Chicago Bears: Positional Battles to Sort Out in Camp
For the first time in years, the Chicago Bears do not have a question mark at the starting quarterback position going into training camp. The trade for Jay Cutler stabilized the most important position on the field, and having him as the starter from Day One will help establish a rhythm and connection with his new teammates.
Despite having stability under center, the Bears have a number of starting spots and primary backup positions still up for grabs.
Charles Tillman is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 cornerback on the depth chart, but who starts opposite him is still to be determined.
Nathan Vasher enters his sixth season out of the University of Texas, looking to rebound from two straight disappointing injury-plagued seasons. After making the Pro Bowl in 2005 and helping lead the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006, Vasher signed a lucrative long-term deal.
However, Vasher missed 12 games in 2007 due to a groin injury and another eight in 2008 due to hand injuries. The latter set of injuries caused a significant decrease in tackles by Vasher, which had already proved to be an issue with him in the past. Vasher's strong suit is his eye for the ball, with 18 career interceptions, including eight in 2005.
Another option is Corey Graham, in his third season out of New Hampshire. He has just one career interception in two seasons of playing time, but has made an impression on the coaching staff during that time.
At 6'0", Graham has two inches on Vasher and made 91 tackles in 16 games last year, nearly doubling Vasher's career high of 46. While Graham may not have the intercepting prowess of Vasher, he more than makes up for it with his tackling ability.
Vasher looks to be fully recovered from his injuries, and his large contract may play a part in it being his job to lose. Any issues with tackling, however, will force the coaching staff to look harder at Graham.
Both of these players could play the nickelback position if they are not given the starting job, but the Bears' coaching staff might elect to keep Danieal Manning there instead. In addition, rookie fourth-round draft pick D.J. Moore is waiting in the wings for his chance.
The Bears are lucky to have options at the position, and this battle may go down to the very end of training camp.
One thing is for sure on the defensive line; if healthy, Tommie Harris will be in the middle of it. Who starts next to him is not as cut and dry. Thanks to their last two drafts, the Bears have added depth to a position which has been hit with injury and suspension over the last few years.
Dusty Dvoracek, in his fourth year out of Oklahoma, will be given another chance to win the starting spot. Dvoracek missed all of his rookie season with a preseason foot injury, was lost for the year in 2007 with a torn ACL in the season opener, and missed the final four games of 2008 with a biceps injury.
Dvoracek is quickly becoming the new version of Mike Brown with his injuries, but, when healthy, he is a beast in the middle. At 6'3" and 303 lbs., he can take on double teams from the nose tackle position and allow Tommie Harris to hit ball carriers in the backfield.
Marcus Harrison is in his second year out of Arkansas. Predicted to be a first round choice by many, Harrison fell to the Bears in round three due to character issues but showed last year why he was a first-round caliber talent.
In limited playing time last season, Harrison recorded 28 total tackles and two sacks while deflecting two passes. He is best suited for the nose tackle position, as his speed, accompanied by his size, gives him a good first step and the ability to shed blockers.
Anthony Adams is the veteran on the line. In his seventh season out of Penn State, Adams was an important figure on the 2007 team after Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone missed time due to injury and Tank Johnson was suspended.
Adams might not be outstanding, but he gets the job done. While it is unlikely he will start, he will provide important depth on the line, especially in the fourth quarter when the defense has been on the field for a long time.
The wild card in this battle is rookie Jarron Gilbert. Yes, the guy who did a standing jump out of a pool. Gilbert moved from defensive end to tackle in his senior season at San Jose State and led the nation with 22 tackles for a loss. Gilbert is as athletic as they come, leading all defensive tackles at the combine in the 40-yard dash and vertical jump.
Whether the Bears decide to use him at tackle or end is still to be determined, but a lot will depend on the health of players like Dvoracek at DT and Adewale Ogunleye at DE. If it is tackle, look for him to factor in the rotation immediately, even if it is not in a starting role.
The Bears' pass rush over the last two seasons has been essentially non-existent. Part of the problem has been the inconsistency of Tommie Harris and the rotating group of nose tackles, but a good portion is due to the lack of pressure coming from the outside.
A Cover-Two defense's worst enemy is time for the opposing quarterback, and the Bears need stability at the defensive end position to prevent that from happening.
