Bears Blitz: Training Camp Brings Competition
Counting the days until the Bears report to training camp at Olivet Nazarene University while thinking about these position battles:
Safety: After jettisoning the popular, but oft-injured Mike Brown, Chicago has an opening opposite the hard-hitting Kevin Payne. Second-year man Craig Steltz appears to have the first crack, but his limited play in '08 didn't inspire.
Steltz was highly regarded at LSU as an active player with fine instincts and range, so the hope is that the light will come on. Free agent and You Tube sensation Josh Bullocks and former Notre Damer and Texan Glenn Earl have been brought in to compete.
Corey Graham was shifted from corner during organized team activities (OTA's), but word is the coaching staff wasn't thrilled with the results and has scrapped that experiment.
Sixth round pick Al Afalava of Oregon State has a reputation for throwing his body around, and will need to, in order to make the team as a special teamer and provide depth.
As a Bears fan, this unit is a major concern. There's not enough productivity or solid depth. It wouldn't be a stretch to see the Bears make a move during the preseason to bolster the position.
Wide Receiver: Not to slight workhorse running back Matt Forte, who led the Bears in receptions last season, but the Chicago receiving corps lacks proven weapons. It's scary to think that Devin Hester's three touchdowns and 665 yards headline the group, but it is what it is.
Hester can be a highlight reel, but needs to become more consistent running routes and learning the nuances of the position. Earl Bennett was a huge disappointment as a rookie, but being reunited with his former Vanderbilt teammate Jay Cutler should help.
Bennett still holds the Southeastern conference record for career receptions, a surprising fact on two fronts: 1. it shows he can play against elite competition, albeit in college, and 2. he came out of school a year early.
Journey man Rashied Davis returns, but he's become a liability with more frequent drops. Annual practice squad member Brandon Rideau flashes in practice, yet never seems to translate potential into production. There is room for rookie wideouts Juaquin Iglesias, Johnny Knox, and Derek Kinder to contribute early.
Iglesias appears to be the most ready of the three, though Knox possesses exciting measurables. Keep an eye on Kinder, a decent prospect prior to suffering a knee injury his junior season.
Logic would seem to dictate that General Manager Jerry Angelo pull the trigger on signing a veteran receiver, but to date, the Bears have been quiet. From this vantage point, ex-Giant Amani Toomer would look good in navy blue and orange.
Toomer is a high character (read "turd free") veteran who still has mileage left on his 35 year old legs and would fit well in the Chicago lockerroom.
Linebacker: Arguably, Chicago boasts one of the strongest starting linebacking trios in the league. While the starting spots are locked-up with Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and newcomer Pisa Tinoisamoa, the competition is fiece for the backup roles.
Veterans Nick Roach and Hunter Hillenmeyer appear to have lost out after the Tinoisamoa signing. Hillenmeyer, in particular, may be hard pressed to gain a roster spot. He appears to have lost a step.
Roach is athletic and can run, but doesn't show up much on gameday. Fourth year man Jamar Williams is also in the mix. Williams impressed the Bears defensive coaching staff with his work this spring.
The guess here is that Roach and Williams get the nod based on their special teams play and relative youth. A free agent like Rutger's blue-collar Kevin Malast could land on the practice squad with a solid camp.
Defensive Line: Ex-Lions boss Rod Marinelli has a reputation as one of the game's best defensive line coach's. He'll be challenged to revive a dormant pass rush. On paper, the Bears have talent. Veterans Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, and Tommie Harris must produce.
Israel Idonjie is versatile and can play inside or on the edge. Mark Anderson enters a important career crossroads. Is he the double-digit sack man of '06 or the invisible man of the last two seasons? Inside, Marcus Harrison oozes potential, but isn't consistent enough.
Anthony Adams, Dusty Dvorachek, Matt Toenia, and third round pick Jarron Gilbert will battle for two spots. Adams is often overlooked, but earns playing time. Dvorachek is a high motor tough guy who has never been able to stay healthy. This may be his last chance with the Bears. Toenia simply isn't good enough to break into the rotation.
A longshot worth watching is second year defensive end Ervin Baldwin from Michigan State. A seventh-round selection in '08, Baldwin spent last season on the practice squad and flashes a quick first step.
Backup Quarterback: Playing the ultimate "what if" card, are the Bears comfortable with either youngsters Caleb Hanie or Brett Basanez playing? Jay Cutler's durability has never been questioned, but I'd feel a whole lot better with a veteran QB on the sidelines.
Hanie has a strong arm and has impressed the coaching staff, but he seems better suited to a third string role. Basanez bounced around the Carolina practice squad and posesses limited upside.
Other postions: Behind emerging Greg Olsen and dependable Desmond Clark, Michael Gaines, Kellen Davis, and Fontel Mines compete at tight end. Gaines adds versatility as he can play fullback. Davis is a decent special teams player with fine athletic ability.
Adrian Petersen and Garret Wolfe may be battling for one spot behind starter Matt Forte and backup Kevin Jones, depending on the final roster composition. Both are solid special teamers, and Petersen has developed a solid niche as contributing back when called upon.
As Lovie Smith prepares his most talented squad, at least on paper, for the season opener in Green Bay, these positional battles "bear" watching.
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