Chicago Bears Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch

Matt EurichAnalyst IJuly 22, 2014

Chicago Bears Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    After weeks and months of waiting, the Chicago Bears will officially open their training camp later this week.

    For three weeks the players and coaching staff will be working hard to develop a team that can make a strong run during the 2014 season and playoffs.

    While many position battles appear to be locked down, there are still plenty of storylines heading into the 2014 training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois. 

    Here are five early ones to watch from Chicago's training camp.

Can Jimmy Clausen Overtake Jordan Palmer for the No. 2 Quarterback Job?

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    If Chicago Bears fans did not understand how important a backup quarterback was prior to last season, they do now.

    After Jay Cutler went down with a groin injury in Week 7 last year, veteran backup Josh McCown came in and threw for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in five starts and eight appearances.

    McCown signed this offseason with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving NFL journeyman Jordan Palmer to compete with former second-round pick Jimmy Clausen.

    Palmer had a strong showing in the final preseason game last year but was released before the start of the season. Following the injury to Cutler in Week 7, the team re-signed Palmer, and he spent the rest of the season on the 53-man roster.

    Head coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery liked what they saw from him on the practice field and in the classroom to re-sign him to a one-year deal this past March.

    Despite his limited playing experience, he appeared to have the inside track to backing up Cutler. Chicago head coach Marc Trestman told the media at the NFL owner's meetings this past March how impressed he was with Palmer's diligence and professionalism, via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune

    We give Jordan a lot of credit. He literally learned the offense on his own because we didn't have time to work daily with him. He worked. He worked overtime and he learned the offense and came in and played admirably in the preseason. He moved the football team and was very sufficient.

    After a strained right pectoral muscle caused him to miss two weeks of OTAs, Clausen was brought in by the Bears, who wanted to see what the former second-round pick could bring to the team. Clausen participated in just the final six practices of minicamp before the start of training camp,and impressed the coaching staff enough to bring him along to training camp.

    In his short time with the team, Clausen has already received praise from the coaching staff and his teammates.

    "I think that Jimmy has competed and done a good job for the time that he's been here," head coach Marc Trestman told the media after the team's final minicamp in June, via ESPNChicago.com's Michael C. Wright.

    "He's working hard, and I think he likes the opportunity he has here," Cutler said of Clausen to the media back in June, via CBSChicago.com's Chris Emma. "He was a little humbled going through the process of being on the streets and then getting picked up again. He's got a great attitude."

    How quickly he picked up on the offense is what impressed quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh the most, who told Chris Boden of CSNChicago.com:

    Its always tough when you get in a new system late and you try to learn the verbage.  Because he’s got some years in the league I don’t think there’s any schemes were running that he's not familiar with, but it's able to communicate it. Hear it, call it quickly, get in the huddle and say it.  He’s a smart guy and he’s caught up real fast.

    With Palmer the Bears get a guy who is familiar with the offense and can work well with Jay Cutler in the quarterbacks room, but Clausen gives them a more talented backup with more potential, but has a rougher past.

    While most eyes will be focused on the open competitions at strong-side linebacker and the free safety position, the competition between Palmer and Clausen may end up being one the most intriguing storylines in training camp. 

Who Will Win the Safety Battle?

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    While general manager Phil Emery spent the majority of the offseason fixing his defensive line, he appears to have given little focus to improving a safety position that struggled in 2013.

    Bypassing on bigger names such as T.J. Ward and Jarius Byrd in free agency, the team opted to sign veteran Ryan Mundy to a modest two-year, $3 million contract back in March.

    Mundy has appeared in 80 games with 14 starts over five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2009-12) and New York Giants (2013), registering 143 tackles and two interceptions. 

    He is a physical presence against the run but has struggled at times in the passing game. After suffering a hip injury, he lost his starting job to Will Hill in New York last season, though he did excel on special teams. 

    Despite his limitations, the coaching staff is still high on experience level.

    "You can tell he's played,” defensive backs coach Jon Hoke said to ChicagoFootball.com's Nate Atkins. “He's a veteran, and he really doesn't get too panicked. He understands football, he's been playing a lot of pro football so it's been good from that standpoint."

    Mundy is projected to be the starter at the strong safety position this season, and while his main task will be coming up into the box and defending the run, he will also be relied upon to defend tight ends, something he says he will need to focus on improving.

    “I really want to be really good at covering tight ends this year,” he told Atkins. “I think that’ll be one of my focal points and one of my goals, to be one of the top safeties in the league in regards to man-to-man coverage on tight ends. I know I have the ability to do it.”

    If Mundy can prove he can defend tight ends in the passing game, as well as produce against the run, it will give the free safety the opportunity to play as a single-high safety with the ability to roam in the secondary. 

    As it currently stands, rookie Brock Vereen appears to be the team's best option to start at free safety as 2013 starter Chris Conte recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. 

    Despite taking reps with the first team during OTAs and minicamps, head coach Marc Trestman isn't ready to name Vereen the starter just yet.

