It might not catch the most headlines when training camp opens but this is certainly a battle worth noting. The Bears elected to pass on drafting a quarterback despite Jay Cutler being in the final year of his contract. That means they either didn't see a good situation to take one or they feel good about who they have. A lot of fans like Blanchard, the second-year man out of Wisconsin-Whitewater. It may not seem like much but 2013 is probably the biggest chance he will have to prove he can play at a high enough level. McCown turns 34 in July, so his prospects of earning a starting job elsewhere are minimal. That means if Blanchard beats him out for the backup job it could signal Marc Trestman sees something in the kid.
Third Running Back:
Given how often running backs get hurt in the NFL this is a battle that needs attention. Allen stepped in at times last season and played fairly well, though his biggest contributions came on special teams. Ford didn't blow everybody away while at LSU but his speed and agility make him an excellent change-of-pace back in the West Coast system the team is installing. Two key points of this faceoff is who receives better out of the backfield and who makes a bigger impact on special teams.
Since Chicago hasn't found a true fullback in free agency or the draft it's likely they figure to make do with the bodies they have in house. Rodriguez filled that role last year and did a fair job, at least early in the season before injuries began to hamper him. His only real competition is Unga. The 2010 supplemental draft pick has jumped on and off the Bears roster for years, never able to find a niche to stay active. Perhaps if he bulked up he could give Rodriguez a challenge.
Backup Tight End:
With Martellus Bennett established as the primary pass catcher and Steve Maneri taking over as the primary blocker, a race will certainly unfold for the third tight end spot. Elridge has a long way to go if he wants any hope of making his case since he hasn't seen the field yet as a Bear. Adams figures to have the early advantage given his special teams experience. However the dark horse is Onobun, a former basketball player who at 6'6" ran a 4.48 40-yard dash. If he can overcome his inexperience and make some plays early, he could lockup that job and give Cutler yet another big target.
The Wide Receivers
Outside of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett it will be a wide open race for the final three receiver slots now that Devin Hester has been relegated to full-time return duty. The early favorites for those spots are Eric Weems and Joe Anderson who help out on special teams and seventh round pick Marquess Wilson. However there are some interesting contenders. Undrafted free agent Mark Harrison out of Rutgers is a physical specimen who made some nice plays in college while fellow UDFA Josh Lenz out of Iowa State posted a 4.3 40-yard dash and great strength in both the vertical jump and bench press. Brittain Golden returns after having a nice camp last season but didn't crack the active roster. Marcus Rucker holds a lot of promise coming out of Memphis (averaged 17 yards per catch as a sophomore). The silent one of the group is probably Dale Moss, who at 6'3" ran a 4.45 and jumped 41.5 inches vertically. Like Onobun he comes from a basketball background and is inexperienced. Still if he can absorb the playbook quickly and bulk up from his lanky 213 lbs he could be the upset pick this year.
There is no doubt this position will be one to watch on the offensive line. Most expect Webb to take over at that spot since Jermon Bushrod came in from New Orleans to lock down the left side. His main challenger is Scott who is also a veteran and played there for a good portion of last season. The underdog of the group is Mills. Though he's a fifth round pick the kid already has the needed strength and technique. If he can show the coaches he's competent enough against the starters his ability to run block may give him an edge in this race.
Matt Slauson almost certainly figures to play the right guard spot since it's what he did with the New York Jets last season. That means it's a mad race for the last open spot on the left side. Brown filled in there late last season and played well enough given his obvious inexperience. Britton had a lot of buzz around him out of college but never realized his potential in Jacksonville. Perhaps he can change that under Aaron Kromer. Carimi spent his college days as a left tackle at Wisconsin, so this guard spot may fit him better than the right side where he played last year. The one everybody will want to watch though is first round pick Long. He's athletically gifted and known for his mean streak. It could open some eyes if he beats out the field to claim the starting job.
Like quarterback the Bears had hoped they could draft an eventual replacement at center for Roberto Garza, who turned 34 in March. Unfortunately the run on centers happened before they could get anyone of value so instead they resorted to free agency. They picked up Boggs, a virtual unknown who joined the Jets in 2011 before tearing his ACL. That said he seems to have some athletic potential Phil Emery wants explored. After the draft Chicago quickly picked up Lonergan out of LSU. While not the most gifted athlete, he started for three years against SEC competition and displayed good command of the line and solid technique. Williams on the other hand hasn't held the official title but has regularly been singled out as the backup option at center. His roster spot could be in danger if either Boggs or Lonergan make an impression.
Situation Pass Rusher:
This is perhaps one of the more interesting competitions to watch. McClellin figures to have improved from a year ago so his spot as the third defensive end is likely not in jeopardy. That doesn't mean he should relax. Moore played well in a similar role in Buffalo while McBride has played well in spots the past couple seasons as he bounced around the league. Ozougwu made a nice impression in preseason last year and could make noise but a lot of attention will go to Washington. The sixth round pick is an athletic freak who never seemed to take off in the 3-4 scheme for Georgia. Experts think he is a better fit as a pass rusher in the 4-3, which is exactly what Chicago will make him.
Fourth Defensive Tackle:
There are still some options open to the Bears in terms of finding depth at defensive tackle but for the time being there is one slot open for the taking. With Henry Melton and Stephen Paea penciled in as starters and Nate Collins behind them, it falls to three unknowns to make their case. Fluellen is an experienced player but hasn't made much impact since his first stint with the Detroit Lions back in 2010. Minter however is an intriguing prospect known for his high motor, good hand usage and speed (4.80 40-yard dash at 301 pounds). Russell on the other hand suffers from size issues but made a big impact regardless. He's strong, intense and determined. His chances will only increase if he bulks up.
Like the receivers this is another hot mess. Lance Briggs is a starter for sure. After that it is a glorified guessing game. Veterans free agents D.J. Williams and James Anderson figure to have the other two spots in hand but the Bears haven't made it easy for them. Second round pick Jon Bostic and fourth round pick Khaseem Greene bring a lot of impact ability with them from college and could make early pushes for the starting jobs. Barring that it will come down to special teams play for the rest of the group. Blake Costanzo and J.T. Thomas hold serve in that race so far but fellow reserves like Patrick Trahan and Jerry Franklin could offer a challenge if Mel Tucker sees something different from Lovie Smith.
This figures to shape up as an even race when training camp opens. Major Wright and Chris Conte are the starters. After that it's a free-for-all. Steltz and Zbikowski bring excellent special team experience along with some time in the starting lineup. Hardin has the most upside of the group as a third round pick from last year. Walters continues to hang around whether on the practice squad or even cracking the active roster. Nelson has some experience but nothing too impressive. Everything will depend on who makes the most plays in the preseason.
This is another area fans need to watch. All three starters in Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Kelvin Hayden sit in the last year of their deals. That means the Bears must be on the lookout for some young help in their reserves. Bowman and McManis are excellent special teams guys and have played adequately on defense when asked. Frey made some plays late in the preseason last year but failed to crack the active roster and spent his first season on the practice squad. Wilson is the most intriguing UDFA pickup of 2013, an athletic corner out of N.C. State he measures out well yet hasn't had the production to prove it. Hurst on the other hand isn't the best physical prospect. Still scouts believe he is athletic and gritty enough to play the slot in a zone defense, which is exactly where the Bears would need him.