As training camp kicks off, the Chicago Bears have more than a couple questions that need answering before the first game on September 12th.
How are Jay Cutler and Mike Martz going to work out?
Can Matt Forte rebound from a miserable sophomore season?
Can the Bears' receivers master a new, highly complicated offense in time to be effective?
Can the defense, once so proud and dominant, regain that form after becoming progressively worse over the past three seasons?
Many of these questions won't be answered until the season is well under way, but questions about positions and roster spots can be answered before the final preseason game.
Here are six battles to keep your eye on:
Starting right tackle: Frank Omiyale vs. Kevin Shaffer
After a terrible first year with the Bears at left guard, Omiyale has moved over to the right tackle spot and stepped into the starters role, a position he played while with the Carolina Panthers.
This will allow him to operate in more space without concerning himself over pulling on running plays, focusing instead on the man in front of him.
While this writer was all for Big Frank no longer being the left guard, making him the starter before training camp seems a little too bold. Kevin Shaffer stepped into the starters role last season when Orlando Pace finally succumbed to injury (and age).
After Shaffer was brought in as the starter, Cutler's interceptions seemed to drop off, only tossing six picks over the last five games, compared to the 20 interceptions in the first 11 games.
Matt Forte also seemed to get a slight boost when Shaffer arrived, gaining 386 yards over the final five games compared to the 272 yards he accumulated in the previous seven games.
Does this mean Shaffer should be the starter?
No; but it should be an interesting battle for offensive line coach Mike Tice and the rest of Bear Nation to watch.
Third-string quarterback: Dan Lefevour vs. Mike Teel vs. Free Agent veteran
Dan Lefevour was the Bears Sixth Round pick in the 2010 draft, and while not much was thought of him before, many considered him a steal of a pick that late.
Mike Teel was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the Sixth Round of the 2009 NFL draft. After spending a year on the bench, new coach Pete Carroll came in and waived Teel. Teel then signed with the Patriots briefly before being waived again and then finally landing with the Bears.
While Teel had a pretty decent college career, this signing was viewed more as competition to the back up quarterback spot than to actually fill a hole.
That said, who should the Bears actually have as their third-string QB?
There is some speculation that Lefevour may be waived so he can be added to the practice squad, but there might be more than one team that would try and snag him.
While that would be a shame, Lefevour is nowhere close to being an NFL QB. He is going to need at least three seasons before he can compete at that level. Wasting a roster spot to keep a player who will not be playing seems foolish.
Mike Teel has a strong arm, but he is going to have to show a lot in training camp to even warrant consideration for the 53-man roster.
So that begs the question, do the Bears think they can bring a veteran to compete behind Cutler and backup Caleb Hanie?
Or more to the point, is there is even a veteran worth bringing in?
*For the record, there really isn't a good veteran out there. The current list of available QBs is highlighted by the following: Colt Brennan (free agent), Brian St. Pierre (free agent), Josh McCown (QB of the Hartford Colonials), Daunte Culpepper (QB of the Sacramento Mountain Lions), JaMarcus Russell (free agent) and Cade McNown.
Starting free safety: Major Wright vs Craig Steltz vs Danieal Manning
Wright is without question the safety of the future. But in terms of being the best player for the team to win right now, that is still up in the air.
Steltz has proven to be an adequate safety in terms of coverage, but his tackling generally leaves a lot to be desired.
In college, Wright was an absolute beast and many believed that had he returned for his senior season, he could have been a top 10 pick in next year's draft.
That said, this may be the best opportunity for him as a Third Round pick. The expectations are not excessively high right out of the gate, and he has a chance to study under an experienced safety in Chris Harris. Not to mention, he will be given the chance to win the starting role while still taking some time to learn.
The real pressure is on Steltz to prove he has progressed and improved each year.
Danieal Manning just has no business being on the field as a starting safety, or (in my opinion) as a safety at all. Manning is best suited for the nickel corner position.
At safety, Manning just looks lost and confused and his insane athletic ability is still not enough to make up for that lack of knowledge.
Fifth wide receiver spot: Rashied Davis vs Juaquin Iglesias
With the top four spots locked up between Devin Hester, Devin Aromashodu, Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett, the fifth receiver spot is currently a two-man battle.
If the Bears decide to keep six receivers, then we have a three-way free-for-all for the final two spots, with undrafted free agent Freddie Barnes in the mix as well.
Iglesias drew praise from general manager Jerry Angelo when camp kicked off, but has since suffered a quad injury that might hamper his chances.
Davis is the experienced veteran and brings to the table his solid special teams play as well. The Bears are the only NFL team Davis has played for and he has expressed a sincere desire to stay and contribute.
Although if he intends to do that, he will have to cut back on the amount of dropped passes he suffered over the past year or two (at one point he had the second highest dropped pass-to-passes thrown to ratio in the NFL, just behind Braylon Edwards).
Barnes is an interesting option. He has, by all accounts, incredibly dependable hands and is an excellent route runner. But he lacks NFL speed and that is what could very well hold him back. I don't think Barnes makes the active roster this year, but he is an interesting option down the road if he can find his niche, like a Bobby Engram-type player; he's a reliable ball catcher who always seems to find the first down marker.
Fullback: Eddie Williams vs Will Ta'ufo'ou vs a fourth tight end.
Williams was a Seventh Round pick by the Washington Redskins last year and after spending part of last season on the practice squad and the other part on the bench, he was released and signed by the Bears.
Williams displayed pass-catching ability while in college at the University of Idaho, but his blocking ability still seems to be a work in progress.
Ta'ufo'ou was an undrafted free agent last season by the Bears and spent the entire year on the practice squad. Ta'ufo'ou has drawn some praise early in training camp from the likes of Brad Biggs, but still has to improve blocking skills.
Which is why both players are on the bubble to make the roster.
The Bears have four capable tight ends on the roster at the moment: Greg Olsen, Desmond Clark, Brandan Manumaleuna and Kellen Davis. Manumaleuna or Clark could slide back into the H-back position to provide blocking support for Cutler on passing downs, which is what both Williams and Ta'ofu'ou need to improve upon the most.
So neither fullback has a spot locked up. If neither impresses, the Bears have the option to just keep an extra tight end as opposed to a single fullback.
Strong side linebacker: Pisa Tinoisamoa vs Nick Roach
A fun battle to watch throughout training camp (providing neither player gets injured) is the one between Roach and Tinoisamoa.
Tinoisamoa started the season last year at the SAM linebacker position, but an injury in Week One and then another injury a few weeks later derailed his entire season. Roach came in last season and performed quite admirably, especially considering he played middle linebacker at times after Urlacher and Hunter Hillenmeyer suffered injuries.
Now the question becomes that even if Tinoisamoa outplays Roach in camp, does Roach have an edge considering he is younger and may be around longer than Tinoisamoa. Giving him experience now with Urlacher and Pro Bowler Lance Briggs next to him could pay dividends down the road for the Bears.
As a nod to their sportsmanship, both players seem to be taking the battle in stride and Tinoisamoa was quoted by Brad Biggs as saying, "I think there's just a respect for each other...Then we watched each other out there. And we were just like, 'To the best man.' It could be quite a battle."
Regardless of who ends up starting, Bears fans can be rest assured that in any injury takes place in the starting linebacker unit, the backup should be more than capable of filling in.
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