Alex Brown will be the mainstay on the right side of the line. He has been the mold of consistency in his seven seasons with the Bears, averaging over 46 tackles and five sacks per season.
Brown has forced at least one fumble in each season of his career and gets his hands on a number of passes, deflecting over five per season. He also gets his hands up to block field goals too.
Veteran Adewale Ogunleye is the favorite to retain his starting spot on the left side. Entering his ninth season in the league and sixth with the Bears, Ogunleye has seen his production decrease slightly over the last few seasons.
After recording just five sacks in 2008, Ogunleye is no longer a threat to put up double digit sacks in a season. Despite that, he is still solid against the run and will more than likely end up playing first and second down the majority of the time.
Mark Anderson has fallen off after a stellar rookie season in which he had 12 sacks, as he only recorded one in 16 games last season. The fourth year player out of Alabama can compete for playing time at left end but will likely only see the field on passing downs.
If the Bears play him at end, the biggest challenger for the starting spot is Gilbert. Getting to work with new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli should help Gilbert reach his potential as a speed rusher off the end.
Don't expect Gilbert to win the job out of camp, but halfway through the season he could be running out of the tunnel in the starting lineup.
While unlikely to challenge for a starting spot this season, another player to watch is fourth-round pick Henry Melton out of Texas. A converted running back, Melton is too raw to get much playing time as a rookie, but under the tutelage of Marinelli, he could be a good player down the road due to his natural athletic ability.
Outside Linebacker (Strong Side)
The Bears are set at middle and weak side linebacker with Pro Bowlers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. The strong side, on the other hand, is a competition without a distinct front runner.
Veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer is entering his seventh season with the Bears out of Vanderbilt. Hillenmeyer has averaged just under 50 tackles per season with the Bears, but that includes the 2008 season during which he missed time due to a right hand injury.
Hillenmeyer is a solid tackler, but in the past three seasons has just one sack, one forced fumble, and no interceptions. His less-than-impressive performance after returning from injury saw the Bears start Nick Roach in his place for the second half of last season.
Roach is a third year player out of Northwestern, and joined the Bears in 2007 from the Chargers' practice squad. As he is both fast and athletic, Roach fits in with Lovie Smith's defensive scheme nicely, which he showed in his opportunity to start last year.
While the old saying is that a player should not lose his job due to injury, it appears that might be the case for Hillenmeyer. Roach is nearly five years younger and proved himself on the field last season, while Hillenmeyer has missed time in training camp while recovering from his injuries.
The other player to keep an eye on is rookie fifth-round pick Marcus Freeman from Ohio State. Freeman will start as the backup to Lance Briggs on the weak side and play a large role on special teams, but if there are any signs of trouble from Roach and Hillenmeyer, the Bears might be inclined to give him a try on the strong side.
With the decision not to re-sign veteran Mike Brown, safety is the Bears' thinnest position in terms of experience and leadership. The Bears did little to address the position via the draft, using only a sixth-round selection on Al Afalava out of Oregon State.
At the free safety position, the only player holding over from last season's roster is Danieal Manning. Free Safety is one of the many positions Manning has played in his tenure with the Bears, but it appears the team wants to keep him at nickelback where he spent a good portion of last season.
At strong safety, the Bears have third year player Kevin Payne from Louisiana-Monroe and second year pro, Craig Steltz, out of LSU. Payne showed a lot of promise last season, recording 88 tackles to go along with four interceptions. Steltz on the other hand, did not, struggling at the position while most of his contributions came on special teams.
The final option at safety from last year's team is converted cornerback Zackary Bowman, a fifth-round pick out of Nebraska in last year's draft. He was projected to go higher, but injuries derailed a good portion of his college career, so health is a concern.
This was evident when Bowman suffered a season-ending injury after playing a very good game against the Vikings last season. Despite the injury history, Bowman did play safety in college before becoming a corner, so he could get a chance to see some action.
Two free agent offseason additions to the team are Josh Bullocks and Glenn Earl.
Bullocks, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, is in his fifth year out of Nebraska. He has six career interceptions and averages 64 tackles per season but is coming off a tough 2008 where he only had one pick and 41 total tackles.
Glenn Earl last played in a regular season game in 2006, as he missed all of 2007 and 2008 with a foot injury suffered in a preseason game. Earl had a decent season playing SS for the Texans in 2006, recording 75 tackles and one interception.
