Putting a Bow on Training Camp: Assessing the Bears' Camp
As Chicago's training camp closes, it's been an interesting three weeks to say the least. Covering the Bears in Bourbonnais has been a totally new experience for me, but it's given me an up-close-and-personal opportunity with coaches and players. I've made extensive notes (filled three notebooks in fact) and have my final assessments on each position for this team.
Quarterbacks: Cutler, Hanie, LeFevour
The quarterback unit has been shaky to say the least. There's been days when we see interception-free performances and others when you can't even count on both hands how many INT's there were. However, there has been a major learning curve.
Jay has essentially picked up where he left off last season. He's been taking better care of the football, his mechanics look cleaner, the ball has a little more "zip" than I've seen from him on game tape, and he's looking like he's learning the offense well.
One down side, his attitude seems to be getting in the way. I can't count how many times I've seen him under or over throw a receiver, throw his hands up in disgust and blame it on a bad route. Granted, all of his miss-fires aren't his fault (see receivers slide) but he's bonding a little too much with offensive coordinator Mike Martz. It's more of a friendly buddy-buddy relationship than it is player-coach relationship.
Before Hanie's injury, he was looking good in camp. His delivery was looking cleaner and faster, but he had a slight issue with staring down receivers too long, which often allowed defensive backs to come over and knock the ball away or force a pick. It's unclear how his shoulder injury, suffered in the first pre-season game, will affect his throwing motion when he returns, but he's making some strides to become a full-fledged back-up.
LeFevour has a lot of work to do, but I have all the confidence in this kid that he can do it. He's got the mental toughness (one of the nicest, most straight-forward guys you'll ever want to meet) to do so.
His delivery has been shaky, to say the least. Every pass he throws floats on him; which has resulted in tons of interceptions (his worst being 6 interceptions on 9 reps one day). He, like Hanie, also has trouble with staring down receivers.
Average footwork, not much of a deceptive pump-fake and tends to wait too long in the pocket.
However, he does have one of the cleanest balls, in terms of spirals, I've ever seen.
Running Backs: Forte, Taylor, Wolfe
Make no mistake, Matt Forte is the Bears' starting running back. No, Chester Taylor was not brought here to challenge him for the starting job. Taylor will be used as more of a check-down pass-receiving back and a 3rd-down back. Forte will carry Chicago's load taking anywhere between 20-40 handoffs per game, even in Martz's pass-first offense.
Forte's been showing explosiveness in camp. He's getting around the edge much quicker than I remember, and is successfully accomplishing one of his pre-camp goals: Breaking tackles.
If one aspect of his game is lacking, it's his receiving skills. There's been some days we he completely muffs a play by focusing too much on catching the ball or focusing on finding the open hole before catching the ball.
As I said before, though, receiving duties in the running backs departments belong to Chester Taylor.
Chester Taylor has got to be happy he's not backing up Adrian Peterson any longer, because he's looking to throw a coming out party. Taylor has had a great camp in Chicago. He's hitting holes with conviction and speed, catching balls with ease then turning it up field for big gains. Chester looks locked and ready to go for the upcoming season.
Wolfe has un-matchable speed for a running back. But size has always been his downfall. Because of that, Wolfe will continue to play special teams, most likely until he retires.
Wide Receivers: Improvement Shown, but Ways to Go
One unique thing about Martz's offensive scheme, is there really is no such thing as a "primary receiver." On any given play, a new receiver (and sometimes a tight end or running back) will be the target. It's complicated, but will it work?
Hester's routes have slowly but surely tightened up. It does seem, and this is the case with every receiver, that he tends to run the route not-quite to perfection which results in over or under throws. I will say, of the six receivers on the depth chart, Hester has looked the cleanest. His hands are improving, which is a major plus, and his routes are tightening. Look for a breakout year by DH.
Knox is still a work in progress. He easily has the best hands of the receivers, and runs the cleanest routes. However, it's his attitude that scares me a bit.
There were numerous times where it appeared that Knox quit on routes, causing major heckling by Mike Martz and Jay Cutler.
Several times throughout camp I witnessed Johnny miss a catch by a few feet and Cutler just start chewing him out as he walks back to the huddle; subsequently enduring ridicule from Martz for not jogging back.
