Headed into the off-season, the Bears had several questions at numerous positions, from QB all the way to Safety. As the Bears broke for the final day of Mini-camp, most if not all those questions have been addressed, where we will finally see all the hard work Phil Emery and his staff put in together this year at Bourbonnais, with several competitions and new looks set to be seen during Training Camp. In this post, I will describe what I see are to be the most important and interesting position group battles expected to take place this preseason.
Position Group #1) Defensive Backs
First on our list is the position group that will probably have the most attention during training camp this year. At the CB position, you have both Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings returning, which is a huge boon as the Pro Bowl tandem are set to lock down top receivers for yet another year together. Throw in a future starter in Kyle Fuller that will be groomed by those two, and a shift in the line-up with Jennings playing from the slot on certain situations as the first round pick plays outside, you have a very interesting situation at the least. And then...there's the Safety position.
It's no secret the Bears had some disappointing play from their Safeties a year ago, with the starting tandem of Chris Conte and Major Wright receiving flak from all directions of the fan base and local media. Where this position received arguably the "least" amount of attention compared to other big needs, the Bears didn't exactly ignore the problem either. Yes, they didn't land the young Pro Bowl stud early on in Free Agency, and didn't use any of their early draft picks on players in this position.
Instead, they picked up a player seen by them as an emerging starter in Ryan Mundy to a smallish deal, in addition to a slew of other signings at Safety as well. And later, they traded up in the fourth round of the draft for a potential competitor in Brock Vereen. Then, a day after veteran mini-camp concluded, the Bears ended up signing five-time Pro Bowl SS Adrian Wilson, and he will compete for a starting job. Does he have much left in the tank, that we will see when the pads come on. But overall, as unspectacular as this all seems, the Safety positions are both wide open and stand to be vastly improved from last year, thanks to a completely overhauled defensive line.
Position Group #2) Defensive Line
Out with the familiar line-up of Julius Peppers, Stephen Paea, Henry Melton, and Corey Wootton from a year ago. In with the new-look line-up of Jared Allen, Stephan Paea/Draft Pick, Jeremiah Ratliff, and Lamarr Houston. The Bears sank a majority of their resources to re-build a unit completely destroyed by injuries last season, and it's safe to say it looks a lot better following the investment. On paper, they're both larger and more physical, with the intent of stopping the run a clear emphasis. And, of course, they will still provide a capability of rushing the passer as well.
Last season, the average size of the Bears' initial starting DL was approximately 6'3" and 288 pounds per player. This year, the DL could average around 6'3" and up to 298 pounds per player, depending on which starting four you use. The "heavy" set figures to include Allen, Ratliff, Ferguson, and Houston, which together average around 10 pounds heavier than last year's predominate four. They got especially heavier at the DT position, with the prospect of Jeremiah Ratliff and Ego Ferguson along with Will Sutton as the "big guys" all being larger than Henry Melton and Stephan Paea. And yet, they still will be expected to rush the passer, with a slightly heavier emphasis coming from the edge, as Jared Allen leads the NFL in sacks from his position since he came into the league in 2004. Also, don't sleep on Willie Young, who figures to be a great option in the DE rotation with Houston being kicked inside on certain packages. It should be a lot of fun watching the battles between the Starting OL and DL in contact drills.
Position Group #3) Linebackers
Shea McClellin, once struggling to find a groove at DE, is now learning how to play as a SLB in the new concept for their 4-3 based front on defense. This could be his last chance to prove himself as an adequate player in the NFL, or result in possibly becoming the latest first round bust made by the Bears in drafts during the Lovie Smith era. And, he will have to beat out the likes of 2nd year players Jon Bostic and possibly Khaseem Greene to maintain a spot in the rotation.
The only LB position locked by anyone in Chicago, is the WLB spot with Lance Briggs. Otherwise, it's fair game for anyone who wants to win themselves some playing time. Not just the battle at SLB, but the competition at MLB will feature Jon Bostic going head-to-head against D.J. Williams and maybe McClellin as well, with the "best man wins" philosophy well in play at both spots. It's likely to see a change in coverage responsibilities with the LBs, as a change of scheme is being made by Mel Tucker headed into the 2014 season. Could this possibly favor Bostic, and result in him taking a big step forward? Or, will D.J. Williams and maybe Shea McClellin steal the spotlight at LB? This will probably be the most fun and intense competition to watch throughout the preseason.
Position Group #4) Quarterback (Back-up)
With Jay Cutler locked up for the foreseeable future, it's easy to say there won't be any more flipping of the coins to determine who will start the first game any time soon. In saying that, Josh McCown is now a Buccaneer, and the back-up job is subsequently up for grabs. Headlined are two rather "underwhelming" veteran options in Jordan Palmer and former Notre Dame star Jimmy Clausen. Yet, don't count out the rookie in David Fales, as he was drafted to be developed by Marc Trestman overtime to eventually sit behind the franchise QB.
Back to Josh McCown, I recall there being a similar amount of concern headed into the season last year, as the Jason Campbell experience at back-up QB ended with less than favorable results. Cutler eventually went down with the freak groin injury against the Redskins last season, and people held their collective breath when McCown trotted onto the field to fill in. Suddenly, an unexpected star was in the making, as people saw the magic of the QB whispering Head Coach take control of the season.
I do honestly doubt the same will ever happen with either Clausen or Palmer, who both have far less experience as a starter than McCown. Yet, it goes to show what can happen when you have someone who's as savvy with QBs as Marc Trestman has proved to be. And, remember, David Fales is on the roster too. They will go with the best person for the job, and any of those three have a realistic chance to lock up a promotion on the depth chart.
Position Group #5) Specialists
Now, it's time to discus the most important and exciting competition expected this year: the competition at Punter!!! Just kidding...sort of. In the blue corner, is the relatively unknown and awesomely named Tress Way. And in the red corner, looking like a humongous throwback at Linebacker from the U, is 6th round draft pick Pat O'Donnell. Needless to say, either player will be significantly cheaper and likely better than Adam Podlesh, with O'Donell already making a name for himself with booming kicks that bounced off the roof of the Walter Payton Center.
Meanwhile, the competition at both the KR and PR slots is starting to heat up. Right now, the most experienced option is Eric Weems, who had himself a fine time returning kicks while with the Atlanta Falcons. And there's the other, other Chris Williams, the CFL star that now has a chance to stick with an NFL roster. If you ask me, Chris Williams reminds me more of Devin Hester than anyone else currently does, as he possesses the shiftiness and straight-line speed needed to make a meaningful impact. Look for this to continue into the season, and possibly to see a different name at both spots.
Training Camp will be fun to watch this year, and probably the most fun it's been in a very long time. Competitions throughout the roster will be on display, bodies will be flying, and the final 53 man roster stands to look far different than any we've seen in recent years. Despite not making the playoffs for the third consecutive season after winning the NFC North title in 2010, the Bears have the sense of urgency and energy that normally emits from a team set to contend for a Super Bowl championship. Which competitions are you looking forward to the most? Sound off, and drop a comment down below. Bear Down!