QB Jay Cutler No. 1 on Chicago Bears Camp Concerns List

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QB Jay Cutler No. 1 on Chicago Bears Camp Concerns List
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For a veteran coach facing a make-or-break season, the Chicago Bears’ Lovie Smith could certainly have it worse.

Ownership let Smith have his choice at offensive coordinator with his buddy Mike Martz, defensive coordinator with long-time friend Rod Marinelli, got rid of front-office antagonist Bobby DePaul, and brought in the biggest defensive free agent possible in pass rusher Julius Peppers.

They’ve also bulked up the offense through free agency.

There are plenty of NFL coaches who approach a critical juncture armed only with the mess left over from the previous losing season.

Dick Jauron had this “pleasure” in Chicago in 2003, his final season.

Still, Smith has issues confronting the team heading into Friday’s start of training camp. Each one bears watching, some more closely than others.

 

1. ‘Pick’ it up

Last year it became easy to pass blame off on a tattered offensive line, Matt Forte’s struggles at running back, inexperienced receivers and former offensive coordinator Ron Turner.

It’s funny how a convenient scapegoat seemed available for almost every one of Cutler’s 26 interceptions.

A quarterback who got a contract extension with $30 million in new money for 2012 and 2013 has to start passing the ball and not the buck.

The 27 touchdown passes Cutler threw took off the hook with many, but eight came in the final two games with the Bears eliminated...and four came against Detroit.

Cutler already has one built-in excuse with a new, complicated Martz offense. But Martz even managed production with the quarterback-deficient San Francisco 49ers. So that excuse may not fly.

Cutler threw plenty of interceptions in June organized team activities. The microscope really focuses in now on No. 6 at training camp. He has to be on the same page with the receivers and know all the pages of the playbook.

This is by far the biggest issue facing the team heading into Camp Lovie.

 

2. Frankly speaking

The scenario revolving around right tackle Frank Omiyale is one of three keys to the offensive line.

The Bears moved him from left guard to right tackle because they consider it his natural position. How can Omiyale have a natural position when he only started once before getting 11 starts last year when he was a guard?

And with Omiyale moved to tackle now, the Bears are left with undersized Josh Beekman, inexperienced Johan Asiata, or 2009 seventh-round draft pick Lance Louis.

New offensive line coach Mike Tice constantly expressed confidence and surprise in Asiata’s abilities at OTAs, but getting excited about a lineman during non-contact June workouts is a bit like buying a car after seeing it on the Internet...without driving it.

They won’t know what they have until actual hitting starts in Bourbonnais. Beekman might look plenty big enough if Asiata or Louis fails to take the next step forward.

 

3. Got your back

Sure, 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams looked good in the final three games of the 2009 regular season, including one start against tenacious Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen. But he only has five starts protecting Cutler’s blind side.

And now Martz brings in an offense which puts Williams out one-on-one against top pass rushers while Cutler makes more seven-step drops than probably any quarterback in the league.

Training camp will be big for Williams’ development because he’ll get a lot of work against Peppers. The Bears hope it will be a case of getting better while facing the best.

 

4. Secondary switch

When the Bears traded for Chris Harris, it looked like they had a strong safety with experience and expected rookie third-round draft pick Major Wright to seize the free safety spot.

Instead, when they began off-season work they used Harris entirely at free safety and had Danieal Manning at strong safety.

Until now, Harris’ best play has come at strong safety and most of Manning’s playing time has been at free safety.

It’s not enough that the safeties are switched, but the cornerbacks are, as well.

Charles Tillman no longer has the left corner spot, considered the one where more passes are likely to come.

Instead, Zack Bowman has moved over there from the right side while Tillman is now on the right side.

The five interceptions Bowman made in the final nine games went a long way toward determining this, as did all of Tillman’s injuries.

It’s thought that on the right side, Tillman won’t be physically beaten up as much since most teams run the ball to their right...the defense’s left.

Yet the Bears can’t be certain of Bowman’s improvement after only a season of starting.

All this secondary switching can be risky business, and it will be apparent quickly during seven-on-sevens at Bourbonnais whether the corners and safeties can handle it.

 

5. The Square Peg

The question tight end Greg Olsen has become tired of hearing is whether he can fit as a pass-catching tight end into Martz’s offense, which has historically utilized tight ends only for blocking.

A trade once seemed certain in the off-season, but in OTAs, Martz showed an ability to use two or even three tight ends at time.

The media has only limited access in OTAs, though, and during training camp it will become entirely apparent whether Martz really does have a clue what to do with the best receiver the Bears had the last few years, or whether he is the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

 

6. Mystery man

Defensive tackle Tommie Harris has been the bell cow for the defensive line since arriving in 2004. When he dominated from the three-technique spot, the defense flourished in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Since then, injuries and some generally peculiar behavior left the D-line looking for a dominant force.

Harris is healthier than he’s been since suffering a torn hamstring late in the Super Bowl season of 2006. He hasn’t done anything on or off the field to attract unwanted attention.

Now they’re hoping to start getting a return from the $40 million bonus they paid Harris two years ago.

At one time it was Harris drawing the double teams and taking pressure off the other defensive linemen. Now the Bears hope Harris benefits from the double-teaming Peppers is sure to receiver.

Harris is sure to get more rest in Bourbonnais than most starters as coaches try to preserve his knees and hamstring. All eyes will be focused on how he looks coming out of those practices and the preseason.

 

7. Milk Carton Man

The Bears once thought so much of Mark Anderson that they benched Alex Brown during the off-season.

Anderson has done nothing to justify their faith, and yet they’ve let both defensive ends Adewale Ogunleye and Brown leave as free agents.

Apparently they see a lot more in Anderson than the so-called “untrained eyes” do.

The death of Gaines Adams means the Bears have only one experienced backup D-end in dependable Israel Idonije. However, they have to get increased production from Anderson, who was a restricted free agent and drew no offers.

The idea last year was that Anderson would benefit greatly from working with Marinelli when he coached the D-line. With Marinelli moving to coordinator, the schooling period is over for Anderson. It’s produce or become the third D-end to leave town in two years.

 

8. He’s ridiculous

Devin Hester personified the team’s 2006 success as a return man, but the decision to make him a starting receiver and de-emphasize his special teams contributions almost seems like someone acquiring Peyton Manning and telling him to hand off all the time.

Hester admitted at OTAs to missing the kickoff return duties he’s given up to Johnny Knox and Manning. And he’s slated to miss them again. He’ll only return punts.

Of even more importance is the fact Hester has to prove he can run precise routes and pick up a complicated offense like a No. 1 receiver is supposed to do.

Problems in the Cutler-to-Hester connection surfaced in the early days of training camp last year.

If they still exist, they should show quickly in Bourbonnais this year.

 

9. Any degree of separation

The progress of all Bears wide receivers will be closely scrutinized at camp.

They rarely got much separation from defenders during OTAs and minicamp.

During the off-season, the position most national analysts saw as the team’s biggest weakness was wide receiver. All the while, Smith and Angelo professed great confidence in the wideouts.

Now the group can show everyone what Angelo and Smith say they saw long ago.

 

10. Attitude

During OTAs and minicamp, the Bears practiced at a rapid pace with great intensity.

Expect harder hitting and more heated practices than any time since Smith’s first season of 2004.

Recent Smith training camps have taken on the look of country clubs. Players tend to get too content when they know their roster spots or starting positions are unchallenged.

The only thing that might motivate players almost as much as losing a roster or starting spot is knowing that a coaching change after the season could result in losing a roster or starting spot next year.

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