I do think he'll be a viable weapon, but I am concerned with the small clashes with Cutler and Martz.
Devin Aromashadu has been quietly morphing into one of the Bears' prime targets.
He's fast, but lacks the quick-burst ability. He's got good hands, but probably won't make any spectacular over-the-shoulder grabs. He's been dominant in man-to-man coverage but tends to struggle when he's facing a defense in zone and he appears to get confused on routes which causes the quarterbacks to look him off and find the second target.
Aromashadu, however, will be a viable slot receiver for the Bears.
Earl is another work in progress. He's shown flashes of greatness with quick speed, clean routes, fantastic grabs and adjusts well from man to zone coverages.
But throughout camp, he's had some days that have caused his coaches to just stare in disbelief with a "what the heck was that?" look.
Family Night at Soldier Field was one of those instances when he had three balls fired to him from 15 yards out, all three hit him in the hands then fell straight to the grass. It's moments like that when you're reminded he has a ways to go.
But don't give up on this Commadore, as improvements are visible.
Juaquin Iglesias and Rashied Davis
At this point in time, both Davis and Iglesias are special teams guys only. Providing no injury, it will likely stay that way throughout the season.
Tight Ends: Martz's Toys
Much has been made about what offensive coordinator Mike Martz will do with the tight end situation in Chicago. Training camp has shed a little bit of light.
He's been motioning the tight ends more than ever, and working primarily with two tight-end sets, oftentimes assigning one as a blocker, the other as a receiver, and sometimes as a slot receiver. It'll be interesting to see how this strategy plays into the games, but this is what I've noticed about the players:
Greg Olsen is not cut out to be an NFL blocking tight end. Physically, he lacks the size in his lower extremities with no wide-hips (which causes defensive linemen to man-handle blockers) and no upper-body strength to compete with the likes of Tommie Harris and Julius Peppers through camp.
Which leads me to believe, he won't be able to handle other defensive linemen with talent in the NFL.
That being said, Olsen has made improvements by leaps and bounds in the receiving department of his game.
His hands are much improved, his route running is tightened up from last season, and he's taking care of the football much better. I can remember a play in camp where he had man-to-man on Lance Briggs, ran an out-route to the sidelines, got caught in zone coverage but stood tall in his route, went up in the air, snagged Cutler's ball, only to be met by a crushing blow to the hands from Charles Tillman (the Bears' forced fumble leader which any other time would've resulted in a fumble) and held on for the big gain.
That's happened numorous times through camp.
Also, Olsen has lined up countless times through camp in the wide receiver position, mostly as a slot receiver, which may mean that he could make the transition to wide receiver while Desmond Clark takes over the tight end role.
Despite his age, Desmond Clark is still a tremendous blocking tight end.
It seems he may have lost his touch on the receiving end of things (or maybe he's over-shadowed by the vast improvement of Olsen), but it won't matter anyways. Clark will be used as a block-first tight end in Martz's two tight-end system. I'd be lying if I said I saw him catch more than 10 balls all camp.
Offensive Line: The Keys to Success
They took the brunt of criticism last season, and are still the mystery of the team through camp. How will the fare this season? It's still unclear.
Offensive line coach Mike Tice has said he's "impressed" by the improvemnent of the line. Have I seen improvement? Yes. How much? Not a lot.
LT: Chris Williams
In the early part of camp, Williams was holding his own against Julius Peppers allowing virtually no sacks and wouldn't allow Peppers to even get around him.
However, Peppers quickly adjusted and soon thereafter started owning Williams. Williams quickly showed his weakness: and inability to stop or even slow down pass rushers around the edge.
But think of it this way, he was facing arguably the league's best pass rusher throughout camp. Which could speak volumes when he lines up against the other defensive ends in the league.
LG: Roberto Garza
It's clear that Garza's move from right guard to left guard was to give Cutler more blind-side protection. It's also helped the running backs when cutting to the left side, as the combination of Williams, Garza and Kreutz have opened up running lanes. The left side of the line is the strong point of the line.
C: Olin Kreutz
Olin Kreutz has consistently been the Bears' best offensive linemen, and this season won't change much. He's been quick off the snap, squared up on his blocks, and it seems that Tice's presence has truly helped the veteran improve even more.
RG: Lance Louis/J'Marcus Webb
The right side of the line is where the uncertainty begins.
