Getting ready for Bears summer camp
With roster just about set, fun begins soon
July 10, 2012|By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter
Brandon Marshall gives the Bears a legitimate No. 1 receiver. (Brian Cassella/Tribune photo)
The most popular reason the Bears give you for why they will be a contender this season is the club's 7-3 record last year when Jay Cutler went down with a broken right thumb.
The Bears believe they would have been a playoff team if Cutler had remained in the lineup, and it's difficult to disagree.
Some look at what the Super Bowl champion Giants accomplished, catching momentum as the playoffs began, and say why not the Bears? That's a little more difficult to consider because their defense just doesn't have the Giants' wave of pass rushers, which is the first explanation for why the Bears took a defensive end in the first round of the NFL draft.
Amid the optimism that is running wild for 2012, keep in mind the 7-3 mark through Week 11 wasn't good enough for general manager Jerry Angelo to keep his job. Angelo wasn't fired because of the backup quarterback mess — GMs make or break their futures with what they do with front-line players. Angelo was let go after President Ted Phillips (and likely Chairman George McCaskey) didn't like how the Bears roster measured up against the Packers and Lions.
"Ultimately, we look at our division and say we need to close that talent gap," Phillips said at the time of the firing.
The NFC North champion Packers are coming off a 15-1 season and the Lions reached the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. So, you have to ask yourself if the Bears have closed that talent gap during the offseason under new GM Phil Emery?
Two weeks from the start of camp, it looks like the Bears have added one starter to the depth chart in wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Could more new faces in the lineup emerge after training camp and preseason? Certainly. But after the trade for Marshall, free agency was largely about re-signing a host of the team's own free agents while adding backups and help on special teams.
Running back Michael Bush received a $14 million, four-year contract and the hope is he's a far greater investment than the $9.5 million sunk into Chester Taylor and Marion Barber over the previous two years. Jason Campbell will collect $3.5 million to back up Cutler. The team wrote more than $6 million in contracts for Eric Weems and Blake Costanzo, viewed primarily special teams players. That's a lot of money that doesn't do a lot for the starting 22.
How it all fits into the puzzle we will discover in the weeks to come. One former Bears assistant coach, who has heard rumblings about the team this season, asked a burning question earlier this month: "Are they really going to be that good?"
Time will tell. For now, here are five storylines for training camp:
Matt Forte situation
The deadline for the running back to sign a multiyear contract is 3 p.m. Monday.
If he doesn't he will have to play the 2012 season on a one-year contract because he can't sign a new deal until after this season when he and the club could go through the same franchise tag dance once again. Forte's franchise tag tender is worth $7.7 million.
Plenty remains unanswered though.
Forte has nothing to gain in sitting out training camp, but he could choose to stay away to show his disappointment and reduce his chance for injury. There is precedent. Former Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones showed up shortly before the season opened under a franchise tag. It's a delicate subject that coach Lovie Smith declined to address when the club's offseason workout program came to an end.
At the various public appearances Forte has made throughout the spring and early summer, he has looked to be in excellent shape. The lockout didn't prevent him from arriving in top shape last summer with a stronger upper body. Forte could be in a contract year once again, so chances are he will be prepared.
But it's fair to wonder where he will be mentally. As much as he talked last year about respect in terms of a long-term contract, will it follow him into the season? Smith always has said the offseason is the time to handle business. But it's only human nature for things like this to weigh on the minds of players no matter what they say about blocking them out.
Five days remain for a deal to get done, and deadlines spur action. So it's possible Forte will be locked up for the foreseeable future with a new deal with more than a week to go until camp opens. Stay tuned.
There are two reasons why more wasn't done to upgrade the personnel on the line during the offseason.
First, the Bears decided they had bigger needs on the defensive line. That's why the club went with end Shea McClellin in the first round. Second, there has been an acute lack of playmakers on the roster dating back to Emery's first stint with the club as an area scout.
