Going into the 2009 season, the Bears could see a series of battles for starting spots and playing time at just about every position on the field outside of quarterback, running back and center. In most of these cases, it is the classic predicament of older veteran players trying to hold off the hungry young competition, hoping to force their way onto the field.
The Competition at Wide Receiver
As I mentioned in my team preview, third round draft pick Juaquin Iglesias and 2008 third rounder Earl Bennett should get every chance possible to win the No. 2 and No. 3 wide receiver jobs.
Veteran Rashied Davis will be given a cursory chance to hold onto his job, but Bears management and coaches would love to see him supplanted by players they made major commitments to by taking them early in the draft.
Iglesias has a good chance of earning immediate playing time because of his polished receiving skills and experience playing in a pro-style offense at Oklahoma. At 6'0", 210 pounds, Iglesias possesses quality size for the receiver position and could be a good complement as a possession-type receiver to the big play abilities of Devin Hester across the field.
Playing in the shadow of Malcolm Kelly and Jermaine Grisham in college, Iglesias quietly racked up 142 catches for over 2,000 yards as an upperclassman, earning all Big 12 honors as a senior. Iglesias may not possess the top end speed of most elite NFL receivers, but he runs efficient routes and can sneak by defenders downfield if not given proper attention and coverage.
Bennett failed to earn significant playing time as a rookie, but coaches expect him to earn a serious role in his second season. With similar size to Iglesias at 6'0", 203 pounds, Bennett can also be more of an intermediate type receiver to run the short and medium yardage routes. He flashed nice speed in the return game, but as a receiver projects to be a possession type, that ideally averages 11-13 yards per reception.
A major positive for Bennett is his experience playing with Cutler at Vanderbilt, becoming Cutler’s favorite target during his freshman year in 2005. Already possessing a rapport with the new quarterback can be a key for Bennett to earn a spot on the field in key situations and potentially be a go-to player on third down.
Davis signed a multi-million dollar deal last offseason but failed to establish himself despite receiving ample opportunities to earn a starting spot. A quality locker room presence, Davis will probably earn a roster spot. However, his days as a main receiving option for the Bears have likely ended.
Fifth round draft Johnny Knox may find his way onto the field occasionally because of his deep speed, but he will probably need a few years of development before potentially challenging for a starting spot.
Still, with the large opening the Bears currently have at the wide receiver spot, a long shot may just cash in on a great opportunity. Knox impressed at the Bears rookie mini-camp, and just three years ago we saw a then unknown in Marques Colston go from being a seventh round pick from Hofstra to perennial All-Pro.
The smart money remains on Iglesias and Bennett winning the key receiving spots. If they can perform closely to the level of Davis (which they should), they will be given the positions with the reality that high drafts picks get preferential treatment.
Three for Two
Going into training camp, the Bears plan on starting major free agent acquisition Orlando Pace at left tackle, entrenched veteran Olin Kreutz at center, and 2008 first round pick Chris Williams at right tackle. The competition remains wide open at guard, with 2008 starters Josh Beekman and Roberto Garza battling free agent pick-up Frank Omiyale for the two starting spots.
Beekman and Garza actually played fairly well in 2008, but the coaching staff’s disappointment of the offensive line play last year caused a major offseason restructuring of personnel that could see three new starters on the line.
Garza, a veteran that has been a successful run blocker after coming over from Atlanta, gives the Bears an experienced option that rarely embarrasses himself and provides consistent effort. Still, he does not have the upside or natural talent of Beekman or Omiyale and could see the younger competitors pass him by.
Drafted as a versatile lineman that primarily played center at Boston College, Beekman transitioned to the guard spot and found his way onto the field in his second season due to injuries and lack of available options following the retirement of Ruben Brown.
Not quite as consistent as Garza, Beekman still acquitted himself pretty well in the run game and had to be saddled by playing next to turnstyle left tackle John St. Clair (often having to be part of a double team against opposing speed rushers). A possible successor to Kreutz at the center spot, Beekman also looks like a promising guard prospect that should continue to get better with time.
Unknown by many football fans, personnel people around the league hold Omiyale’s talent in high regard, with his acquisition a major offseason priority to general manager Jerry Angelo.
Capable of playing both the guard and tackle spots, Omiyale will receive an opportunity to start at guard with the coaching staff looking for much improved offensive line play.
The progress of Omiyale will be something to closely follow, as the Bears clearly have plans for him after moving quickly to sign Omiyale in favor of more high profile players.