Lance Louis is currently the listed starter at right guard, but signs are pointing to J'Marcus Webb to make a late-preseason surge to make a case for the starting job.
Louis has been able to open up holes and give Cutler time, but his 6-3, 305 lbs. frame doesn't come in handy enough as Webb's 6-7, 328 pound mass. Webb creates more space for running backs and can easily throw his weight around against of of the slower defensive tackles in the league.
It'll be interesting to see who wins the starting job.
RT: Frank Omiyale, J'Marcus Webb, Kevin Shaffer.
Yes, you could also throw J'Marcus Webb in the mix for starting right tackle. Savvy veteran Kevin Shaffer has had a good camp, but the winner of the position is Frank Omiyale. Yes, he struggled last season in the position but he's shown more explosiveness off the snap, holds his own against the defensive ends, and has been getting help from the left guards and tight ends lined up around him (in sort of a zone-blocking scheme).
Defensive Line: Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
In order for Lovie Smith's Cover-2 defense to succeed, the Bears must execute excellent pass-rush. Which is something they haven't been able to do successfully since the 2006 Super Bowl season.
Now, with Julius Peppers added to the mix, the Bears should return to greatness.
RE: Julius Peppers
Peppers is, to sum it up a one word, a beast. At 6-7, 283 lbs., I've never, in all my years of watching football, seen a defensive end come off the block and around the edge with such ease as I've seen Peppers been able to do.
A man that size should not be able to do that. But he has. He's a terrific pass rusher, an even better run-stopper, and anchors down the defensive line. Peppers should see a healthy amount of sacks this season, and will get you a ton of tackles.
DT (nose tackle): Anthony Adams/Marcus Harrison
Anthony Adams is simply a guy who plugs up holes in the middle. At 6-0, 310 lbs, it's a big body in a small frame to move around quickly. However, he's been showing signs that he's improving as I've seen him stuff runs like crazy all camp.
Keep an eye on Marcus Harrison. Harrison enters his 3rd NFL season and with a stellar finish to the preseason, he could be looking at a shared-starter or even full time starter role at nose tackle. He's had an excellent camp.
Unfortunately, it's the nose tackle that's the weakest part of the defensive line, a spot where Alex Brown would've come in handy.
DT (left defensive tackle): Tommie Harris
If he can stay healthy, I firmly believe that Tommie Harris is going to be incredible.
He's been shedding blocks like nothing, stuffing holes like nobody's business and wreaking havoc on quarterbacks by forcing them into bad throws.
He always seems to be involved in the play, getting his massive hands up to disrupt a pass, or forcing a quarterback to rush his throws. Harris looks great.
LE: Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson is also poised for a great season. He's been quick around the strong-side edge, slowing down tight end routes and having success in the run-stopping department. Anderson is looking really good.
Israel Idonije also looks good in camp. Showing some signs of slowing down, but still hold down the strong side rush pretty well.
The Bears are transitioning from a run-stop defensive line to a pass-rush line. Which means faster, more athletic players that can bust through and rush a quarterback rather than stopping a run. Idonije is one of those guys.
Quick note: Look for rookie Corey Wootton to see some playing time in the pre-season and possibly during the regular season. He's a solid player, a big body (6-6, 270 pounds), and has been showing many sparks of greatness throughout camp.
Linebackers: Solid All Around
As we got deeper and deeper into camp, it became more and more painfully obvious how much the Chicago Bears missed Brian Urlacher last season. He's not only one heck of a player, but he's the heart and soul of this locker room. Now that he's back, and if he can stay that way, I will say this linebacking corp is better than what we saw in 2006.
MLB: Brian Urlacher
Urlacher's return means a lot of things.
1): The anchor of the linebackers is back, and he hasn't lost a single step,
2): Chicago will have better run-stoppage this season with Brian in the middle.
3): A man who knows this defense and has played in it since its inception is always more helpful on the field than off it.
In terms of X's and O's, Urlacher looks great. His mechanics are there, no signs of back or wrist issues, and he's been chugging away at the linebacker position.
LOLB (weak side): Lance Briggs
With the absence of Urlacher last year, Briggs really took control of the linebackers and made some plays. He's one of the better outside linebackers in the NFL and has shown nothing different this camp. His form looks good, his timing is swell and most importantly his quickness and strength is right where it should be.
