod for the purpose of this article. He started all 16 games last season, so technically it's still his job to lose.
He's well on his way to doing just that if last year's performance is any indication.
RotoWorld reports that Webb, a seventh-round selection for the Bears in 2010, committed a NFL-high 15 offensive penalties in 2011. He also blew 11.5 blocks that led directly to sacks or holding penalties.
Williams brings a much higher profile as a first-round selection for Chicago in 2008. But he struggled to stop pass rushers from driving him back during his first try at left tackle in 2010 before suffering a hamstring injury that eventually moved him to guard. He's now moving back to LT specifically to challenge Webb.
Offensive coordinator Mike Tice gave his own insight to the position battle in an interview with Larry Mayer for the team's official website.
I’m looking for the same thing with all the guys: I’m looking for consistency. To be a hit-or-miss guy doesn’t help us. We need to know the level of play that we’re going to get each week. Is it going to be a Pro Bowl level, a very good level, a good level, a winnable level or not good enough to win? We need consistency in that level of play so we can determine which five guys we want on the field and which other guys we’re going to keep as our backups.
Webb should not interpret this as an endorsement of his "consistent" production of penalties. He needs to clean up his act immediately, or his act will be demoted to the sidelines.
Chris Spencer is not a lock to win a starting position, but he has the confidence of his coaches.
Going back to offensive coordinator Mike Tice's interview with Larry Mayer for the team's official website reveals an inside perspective on the important position battles up front:
At the end of the day I think Chris will be starting at one of our guard spots. Chris has had a great offseason. He’s a good football player, and at times a very good football player. We’re happy to have him. He’s earned the respect of everybody in the room and in the building. I thought he had a very good year last year and I look for him to have an even better year this year.
Spencer is transitioning from the right side of the line and will be counted on for more than just pass protection. He proved especially valuable as a run blocker. That must continue for him to hold off Edwin Williams and veteran free-agent acquisition Chilo Rachal.
The left guard starting gig belongs to Spencer as long as he uses training camp to make a seamless transition from right guard.
Roberto Garza's training camp battle is with age, not another challenger for his job as starting center.
Garza filled literally big shoes when he took over for perennial Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz, who started 183 games for the Chicago Bears. He, too, became a constant force up the middle.
Garza isn't just a staple of Chicago's offensive line—he's a pillar.
Father Time will catch up to him eventually. For now, the 33-year-old Garza shows no signs that he can't turn in another solid year of blocking.
We go back to offensive coordinator Mike Tice's interview with Larry Mayer for the team's official website to get a coach's perspective on the veteran:
(Garza) is loyal to the team, to Lovie [Smith], to the organization and to me. He’s my mouthpiece in the huddle. He knows the way we want to do things and he’s going to try to do them as close to textbook as he can. He’s not a wing-it guy; he’s not out there doing his own thing. He’s out there really buying into what we’re selling and trying to lead the group and get the group lined up. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s a very good player and he’s really a key to tying it all together.
Garza just needs to make sure he stays fresh over the summer so he can lead a questionable unit for another full season.
Lance Louis improved last preseason, but an injury in the regular season opener knocked him out of the lineup. When he returned, he failed to regain his starting spot from veteran Chris Spencer and started the final 11 games of the season at right tackle instead.
Offensive coordinator Mike Tice acknowledges in an interview with Larry Mayer for the team's official website that some more consistency in Louis' position will help his development:
Lance is the kind of guy that you hope can reach all the potential he was born with. This is a big year for Lance. I thought going to tackle last year hurt him. He believes he’s a guard. I believe he’s a guard. He can run. He’s powerful. He’s got all the tools. He’s another player that has to mature mentally and be much more consistent than he’s been, but he has a high ceiling. By that I mean he has the ability to be a very good player. But he has to reach that potential.
Former 49er Chilo Rachal was brought in to challenge for a starting spot at both guard positions, but Louis is more athletic and should hold him off. In the same interview, Tice said:
Chilo has worked hard. He’s trying to learn to do things the way we want him to do them. There’s some inconsistency there, not only with technique but with assignments. He needs to pick it up and show us that he wants to compete for one of the guard jobs. He’s certainly going to get a chance. He’s got a lot of talent. But we need to see that talent on a more consistent basis.
The best thing for Louis to do during training camp is to take advantage of playing his strongest position. Winning this battle could pay huge dividends for his career by locking him back into a spot where he can reach his full potential.
Gabe Carimi should be the only other Chicago Bears offensive lineman locked into a starting spot besides Roberto Garza.
His health, however, keeps that status in jeopardy.
Carimi was Chicago's first-round draft pick in 2011 but survived his rookie year for only five quarters before a knee injury ended his season.
Even in limited action, however, Carimi proved his immense talent. He successfully contained Justin Tuck for two quarters during the preseason and is again drawing raving reviews this summer. From Tice in the Mayer interview:
My expectations are that he’s going to be a better player than he was at any point last year, and I thought he was our best player when he got hurt. I’m excited. He’s had a great offseason. He looks fantastic. I think he looks better technique-wise. I should give him to the trainers more often because his technique was good when he came back from the injury. They did a nice job with him.
Carimi's health is vital to the success of Chicago's offensive line. He must take every precaution he can during training camp to ensure his availability for Week 1 action.
