Let the Cutler Era (and Questions) Begin

Paul LadewskiCorrespondent IIMay 21, 2009

LAKE FOREST, IL - MAY 20: Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears participates during an organized team activity (OTA) practice on May 20, 2009 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Chicago had waited weeks for Wednesday to arrive finally. Actually, years. It was the afternoon that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler unleashed his first passes on the practice field in Lake Forest, and the new rich kid on the block didn’t disappoint anyone.

J.C. Superstar displayed the rocket arm and stone-cold swagger that convinced the front office to send quarterback Kyle Orton, a pair of first-round draft picks and a third-rounder to the Denver Broncos in a trade early last month.

Something else stood out as much as Cutler and his tight spirals downfield at the OTA – the slew of dropped passes at the other end of them.

Preseason camp may be 10 weeks away, but it’s not too early to ask some pertinent questions here. Is Cutler destined to be a Ferrari with four flat tires? Or is there enough talent and savvy at wide receiver to elevate the pass game to a championship level at last?

That position battle heads the list of ones that will merit close looks later this summer. Here they are with their Degree of Urgency based on a 1-to-10 scale:

Wide receiver: Earl Bennett versus Rashied Davis versus Devin Hester versus Juaquin Iglesias.

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The foursome has 145 receptions and seven touchdowns in their NFL careers. As Cutler’s favorite target last season, Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall had 104 catches and six TDs alone.   

Bennett and Cutler are on the same page—they’re former Vanderbilt teammates —but the wide-out lacks confidence and has been slow to digest the playbook. Davis has been inconsistent but could benefit from a move back to the slot position. Hester is as undependable as he is dangerous, and there’s an on-going debate as to how to get the most out of him. Iglesias was impressive at the team mini-camp in March, but the third-round draft pick has much to learn still.

The early over-under on how long it takes Cutler to wish he had Marshall around: Six snaps.

DoU: 10.0.

Strong-side linebacker: Hunter Hillenmeyer versus Nick Roach

The picture would become clearer if free agent Pisa Tinoisamoa signs with the team. Before the 27-year-old veteran was released earlier this month, he spent six seasons with the St. Louis Rams, the first with defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, now the Bears head coach. The Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles also have expressed interest in him.

Hillenmeyer comes off sports hernia surgery, the latest in a series of injuries that limited his effectiveness last season, when Roach moved ahead of him on the depth chart. Hillenmeyer was not physically able to take part in the mini-camp two months ago. Roach has 17 games of regular-season experience at the pro level.

Even if Tinoisamoa were to come aboard, he wouldn’t address the lack of size and strength at the position. In the absence of a physical presence at the strong side, the unit could be vulnerable against a power run game.

DoU: 8.0.

Free safety: Corey Graham versus Josh Bullocks

If Graham can make a successful transition from right cornerback, then this position could be a pleasant surprise, but that’s a big if at the moment.

Graham has excellent range and doesn’t shy away from contact. The question is, can the 23-year-old develop the instincts and know-how necessary to man the position? And if so, how long will it take to do so? He hasn’t played free safety on a regular basis since his high school days.

In Bullocks, a free-agent newcomer, the position has an experienced option if nothing else. The former second-round draft pick totaled 49 starts with the New Orleans Saints in four seasons, but his erratic pass coverage made him expendable.

Reserve strong safety Craig Steltz is said to be a possibility but probably as a last resort.

DoU: 6.0.

Right cornerback: Nathan Vasher versus D.J. Moore

Only months after talk that he would be released, Vasher has the inside track here. Now the 27-year-old has to show that he’s close to the same guy who was a 2005 Pro Bowl selection, not the broken-down one who was limited to 12 games because of hand and groin problems the last two seasons.

Vasher may be pushed by D.J. Moore, a fourth-round pick in the last draft. Moore is a gifted athlete who reminds general manager Jerry Angelo of Vasher at the start of his career. The flip side: At 5'9", 192 pounds, he isn’t well-equipped for run support and press coverage.

Another possibility is veteran Roderick Hood, who was invited to a free-agent tryout after the Arizona Cardinals cut him last month. If holdover Trumaine McBride joined the crowd, then that means only one thing—trouble.

DoU: 5.5.

Offensive right tackle: Chris Williams versus Kevin Shaffer.

After a wasted rookie season, Williams appears to be the early favorite for the starter role, but he’ll have to earn it.    

In the 2008 draft, Williams was selected at the 14th pick despite what was thought to be a minor back problem. Then preseason camp started and he hobbled around like a man three times his age. Williams saw spot duty after his return from disc surgery, but in many respects, he’ll have to start over again.

Shaffer replaces veteran John St. Clair as the swing tackle, and the 29-year-old veteran wasn’t offered a three-year, $8 million contract to sit on the bench. The former Falcon and Brown has 78 games of regular-season experience, which makes him a reasonable alternative.

DoU: 2.0.