ROLB (strong side): Nick Roach
Roach enters his 4th NFL season and his 2nd as starting outside linebacker. He made some impact on the strong side last season and is showing some potential again this year in camp. I'll need to see more of him in game situations as I really (and this is because it's camp) haven't seen him lay a lick on anyone all camp.
I'd like to see what he can do in the open field and his ability to gun down runners in open space and lay a hit on them.
Cornerbacks: Fishing for Excitement
The secondary has also been a glaring weakness for the Bears in the last several years, much of which has been blamed on youth and injuries. Now, with camp ending and minimal damage, can the secondary stay focused to execute one of the toughest defensive schemes in the Cover 2?
Right side CB: Charles "Peanut" Tillman
(Back-ups: Tim Jennings and D.J. Moore)
Tillman is the prototypical cornerback. He's got the right physique, the right technique, the constant awareness for the ball and the constant intensity to punch a ball out and create turnovers. He's excellent in man-to-man coverage and even better in zone. Though his age may tell him otherwise, Tillman is one of the game's best. Look for a bounce-back year littered with interceptions.
Quick note: Jennings and Moore are showing promise to become prime-time corners down the road. That is, of course, if they continue improvement like they've been.
Left side CB: Zackary Bowman
(Back-ups: Corey Graham and Joshua Moore)
Zackary Bowman, when focused and sticks to his routes, is a terror in the secondary.
I've seen him come out of nowhere to pick off Cutler, making him look silly.
Bowman reads routes extremely well (especially come-back routes), covers in man-to-man well and has great jump-ball instincts which results in picks. His only downfall is his size. At 6-1, 193 lbs., he's a bit under-matched against some of the big-time wide receivers who range anywhere between 6-3 to 6-5 and over 200 lbs.. That could spell trouble for any undersized corner, but Bowman certainly has been holding his ground.
Safety: Decisions, Decisions
Who would've thought that the Bears' toughest decision will come in the safety position? With Chris Harris, Josh Bullocks, Major Wright, Craig Steltz and Danieal Manning all viable options for the two starting safety positions.
If there's any one player on the entire Bears roster that I'd have to say made the biggest splash, it's hands-down Major Wright. He's excellent in any coverage, has outstanding speed, great hands, great awareness, amazing man-to-man route recognition; basically everything you look for in a safety.
But his groin and finger injuries already seems ominous to a young career that, hopefully, won't plague a promising career.
Major Wright will be an NFL starter sooner or later, and if I was a betting man, I'd take the sooner.
Harris is Major Wright, only more seasoned. Great footwork, play recognition, speed and agility. He's, without a doubt, one of the two starters at the safety position.
Manning is currently the starter at strong safety, that is until Major Wright gets back to get reps and steal the job away. Manning has the tools to be a great safety, but the talents aren't as well developed as Harris' or Wright's.
With all his injuries, I'd say it's just about time we tuck Steltz away on special teams and come to terms that he won't be an NFL starting safety. Great guy for special teams, however.
Bullocks has a little seasoning left before I put him anywhere near the starting safety roles. Maybe in two to three years, I'll reconsider, but right now, Bullocks is a back-up.
Head Coach: Lovie's last stand?
Lovie Smith is swimming in hot water. Since the 2006 Super Bowl season, Lovie's Bears have been an underachieving 23-25 team that have lost no-brain games that eventually cost playoff slots. (The most painful being the 2008 season finale against Houston).
There is no denying that the players respond to Lovie, and for that reason, I say at this point in time he's the best choice to coach the team. But with three former head coaches around him (Mike Tice, Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli) the Bears have one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL. Bar none. If they put their heads together, and keep the ship afloat, they're going to win some football games!
Not to mention, the sense of urgency is there. If another losing season comes around, Lovie could be gone causing big changes. It's time to pull out from mediocrity. The talent is there, Chicago.
Right now, just one day removed from the end of Training Camp, on paper the Bears are a playoff team. More specifically, a 10-6 playoff team.
Injuries must not happen, implosion must not happen and a learning curve must occur. The potential is there, but it just needs to be executed.
Running Backs: A-
Tight Ends: A
Offensive Line: C
Defensive Line: A
OVERALL TRAINING CAMP GRADE: B-