    “The simple fact we’ve rotated him with the 1’s is a clear indication we think he can compete, but we’re not going to anoint him yet,” Trestman said of Vereen to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com. “There’s no reason to think he can’t put himself in position to compete for one of those jobs, but it’s way, way too early.” 

    Despite his poor 2013 season and having missed all of OTAs and minicamps, Conte will still have a chance to compete for the position, according to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, via ESPNChicago.com's Michael C. Wright:

    Whenever [Conte is] available, we’ll start working him in and get him up to speed, get him the reps. He’s been in the meetings. So he knows what we’re doing. We’re going to start over pretty much in training camp with our installation. So a lot of it will be review, and then we’ll add some things as we go that we didn’t cover in OTAs and the coaches’ sessions. He’s gotten the mental work in, in the class room. So it’ll just be getting the physical reps. When he’s ready, he’s ready. We’ll work him in.

    If Conte can return healthy at some point during training camp, he stands a good shot of reclaiming his starting job in 2014, but if he struggles, Vereen has already shown he has the ability to play with the first team.

    The final safety spot, assuming the team carries just four safeties, will be a battle between Adrian Wilson, Craig Steltz, Danny McCray and M.D. Jennings.

    Wilson is the most accomplished of the group, but he has seen a decline in his play in recent years and missed all of last season with an Achilles injury.

    Steltz, McCray and Jennings all have prior starting experience, but barring a strong camp from Wilson, Steltz looks to be the front-runner for the final safety spot. 

Shea McClellin's Development at Strong-Side Linebacker

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Since being drafted 19th overall in 2012, Shea McClellin has struggled to make a name for himself on the field.

    Other than a productive three-sack day against the Green Bay Packers in Week 9, McClellin struggled mightily in 2013 at defensive end.

    In 28 career games, he has compiled 44 total tackles and just 6.5 sacks. Chandler Jones, who was picked two spots after McClellin by New England, has 124 total tackles, four forced fumbles and 17.5 sacks in 30 career games.

    It is easy to look back at any draft and find players who have been more productive than players selected in front of them, but Emery admitted this offseason that the Bears have not used McClellin to the best of his abilities.

    "What we have to do with Shea is find ways to use the unique talents and skills of the players that we have," Emery told Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com earlier this season. "Putting him at defensive end, that's on me, not giving him the ultimate opportunity to succeed."

    The Bears opted to move McClellin to linebacker this offseason and have him competing with Jon Bostic for the starting strong-side linebacker role.

    His move to his more natural position of linebacker didn't come as that big of a surprise to McClellin this offseason, as he told the media earlier this offseason, via John Mullin of CSNChicago.com, he assumed he was going to make the switch to linebacker:

    I was excited for sure, anticipated that they would, too. My first two years weren’t the greatest but I think linebacker is a natural fit for me. I think it’s what I should be doing and I’m very excited about it.

    The transition to linebacker will not come without its bumps in the road, but linebackers coach Reggie Herring has been impressed with McClellin's transition so far this offseason.

    "Shea McClellin’s process, the transition to ’backer, we played him at ‘Mike’ and we played him at ‘Sam,’” Herring told Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Right now, he’s kind of settling into the ‘Sam’ position because we feel like he’s really natural there. It’s really exciting.”

    Just as it was for him at defensive end, one of the most important parts of his game will be setting the edge against the run. 

    He struggled with gap integrity last season, and he will need to prove he can shed blockers to help slow down the running game.

    McClellin's greatest attribute is his speed and athleticism, and the Bears will likely try to utilize him as both a blitzer and an edge-rusher, but he will also need to show in training camp that he can use that speed and athleticism to cover tight ends and running backs. 

After Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver Position Wide Open

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    In 2012, general manager Phil Emery gave quarterback Jay Cutler a gift in wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The team also drafted Alshon Jeffery that season, but he struggled with injuries and consistency as a rookie, leaving some to question how we would perform in 2013.

    Well, Jeffery broke out in a big way last year and the tandem of him and Marshall emerged as one of the league's best, combining for 2,716 yards and 19 touchdowns, second most behind Denver's Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker's 2,718 yards and 25 touchdowns.

    Jeffery believes that he and Marshall are the best receiver duo in the NFL but also understands they still have room to grow.

    "I’m not the type of person that brags a lot about anything, but I feel that last year, what we did, we were at the top of the list as the two best receivers,” Jeffery said to Rana L. Cash of SportingNews.com. “But that was last year. This year we have to set our goal and try our best to do the same thing we did last year, if not better.”

    Despite having two of the best receivers in the league, the team still has question marks behind them.

    The team released veteran wideout Earl Bennett earlier this season, leaving second-year man Marquess Wilson as the logical choice to claim the third wide receiver spot.

    Wilson played in 10 games for the Bears in 2013, finishing with two receptions for 13 yards. The team plans on giving him a more expanded role, according to head coach Marc Trestman, who said, per the Chicago Tribune:

    I think he showed that we can work with him and develop him. He's got the football intelligence that we're looking for and the ability to be flexible within the offense. He was consistent. So we'll see how it goes.

    Many think Wilson will be ready to take the next step after spending the offseason working out with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in Florida.