The Bears have options at safety, but none of them are exciting. Currently, the team has Bullocks and Payne penciled in to start at free and strong safety, respectively, with Bowman and Steltz as the primary backups. Unless the Bears move the loser of the Vasher / Graham cornerback battle to nickelback, forcing Manning to free safety, it appears this will be the way the season starts.
The Bears are committed to having Devin Hester play wide receiver, and the state of the receivers on the Bears right now put him in the No. 1 role. While that is less than ideal, he could thrive with Jay Cutler at the helm, and at the very least the tandem will bring some exciting plays.
The No. 2 spot is Earl Bennett's to lose. Drafted in the third round last season, he was unable to make his mark on the team, primarily due to his inability to get a grasp on the playbook until midseason.
Listed at 6'0", he is a bit smaller than the ideal big man the Bears want to line up across from the speedy Hester, but his pass-catching abilities in college should make up for that.
The other factor that should not be overlooked is the Vanderbilt connection. Bennett and Cutler both attended Vanderbilt, and Cutler threw to Bennett on his pro day last year prior to the draft. This connection could give Bennett a leg up on the rest of the wideouts.
Bennett has two main competitors for the No. 2 job. The first is rookie Juaquin Iglesias from Oklahoma. Drafted with the 99th overall selection in April, Iglesias is coming off an impressive senior year where he recorded 74 receptions, 1,150 yds, and 10 TDs.
At 6'1", Iglesias doesn't have much of a height advantage over Bennett, but has done well so far in training camp. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner is a fan, saying, "What did I like about him? Everything. He caught the ball really well. Runs good routes. Comes off the ball pretty well. He still has to pick up on that a little bit, but he learned well. He's just a good kid. He's driven to be great."
The dark horse in this race is Brandon Rideau in his third year out of Kansas University. Rideau has more tackles (one) than receptions (zero) in his career but has two years of experience under his belt. What puts him in this race is his height. At 6'3" and 200 lbs., he would provide a big target for Jay Cutler on the field.
A brand new position battle emerging is at slot receiver. Rashied Davis has held down the position for the last few seasons. Davis had career highs in receptions (35) and yards (445) last season but developed a case of the drops during the second half of the campaign.
The youngster emerging to challenge him is Johnny Knox, a fifth-round selection out of Abilene-Christian. Knox ran the third-fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL combine with a time of 4.34 seconds and has impressed offensive coordinator Ron Turner so far in training camp. Turner said about Knox, "He's got speed. He's got quickness. He's got good hands. The speed that we saw on film and the kind of speed that he has is legitimate. He plays that fast."
Hopefully for the Bears, the decision on who becomes Jay Cutler's primary backup is only relevant in blowout wins. The Bears seem content with Brett Basanez and Caleb Hanie as the two backups on the roster, as others have been brought in for tryouts, including Drew Weatherford and C.J. Bacher but none have stuck.
Basanez and Hanie both went undrafted in 2006 and 2008 respectively. Basanez played in one game in 2006 while Hanie spent his one season in the pros on the sideline.
Both players are listed at 6'2" and over 200 lbs., so they have the necessary size to see over the offensive line. This one will likely come down to how both play in the preseason, with Hanie having the slight edge due to his performance last year during the exhibition games.
Backup Running Back
With Matt Forte firmly entrenched as the starter, the only question mark at the position is about his backup. Based on contract value, it would appear the lead candidate is Kevin Jones, who re-signed with the team receiving a two-year, $3.5 million dollar deal this offseason.
Jones is a former first-round pick by the Detroit Lions, who had his time there cut short due to a foot injury. After putting up over 1,000 yards his rookie year, Jones never played more than 13 games in a season and averaged 644 yards in his final three years in Detroit. If healthy, Jones should get the chance to be Forte's primary backup, but that is a big if.
The Bears' other two options are Adrian Peterson (the original) and Garrett Wolfe. Peterson only carried the ball 20 times last season, and the majority of his career carries came in 2007 while filling in for the injured Cedric Benson. Wolfe has played even more sparingly at running back in his first two seasons, as he is still looking for his first touchdown on the ground.
Both of these players are big contributors on special teams and barring any injuries it looks as if it will remain that way this season.
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