Late next month, the Chicago Bears will kick off their training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. While many of the starting positions are set in stone heading into the 2013 season (i.e. QB, RB, CB) this camp will have its fair share of battles to determine starters heading into the season.
For years, the Bears' biggest weakness has been along the offensive line, and they have gone out of their way this offseason to try and keep quarterback Jay Cutler upright in 2013.
The team signed former Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod and veteran guard Matt Slauson and drafted guard Kyle Long in the first round. Bushrod will be the starter on the left side, moving J'Marcus Webb to right tackle. That leaves Slauson, Long and second-year man James Brown to fight it out for the two guard positions.
While not the most glamorous position on the field, the role of the guard is crucial in not only the running game but also in protecting the quarterback. With just two spots for three players, the guard position will prove to be one of the biggest camp battles this summer.
Here is what each brings to the table.
Out of all the selections by Phil Emery during April's draft, the selection of Kyle Long with Chicago's first pick was the most confusing to some.
He is relatively inexperienced (only making four starts at guard) and was pegged by many to be a late first round/early second round pick, not to be selected 20th overall. But Emery saw something there that he liked.
Long has incredible athleticism for his size (6'6", 313 pounds), and despite his limited starts, he showed the ability to be a pulling guard and to get himself into the second level of defense. He needs to work on his technique, particularly in how he engages a defender; he tends to lunge instead of "manning up" with them.
This video emphasizes his terrific athleticism and ability to get to the second level, especially when pulling, but he does tend to lunge at defenders instead of engaging with them. Around the 2:51 mark of the video he is able to pull and get to his man in the second level, but he lunges towards him instead of manning up and engaging with him.
Because of NCAA rules, he was not allowed to participate in the majority of the team's OTAs and minicamps (besides rookie minicamp), so training camp will be his first real test amongst his peers.
While he may be behind in that regard, his skill set and athleticism should help push him into a starting role.
Given his size and strength, many envisioned Matt Slauson being the Bears' starting right guard after he was signed this offseason.
But he has spent the majority of the Bears' OTAs and minicamps at the left guard position. New head coach Marc Trestman has been very complimentary of Slauson this offseason, telling ChicagoBears.com:
Matt's been solid. He's played a lot of football in this league and has been solid. He's solid mentally with the offense. He's a great communicator on the field. He's a quiet communicator. He's in the right place and we feel very good about that.
Slauson started all 48 games over the last three seasons while in New York and did not allow a sack last season. He excels as a pass-blocker but needs to work on his footwork in the running game.
His experience and ability to play either left or right guard should make him a key piece to the interior offensive line.
Undrafted in 2012, James Brown eventually started three games for the Bears last season and has gotten some high praise from Marc Trestman this offseason, saying (h/t ChicagoBears.com), "James has ascended. He's locked in and he's grown as a player. He's got to face a heck of a defensive line every single day, and that's a good way to get better."
Brown's progress this offseason likely paved the way for the departure of Gabe Carimi via trade.
Brown has tremendous athleticism but needs to vastly improve his technique. At times, he becomes sloppy with his footwork and, much like Long, begins to lunge at defenders instead of engaging them.
The praise from the coaching staff should not go unnoticed, and he may be the dark horse to come out of this group as a starter.