    "Going out there with Brandon and Alshon, seeing how they worked and them showing me the way, how to be a pro, and taking me under their wing was an eye-opening thing," Wilson told Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune.

    Wilson told Campbell he now weighs in at 207 pounds after having weighed in at 194 pounds at the NFL combine in February 2013.

    While Wilson has seemingly done all of the right things this offseason, his abilities on the field are still an unknown. He was extremely productive at Washington State before leaving the team, but he has not seen consistent playing time since early in the 2012 season.

    Quarterback Jay Cutler has become comfortable with Wilson in the offense, but Trestman has been clear that Wilson will have to earn his spot.

    "Jay feels comfortable with him out there," Trestman said to Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. "They communicate well together. But we're going to wait and see. We're not going to be easy on guys when they get these opportunities. They don't want to be anointed, and I certainly don't want to anoint them. They have to earn it."

    Assuming Wilson continues to be the favorite to land the No. 3 spot, the remaining couple of spots on the roster will come down to a competition among Eric Weems, Josh Morgan, Josh Bellamy, Terrence Toliver, Chris Williams, Micheal Spurlock and Armanti Edwards.

    Weems and Morgan are the most experienced of the group and likely stand the best shot of making the roster. Weems is best known as a return man while Morgan has amassed 199 catches for 2,488 yards and 11 touchdowns in four NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and two with the Washington Redskins.

    If the team opts to keep six receivers, Bellamy, Toliver, Williams, Spurlock and Edwards will all compete for the final spot with the last three standing the best chance because of their ability as kick returners. 

Rookies Looking to Make an Impact

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    Every NFL general manager's wish is that all of his rookie draft picks can make an impact in their first season.

    In most cases only one or two will make an impact in their rookie seasons but the Chicago Bears feel they've got more than their fair share of guys who can contribute in 2014.

    Most notably is first-round selection Kyle Fuller. Initially believed to be the team's best option to take over the nickelback job in his rookie season, the team appears to want to use him on the outside in nickel situations.

    Interesting development today was Tim Jennings playing nickel when Kyle Fuller came in. Jennings was still No. 2 CB in base D. #Bears

    — Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) May 27, 2014

    Out of all of the rookie, Fuller will likely get most of the playing time considering how often NFL teams like to run three- or four-wide receiver sets, particularly the Green Bay Packers. The adjustment for rookie cornerbacks is typically more difficult than other positions, but Fuller has appeared to hold up well in minicamps and OTAs. 

    Tucker on Kyle Fuller: "He's around the ball quite a bit, and he looks like he belongs out there. I feel good about him out there."

    — Rich Campbell (@Rich_Campbell) June 18, 2014

    A pair of defensive tackles taken in the second and third rounds, Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, should find themselves with an opportunity in training camp to compete for extensive playing time during the regular season.

    Ferguson is a stout nose tackle who has the ability to play 2-gap football if the Bears opt to go with multiple looks up front, while Sutton has a great burst off of the football and had a knack for getting after the quarterback at Arizona State.

    Both should be able to get ample playing time alongside veterans Jeremiah Ratliff, Nate Collins and Stephen Paea in training camp and one or both could see their names jump up the depth chart with a strong showing in Bourbonnais.

    Fourth-round picks, running back Ka'Deem Carey and safety Brock Vereen, both have a chance to make an impact in 2014, but for various reasons.

    Barring any sort of injury to Matt Forte, Carey appears to be the likely No. 2 at running back heading into the regular season, but if he can improve on his pass protection, he may be able to create more opportunities for himself in the regular season.

    Unlike Carey, a strong showing in training camp could help Vereen win the starting free safety job.

    With Chris Conte sidelined from offseason shoulder surgery, Vereen quickly saw his reps increase during OTAs and minicamps, often running alongside Ryan Mundy with the first-team defense.

    Looked like Ryan Mundy and rookie 4th rd pick Brock Vereen running exclusively with the starters at safety today. Vereen at FS.

    — Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) June 11, 2014

    If Vereen can continue the upward trend that he has been on, there is a strong chance that regardless of Conte's health, he will maintain the starting job. But if Vereen regresses even a little bit, a healthy Conte may be able to bounce back from his horrendous 2013 season and reclaim his starting job.

    Of the team's final three picks, only punter Patrick O'Donnell appears to be in line to play a significant role in 2014. 

    O'Donnell will compete against second-year man Tress Way, but considering the team used a draft pick on him, it seems unlikely that the team woud release him unless he struggles mightily in training camp and the preseason.

    David Fales, who was drafted in the fifth round, will have an opportunity to learn behind quarterbacks Jay Cutler, Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen, but it appears unlikely that he will be anything more than the team's third-string quarterback in 2014. 

    Seventh-round pick Charles Leno Jr, along with undrafted free agents Jordan Lynch, Christian Jones, Senorise Perry and others will have uphill battles to make the roster.

    Jones likely stands the best chance of all of the undrafted free agents because of how wide open the linebacker position is for the team behind Lance Briggs. 

    Lynch could make the roster if he can develop in pass protection and prove he can be a contributor on special teams, but it seems unlikely that the 2013 Heisman trophy finalist will make the roster without a stellar training camp.