Matt Forte's biggest goal for training camp this summer was simply to participate.
Unlike many of his hampered teammates nursing injuries, however, Forte's potential to miss practice was not health related. He claims that the knee injury preventing him from playing the final four games of the 2011 season is fully healed.
In fact, Forte goes as far as to tell ESPN's Jon Greenberg that he is "probably the healthiest I've been since coming out of college."
No, Forte's focus this summer was on money. Now that he has his new contract in place, Forte is in camp and ready to work.
Forte, who has not been with his team since the end of last season, missed a lot while he sat out. The offense changed to a new system with a new playbook. Michael Bush joined the team and looks poised to challenge him for touches.
Staying in shape and mastering the new scheme are top priorities. Forte can say he is in top form and on top of all the changes, but he still needs to prove it when he runs his first few plays and takes his first few hits.
The starting job is his, but Bush is plenty capable of taking over if Chicago's Forte comes to camp as a weakness.
Tyler Clutts played a key role in the success of the Chicago Bears' rushing attack last year. He comes to training camp as a versatile player and an effective lead blocker.
Clutts enters the final year of his current contract this season. He needs to prove his worth again in the team's new offensive system if he has aspirations of an extension or a new deal when the season ends.
Blocking is what separates a fullback as useful in the NFL. Focusing on that strength will not only help him keep the starting job in 2012, but more money (in Chicago or somewhere else) in 2013.
Brandon Marshall comes to Chicago fresh off five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He joins a Bears team that hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2002.
His goal for training camp is thus quite simple. Marshall needs to take over as lead receiver.
He can't just fit in as another one of the guys. Chicago has featured too many of those "guys" for the past decade, with only one Super Bowl appearance to show for it and not much else.
If Marshall wants to take the Bears to the next level, he needs to immediately become the dominant downfield target they brought him in to be.
Re-establishing his chemistry with Jay Cutler will help make this transition much easier. Marshall should spend training camp asserting himself as top dog and reconnecting with his former and now current signal-caller.
Brandon Marshall is a lock to start out wide for the Chicago Bears, but who lines up on the other side remains a mystery.
Rookie Alshon Jeffery may not be there in Week 1, but he will eventually play his way into that role.
Like Marshall, Earl Bennett can claim chemistry with Jay Cutler as a former teammate. The Vanderbilt product is a versatile receiver who can play any receiver position. He signed a big four-year contract in December worth $18 million as the Bears committed $9 million of guaranteed money.
Chicago clearly views him as an important piece of the offense moving forward. But Bennett is most effective in the slot. It remains to be seen if he can hold down a starting gig out wide.
The Chicago Bears seem to promise to expand Devin Hester's role as a wide receiver every year. They have tried on numerous occasions with varied returns to develop the speedster beyond being limited to a dynamic kick returning weapon.
Hester will continue to line up out wide, but that role will likely be limited to select packages.
That leaves us with Jeffery. The Bears clearly think highly of him, too, as they traded up to land the South Carolina stud early in the second round. He only slipped out of the first round because of character concerns.
Jeffery's talent is obvious—at least to the writers of Pro Football Weekly's draft guide:
Outstanding size and arm length to climb the ladder and outmuscle defensive backs. Attacks the ball in the air and can pluck it away from a crowd. Offers a big target and wide catching radius and snatches the ball out of the air. Takes long, sneaky strides once he gets going and eats ground downfield. Good body control. Can separate with body length at the last second. Makes difficult catches look easy and excels making one-handed snags. Makes some subtle cuts and plays faster with the ball in his hands. Good run strength. Is physically tough and will play through injuries. Outstanding career production. Came through in the clutch and was a go-to guy. Strong red-zone producer.
The draft guide goes on to list plenty of "negatives" about Jeffery's game as well. He has a lot to learn as a rookie. Most first-year receivers don't start right away, but they can make a major impact quickly.
Look for Jeffery to earn a starting job midway through the season as he learns what it takes to be an NFL receiver, picks up the offense and becomes a better route runner.
Jay Cutler must love all the changes the Chicago Bears made this offseason.
Mike Martz's departure means no more seven-step drops or time-consuming downfield routes. Cutler's former teammate Brandon Marshall arrives as a true No. 1 target the Bears have lacked for an entire decade. Cutler is also reunited with former mentor Jeremy Bates. Alshon Jeffery was drafted as a rookie receiver with great physical skills and huge upside.
Even the addition of Michael Bush to the running game will help the signal-caller by relieving some pressure from his passing duties. For that matter, Cutler has to love seeing Matt Forte appeased with a huge new contract.
The Chicago Bears made sure everything is in line to give Cutler the best possible chance to succeed (except for a solid left tackle, of course). Now it's on him to produce.
Cutler can't use Marshall as a crutch. He must utilize all of his weapons and not lock onto his former teammate. The lofty interception totals that plagued him during his first year in the Windy City dropped from 26 in 2009 to 18 in 2010 to just seven in 2012. That trend is sure to reverse if he just tosses the ball up for grabs on Marshall's side of the field in hopes the talented and physical wideout will make a play for him.
Cutler needs to master the new offense in training camp so he can confidently lead his team in the regular season. There are no more excuses to fall back on.