As the Chicago Bears begin training camp, most of their starting jobs are locked in, but they do have a few key positions that they need to figure out before the season starts.
Although all but two defensive starters return, that might be where the Bears' biggest position battles lie. There are at least three starting spots that are up for grabs on defense, and a couple more spots for key reserves.
Offensively, the Bears are mostly set. Their problem last season wasn't necessarily that they needed more talent on that side of the ball, but that they needed their talent to play better. Still, they have a couple spots that could be closely contested.
In addition to seeing who makes the final 53-man roster, position battles are among the most fun part of training camp. There always seems to be a surprise player or two who comes from nowhere to make the battles more interesting.
Below, you'll see some of their most important training camp battles.
Candidates: Craig Steltz, Tom Zbikowski, Brandon Hardin
Steltz has won this job nearly every year he's been with the team due, in part, to his value on special teams. This year might be a little more difficult for him, however.
Zbikowski started for the Colts last year. Although he wasn't great there, he wasn't bad. Like Steltz, he can also play special teams. He's never played in a 4-3 defense, so the fit could be interesting. He's considered a hard worker and could really push Steltz.
The next option is perhaps the most intriguing. While we know most of what Steltz and Zbikowski bring to the table, 2012 third-round pick Brandon Hardin is a wild card.
He hasn't played since his junior year at Oregon State, missing his senior season with a shoulder injury and his rookie year with a neck injury. He was a cornerback in college, but so was starter Chris Conte.
With the injury histories of Conte and Major Wright, the Bears need to have a third safety who can play in their base defense and on special teams. A lack of depth at this position has hurt them in the past.
Third-string running back
Candidates: Armando Allen and Michael Ford
This battle will likely come down to who can help the Bears' offense more if it suffers injuries.
Both can play special teams and possibly return kicks—although it's likely neither will be asked to. Ford is a little bigger and a little faster. Allen is a bit quicker and more polished.
Allen has been able to use his quickness to make some plays for the Bears. He's shown solid hands and breakaway speed that could be valuable in Marc Trestman's offense. However, he simply isn't big enough to be an every-down running back
Ford has size and speed, but never earned the job at LSU full-time and actually saw his playing time reduced his last year there.
Most of Ford's big plays in college came on runs outside, many on option pitches. Those plays won't happen in the NFL. He has to learn how to read blocks and use his size.
Do the Bears go with a player with more polish or one with more potential? It will be interesting to find out.
Candidates: Kelvin Hayden, Isaiah Frey, C.J. Wilson, Demontre Hurst, Brandon Hardin
Hayden simply wasn't good enough last year. The Bears had an excellent secondary and very good pass rush, but he struggled in coverage and rarely made plays.
The Bears have plenty of young players who could push him, but they'll likely have to outplay their draft position in order to do so.
Like many, I expected the Bears to spend an early round pick on a cornerback. Instead they're stuck with 2012 sixth-round pick Isaiah Frey and undrafted rookies C.J. Wilson and Demontre Hurst. Those aren't guys they likely want to play a lot. However, they might not be able to do much worse than Hayden.
Hardin's name once again pops up as an interesting player in this battle, if he gets a shot. He was a cornerback in college and he has great size and speed.
Danieal Manning was a college cornerback-turned-safety and he made a big impact in the team's nickel defense while learning the safety position. Hardin could have the same fate.
Fourth wide receiver
Candidates: Joe Anderson, Marquess Wilson, Devin Aromashodu
Aromashodu is the only player on this list with experience. He worked very well with Jay Cutler in 2009, and it will be interesting to see if that chemistry continues.
Nearly every Bears fan knows about Wilson's talent and his baggage. He easily could have been selected in the first three rounds of the draft if he hadn't left Washington State after a feud with head coach Mike Leach. However, he's still only 20 years old and needs to add strength. He might not be ready if the Bears need someone to play in a pinch.
Anderson was undrafted in 2012 but is considered a hard worker. He seems to have the edge for now, as he worked with the starters when Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were sidelined in minicamp. He's not the biggest or the fastest, but he's strong and has impressed coaches so far.
It's entirely possible that the player who wins this job will be the only one who gets a roster spot. That could make Anderson and Aromashodu the favorites because of their ability to play special teams, but teams don't like to let talented draft picks like Wilson go.
Candidates: Matt Slauson, James Brown, Kyle Long
Slauson is a solid veteran who seems to be pencilled in at one starting spot, but the other two players have a lot of potential.
Brown struggled when he was forced into action as an undrafted rookie last year, but that is to be expected. He has been singled out by the coaching staff this offseason and his development likely led to the trading of former first-round pick Gabe Carimi.
Long is as physically talented as any player in the league at the position, but also extremely raw. He didn't start until the end of the season last year at Oregon and tried to return for another season, but that request was denied by the NCAA. In many ways, he's the perfect project for a line guru like Aaron Kromer. Still, projects take time and it seems like a long shot that Long will be ready.
Slauson has been a left guard for most of his career, but some think the Bears will play him on the right side with Brown and Long competing for the left guard spot. That doesn't matter as much; it's just important that the Bears get their three best guards on the field.
Slauson might be the best in camp, but if Brown and Long are close, the Bears may decide to start both young players to build chemistry for the future.
Middle and Strong-Side Linebacker
Candidates: D.J. Williams, James Anderson, Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene
This is a two-position battle because one could have a direct impact on the other.
The Bears signed veterans Williams and Anderson, then spent two of their first three draft picks on Bostic and Greene. It seems like their plan was to draft one linebacker early to compete with the veterans, but when Greene dropped to the fourth round, they couldn't pass on him.
On paper, it looks like Bostic will be competing with Williams for the starting job in the middle, while Anderson and Greene will compete for the job on the strong side. However, it's most important that they get their best three linebackers on the field.
Should the Bears decide that Bostic is better in the middle than Anderson is on the strong side, he could start there and push Williams outside. It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Greene beat out Anderson either.
Privately, the Bears have to be hoping one of the rookie linebackers start. Preferably it would be Bostic because Williams also has experience playing on the outside.
Candidates: Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin
Wootton seemed to come out of nowhere to take the starting job from Israel Idonije last year. This year, 2012 first-round pick McClellin is battling Wootton for the starting spot.
Who starts here may not matter a lot. The Bears are planning on rotating both players in, with Wootton playing inside as Idonije did last year. Idonije actually ended up playing more snaps than Wootton did.
McClellin didn't have the bulk or pass-rush moves to be a starter last year. However, when you spend a first-round pick on a player, you expect him to be be able to start by his second season.
With three key defensive starters at least 32 years old, including 33-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers, the Bears need their young players to start shining. Realistically, Peppers probably doesn't have more than one or two years left in him, and the Bears need to know if they have a replacement.
Both McClellin and Wootton are talented. It's time for McClellin to show he can take the next step as a starter and for Wootton to show he's an ascending player as he heads into free agency.