Franchise quarterbacks don't exist without players to help make them great. So, the Bears passed on the chance to add an offensive lineman in the second round and selected South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Neither McClellin nor Jeffery are going to help Cutler remain upright, but the Bears believe with offensive line coach Mike Tice transitioning to coordinator, he will place a premium on quarterback protection, shorter drops and a greater commitment to the running game.
Moreover, 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi has returned from knee surgery and should be ready to take over right tackle. Lance Louis faces a make-or-break year at right guard. Tice's personal project, J'Marcus Webb, is in a similar position at left tackle. Right now, it looks like Chris Spencer will man left guard with Roberto Garza being the only sure thing at center.
But if the Bears don't play better in the trenches, Emery's regime will start off much the way Angelo's ended. Smith will have culpability here too. It would be far too convenient to place it all on Mike Martz and Angelo.
Yet, if the offensive line makes the kind of strides Tice envisions, a major area of concern will be solved.
The Bears don't need the 18th overall pick from Boise State to become a starter right away. But they do need him to make an impact from the outset, something no Bears' first-round pick has done since Tommie Harris in 2004. McClellin must become a valuable part of the rotation at defensive end and play meaningful snaps from the beginning of the season.
The defense has been without a reliable third end since Mark Anderson had a breakout rookie season and faded until the Patriots revived his career last year, setting him up for a lucrative free-agent deal with the Bills. Without a quality third end, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije are on the field too much.
The whole defensive system is predicated on a wave of fresh linemen attacking upfield. If McClellin can thrive, it will allow defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli more room for creativity. He could slide Peppers inside more often where he could line up next to tackle Henry Melton.
Emery was brought in because Angelo had presided over a run of not-so-productive drafts. Fair or not, McClellin will be the standard Emery is judged by for some time. The defense and the general manager alike need a boost from the get-go.
Over the last five seasons, and without a steady quarterback since the departure of Cutler in 2009, Brandon Marshall has averaged 95 receptions and 1,188 yards per season. Those are numbers the Bears haven't seen since the days of Marty Booker a decade ago — and Marshall is a more dynamic playmaker than the reliable Booker was.
So, finally, the Bears have matched their star quarterback with a star wide receiver in a pairing that should make the offense better as a whole. Marshall is a receiver who can make a play on third-and-6 when everyone in the stadium knows he's getting the ball.
But what should be as interesting as his production is the Marshall effect. That is the way his presence should improve the skill-position players around him. Adding Marshall and pushing the depth chart from the top down puts other players in roles where they are better suited.
No longer will Devin Hester be miscast as a "No. 1 receiver." Hester, Earl Bennett and Jeffery will not be forced into spots where they struggle to thrive. Hester and Bennett are both strong players in the slot and will have opportunities there. Adding Marshall should make everyone better and legitimize the passing game.
Pushing for jobs
It doesn't appear that a lot of starting jobs are up for grabs, the product of a veteran roster. But competition is always ongoing and there are some positions definitely worth monitoring.
Safety: If for no other reason than the knowledge that the Bears always are tinkering here, you should pay attention. Brandon Hardin, the third-round pick from Oregon State, will be vying for a spot in the starting lineup. Chris Conte began starting as a rookie last year in Week 6 and that was without any offseason program. Major Wright could be pushed.
Left tackle: The Bears have talked about a competition between Webb and former first-round draft pick Chris Williams at left tackle. They split time through the offseason program so the evaluation already is well under way. Webb figures to have the upper hand but he must improve.
Wide receiver: The playing time probably will be distributed pretty evenly throughout the course of the season, but Hester and Bennett for the starting job opposite Marshall is a battle to watch.
Rookie wide receivers typically take a little time to develop and Jeffery left school a year early, so it might be too soon to project him into the starting mix.
Left cornerback: Kelvin Hayden, when healthy, can help any football team. We'll see where he is physically and if he's up for challenging Tim Jennings. The contracts the players signed would indicate the Bears are counting on Jennings holding the job. But contracts carry only so much weight in the decision process.
Left guard: Spencer looks entrenched here but newcomer Chilo Rachal will have an opportunity to show what he can do.
Coming Thursday: The quarterbacks.