Training camp is a time when players should look good, but there are always a few who stand out more than the rest. That holds true for Chicago Bears camp this year, where a number of young players appear to be coming into their own.
The Bears came into camp with depth concerns at both cornerback and wide receiver. But it appears a couple second-year players may have developed enough to ease those worries.
A pair of offseason additions made a great first impression in camp. One was added via free agency and one through the draft. Both look like good bets to start when the team opens their season.
The team also has a safety who appears poised for a breakout season in his third year.
There are a number of other players on the Bears who are having good camps and a few more who haven't been what the team expected. The Bears' star players all appear to be making the kinds of plays you'd expect from them. It's hard to say whether they're having good camps or if they're simply playing up to their standards.
These five players, however, stand out as the players who are having the best camps. If they continue to play at a high level throughout the preseason and into the regular season, it wouldn't be a shock to see all of them have an impact for the Bears this year.
When a 10-year veteran and seven-time Pro Bowl player singles out a second-year former sixth-round pick, he must be doing something right.
That's exactly what happened when linebacker Lance Briggs was on the ESPN Chicago's Carmen & Jurko Show on August 1.
"I think Isaiah Frey is all over the field right now. He's creating turnovers, pulling balls out of guy's hands and knocking balls away," Briggs said. "You can tell he's worked hard in the offseason."
Up until that point, Frey had been playing with the reserves, but he continued to make plays with the starters. As Larry Mayer noted on the team's Twitter account, Frey picked off quarterback Jay Cutler while playing for the injured Kelvin Hayden on Monday.
That interception came after Cutler's intended receiver fell down. However, Frey still was there and made the play, something head coach Marc Trestman pointed out on the team website.
Whether another player fell down or not, [Frey] made another play. He's shown up each and every day and certainly with Kelvin down now and being week-to-week, [Frey's] ability to play nickel and play the corner and be part of the mix in finding the best group of DBs and corners that we can, it's going to be very important.
Frey also has a very important fan in defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. With an offensive-minded head coach, Tucker figures to have almost complete control over the defense. He told the team website that he likes what he sees in Frey so far.
He's not playing cautious. He's looking to make plays. He's doing what he's coached to do. That's what you're looking for out of young players. He's a great young man, and we're just really excited about the progress he's been making out here on a day-to-day basis.
After being taken in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, Frey didn't see any game action last season. He stuck on the Bears' practice squad, but it looks like he may be ready for bigger things.
In the same interview in which Briggs singled out Frey, he said he noticed a change in Conte.
In that interview, former NFL player John Jurkovic spoke about the importance of the game slowing down for young players so they can take the next step. He asked Briggs if he can tell when the game starts to slow down for his teammates, and Briggs responded by saying he notices a difference in Conte and Major Wright.
"I can see it with Major (Wright) and Chris Conte. That's why I say they're guys who are ready to take it to the next level," Briggs said.
Wright had a breakout season for the Bears last year, finally proving he could stay healthy. Despite having one terrible game against the San Francisco 49ers, Wright was the 23rd-ranked safety in the NFL on Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while Conte finished 56th.
Conte has always been considered good in coverage, but sometimes he has suffered from mental lapses and flaws in his technique.
However, he seems to have put those behind him.
Former NFL safety Matt Bowen also noticed the improvements in Conte's game in a Chicago Tribune story. In addition to his own expertise, Bowen quoted a scout who said, "Conte is ready to take the next step."
If Conte's improvement continues into the regular season, the Bears' last line of defense could be as good as any in the league.
There may not be a single player who has generated more buzz amongst the fans at Bears camp than Anderson.
Part of the reason for that may be because nearly every Bears fan knew he was a player to watch for heading into camp. After not playing on offense at all last season, Anderson started during the Bears' last minicamp while Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were out with injuries.
It's hard to put a lot of stock in the lineups used at minicamp, but Anderson has continued to impress during training camp. When the Bears made their first official depth chart public on Monday, it was Anderson—not veteran Devin Aromashodu or seventh-round rookie Marquess Wilson—listed with the second string with veteran Earl Bennett.
Trestman has been impressed with what Anderson has done so far.
"He's had a good camp," coach Marc Trestman told the team website. "He's shown strong hands. He's shown the ability to get open in tight coverage. He's coming out every day to compete and he brings added value because he's a good special teams player as well."
Quarterback Jay Cutler has also taken note as Anderson has gotten work with the first team offense the past couple of days. Said Cutler in a story on the team website,
We’ve been throwing him in there quite a bit, and he’s taken advantage of every opportunity. He caught a big ball today. He’s in the right spots. He’s blocking well. I think he’s doing really well on special teams. So that’s what you like to see; when a guy gets a chance like that to step in with the first unit to go ahead and take advantage of it, and that’s what he’s done.
Anderson went from an undrafted rookie who didn't play anything but special teams last year to a player the Bears may need to rely on this year.
While it's premature to put him in the Bears' starting lineup or three-wide receiver sets, Anderson's ability to make plays gives them better depth than they had a year ago. The Bears' fourth wide receiver job was supposed to be a highly contested battle, but it seems Anderson is pulling away with it.
The Bears expected big things when they signed Bennett, but he may be exceeding expectations.
His few recent scuffles aside, it seems a single day doesn't go by without Bennett making a big play.
His size and speed figure to be an asset for the Bears. Linebackers will have a hard time running with him and defensive backs will struggle with his height and strength. As I wrote after the Bears signed him in March, opponents may be forced to dedicate two defenders to him.
In his short time with the team, Bennett seems to have picked up two very important fans in Cutler and offensive coordinator/line coach Aaron Kromer.
"He's a joy to play with. On and off the field, he brings a little bit of energy, brings some edge to the huddle," Cutler told the team website. "He's like a Brandon Marshall. He's really smart out there, understands defenses, knows where the holes are. He makes it easier on me."
While much of the focus has been on Bennett's receiving, he's more than a one-dimensional player. On the team website, Kromer noted his skills as a blocker and how that makes him rare.
"Martellus Bennett is a good blocker and a receiving tight end. There are very few of those guys. There are a lot of receiving tight ends and a lot of blocking tight ends," Kromer said.
It's been a while since a Bears first-round pick has created the kind of buzz that Long has so far in camp.
The first thing that people noticed with Long was his build. Long measured 6'6" and 313 pounds at the NFL combine. That doesn't seem exceptional on paper, but it's hard to quantify how cut he is. As the Chicago Tribune's Dan Pompei wrote, he "looks like a man amongst boys in terms of brute strength."
His strength is something even Cutler has spoken about, telling ESPN Chicago's Waddle & Silvy Show last week he "looks strong" and is "throwing guys around." Cutler also said "once he gets on a guy, he can block a guy."
Long is still inexperienced, but that doesn't appear to be holding him back so far. It seemed he would have a hard time breaking the Bears' starting lineup in camp, or even this season. However, in the Bears' first official depth chart, they listed Long and James Brown as co-starters along the offensive line.
When Emery drafted Long in the first round, he bet that his physical talents would outweigh his inexperience. So far, he looks correct.