No More Complacency
Hiring Rod Marinelli set the tone for a tough training camp for an older defensive line that rapidly declined in 2008. Devoting two of the first three draft picks on defensive linemen cemented the fact that the Bears will not accept players like Tommie Harris, Mark Anderson, and Adewale Ogunleye not giving their best efforts by having their replacements in the wings.
Jarron Gilbert may be known as the Pool Jumper, but the rookie from San Jose State had 22 tackles for a loss as a senior and comes to training camp expecting to win a starting spot.
Considered a great value as a third round pick, Gilbert has the size at 6'5", 288 pounds, to play inside but the athleticism to play as a left end in a 4-3 alignment. With current left end Ogunleye’s contract up following the 2009 campaign, Gilbert could be the heir to that spot and may not wait for Ogunleye to depart to seize his job.
If not taking Ogunleye’s spot, Gilbert may compete to replace Harris as the three technique defensive tackle. A long and arduous recovery from a severe 2006 groin injury combined with personal problems rocked Harris’s rising career that once had him compared with Warren Sapp.
Still, just as he looked to be in danger of losing his starting spot, Harris rebounded with a solid finish to the 2008 season that showed glimpses of the multiple-time Pro Bowler Harris had been before the injury.
With the drafting of Gilbert and promising second year player Marcus Harrison also looking like a possible option at the three technique spot, Harris will have to fend off challengers and remain motivated to prove he can still play at a high level. Six months from nowm Harris could justifiably be out of the lineup or right back in Pro Bowl talks.
Anderson faces the most daunting challenge of all, as his roster spot could very well go to fourth round pick Henry Melton. Registering 12 sacks as a rookie in 2006, Anderson looked like another Angelo draft steal and starter at the right defensive end spot for the foreseeable future.
Fast forward to 2009, after long time starter Alex Brown re-claimed his right end spot late in 2007 when Anderson failed to keep pace, declining to five sacks in his second year and just one in 2008.
While Melton will not challenge for Brown’s starting spot barring a major surprise, Anderson will have to fight off the athletic former running back that the Bears want to develop. With pass rushers such a valuable commodity, Anderson will get one more chance to show his 2006 season was not a flash in the pan. That being said, Anderson better have a strong camp and preseason, or he will be looking for a job in August.
One position surprisingly not addressed in the offseason is the nose tackle spot opposite Tommie Harris (or Gilbert or Harrison), which looks to be Dusty Dvoracek’s for the taking if he can come back from another serious injury.
When healthy, Dvoracek provides a stiff wall for opposing runners and occupies blockers for Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher to make tackles, playing a big role in the Bears holding opposing teams to just 3.4 yards per carry in 2008.
Harrison and veterans Anthony Adams and Israel Idonije will receive chances to take Dvoracek’s spot in the rotation, but they do not possess the skill set like Dvoracek to succeed as nose tackles.
Biggest Problem of All
When discussing weaknesses of the Bears, most of the focus goes immediately towards the wide receivers. However, a defensive backfield that battled through injuries and poor play in 2008 will need a few surprises to play at a high level in 2009.
Cornerback Charles Tillman and strong safety Kevin Payne should be reliable starters, provided they remain healthy (Tillman is coming back from off offseason shoulder surgery and Payne missed 2007 with a broken leg). The other two starters remain a giant mystery that could have undesirable answers.
Fourth round pick D.J. Moore has the talent to become an NFL starter and surprisingly slid to the Bears after being expected to go a round or two earlier. However, Moore’s struggles in the rookie mini-camp indicate that teams may have wisely passed over a short corner (just 5'9") who talks big.
Still, if he can successfully assimilate into NFL life, Moore has the opportunity to beat out disappointing veteran Nathan Vasher.
Vasher missed a good portion of 2008 due to injury and played poorly when healthy. Replaced by second year player Corey Graham, Vasher and his big contract (signed after the 2007 season) may need to fight to make the team in 2009. Like Vasher, Graham could enter the 2009 season as a starter or potentially be looking for a new team if he cannot beat out Moore and nickelback Danieal Manning (who has a roster spot ensured because of his kick returning ability).
Competition at free safety looks equally confounding, with 2008 draft pick Craig Steltz battling free agent acquisition Josh Bullocks and quite possibly Tillman or Vasher should Moore and Graham solidify themselves at cornerback.
The best (if not unrealistic) hope for the Bears is that Moore quickly matures, Graham shows that a few nice flashes as a starter were not flukes, and Vasher returns his previous solid form so that Tillman can make his eventual transition to safety in 2009.