10 things Chicago Bears fans will be watching closely this preseason and going into the 2014 regular season…

Published by Jerz 8/8/2014

There is nothing that matches the excitement of the beginning of the NFL regular season. Fans of their respective teams wish they had a “fast forward” button to skip the “dog days” of training camp and the preseason almost immediately after the Draft and Free Agency signing period. Considering there is only one REAL “successful” team at the end of each season (the Super Bowl Champion), it’s easy to see why 31 other fan bases are itching to get their teams back on the field.

There are few fan bases (if any) with more pride and love for their football team than fans of the Chicago Bears. Chicago, in itself, is a sports city like no other with it’s robust sports history and no franchise embodies that passion more than “The Monsters of the Midway”. There have been lean times for each of Chicago’s other sports franchises but nothing dampers the mood like an unsuccessful season of Bears Football. This team was in the Super Bowl back in 2006 and a game away from another trip to the big game in 2010. Since then, the team’s playoff hopes have been dashed by a rash of key injuries at the worst of times and a lack of quality depth behind those that were hurt to sustain winning. Here we are going into 2014 with more promise and hope then we’ve had in a long time and here are 10 things I’m sure most Bear fans are curious about…

The gent's expression, in the Walter Payton jersey, sums up how Bear fans have felt watching this team not make the playoffs since 2010...
The fan’s expression, in the Walter Payton jersey, sums up how Bear fans have felt watching this team miss the playoffs since their last appearance in 2010…

 

10. is important because after years of watching Jerry Angelo’s draft classes flounder year after year (this dude wiped his rear end with more picks than any other GM during this span), with the exception of a few “hits”, I’m curious to see what immediate returns the Bears get out of their 2014 Draft class. Cornerback Kyle Fuller (1st round) is expected to contribute immediately and has received valuable 1st team reps early in camp (with starter Tim Jennings nursing a sore quad) and Defensive Tackles Ego Ferguson (2nd round) and Will Sutton (3rd round) expect to be in the mix to get plenty of snaps at their respective positions as well. Safety Brock Vereen (4th round) has gotten 1st team reps at Free Safety since OTAs and is in the mix to compete for a starting job. Running Back Ka’Deem Carey (4th round) is currently buried on the depth chart but will get his chances this preseason to possibly earn one of 2 backup running back spots behind starter Matt Forte and Punter Pat O’Donnell (6th round) is an impressive 6’4″ 220 pound athlete that has kicked the cover off of the football so far in camp and is in competition to be the opening day Punter. Quarterback David Fales (6th round) and Tackle Charles Leno Jr. (7th round) are early candidates for the team’s practice squad and are longshots to win jobs in their respective position battles. Getting starting players if not valuable backups from 6 of 8 picks is a percentage GM Phil Emery will take who is in year 3 of his “roster build”. Emery has stressed building this team through the Draft and has stuck to his guns on it. the diamond in the rough could ultimately be undrafted free agent Linebacker Christian Jones out of Florida State who has been very impressive early on in camp. The preseason games will be great tests for all mentioned and I’m eager to see how each of them perform under the lights starting tonight at Soldier Field against the Philadelphia Eagles.

9. Is can athletic freak and former “combine phenomenon” Cornelius Washington impress enough to even make the roster? It’s baffling how someone this athletically gifted (6’4″ 265 pounds running a sub 4.6/40) hasn’t made more noise up to this point. The signings of Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young should have been enough to put the 2nd year Defensive End out of Georgia on notice (not to mention the signings of veterans Trevor Scott and Austen Lane earlier in the spring). The alarming thing to me is that as bad as the Bears were rushing the passer in 2013 Washington didn’t show enough to even get on the field for any meaningful playing time. The Bears may keep as many as 5 Defensive Ends and that basically leaves 2 positions open for 5 guys and where I’ve had sightings of Scott, Lane and fellow 2nd year man David Bass, Washington to this point has been a “no-show”. The Bears may be able to hide Washington on the practice squad unless they deem another talent more worthy to stash away.

8. Is a big one and may be higher up on the list for Bear fans. Who will the #2 and #3 Running Backs be behind Matt Forte? The Bears Running Back room is full of guys (Shaun Draughn, Michael Ford, Ka’Deem Carey, Senorise Perry and Jordan Lynch) and 5 guys fighting for 2 spots (I doubt they keep 4 in addition to Fullback Tony Fiammetta but you never know) means this will be a heated competition down to the last carry of the last preseason game. My early favorites were Michael Ford and Ka’Deem Carey, though neither has an NFL carry on their resume’. I like the burst Ford showed in last year’s preseason and having a year in the offense under his belt in addition to special teams experience gives him a leg up on the likes of Perry, Lynch and even Carey. I like Carey because he comes to the Bears as one of the most productive runners in College Football (the last 2 seasons) and is a guy that runs tough between the tackles despite not being the biggest ( 5’10” 207 pounds) or the fastest (4.7/40yd dash). Draughn has the advantage of NFL experience as a ball carrier and kick returner and played in a similar style last season in Kansas City. Perry was an undrafted rookie the Bears signed out of rookie tryouts and Lynch is a great story (as a local kid from the GREAT Mt. Carmel High School) but has the daunting task of picking up the art of not only playing running back but mastering the skill of pass protection and carving out a role on special teams. I think Carey is a lock for at least the 3rd spot leaving Ford and Draughn to battle it out for the backup spot. I’m hoping Lynch lands on the practice squad and gets the chance to develop his game as a Running Back and compete for a roster spot in 2015 (if he isn’t nabbed by another team).

7. How will the Linebackers look behind a revamped front 4? The defense was an absolute travesty in 2013. It got so bad that Fantasy Football players were just starting whatever running back was playing against the Bears that particular day (no matter what their name was). I can’t remember EVER watching Bears football and not even expecting us to get to the Quarterback OR stop the run??? It was literally unexplainable. With so much emphasis placed on making the defense in 2014 MUCH better, a close eye will be paid to the Linebacker core. Lance Briggs is getting up in age and still has something left the question is how much and for how much longer? Is 2nd year guy Khaseem Greene the contingency plan, if this is “L-Boogie’s” last run in Orange and Navy? Can 2nd year guided missile Jon Bostic beat out veteran D.J. Williams in the middle? Will the Shea McClellin “experiment” pay dividends for this unit? Can rookie free agent Christian Jones not only make the opening day roster but earn some playing time? These are ALL questions we’ll get answers to as the preseason progresses. What I want to see is a Linebacker unit flying to the ball (not over running it), aggressive in their blitz schemes and physical against the run. I think the Bears have an athletic enough group of Linebackers that can drop and make plays in pass coverage and I can’t wait to see how this position group shakes out!

6. The Josh McCown phenomenon in 2013 was something we rarely see (especially as Bears fans). The performance he produced can be looked at a couple of ways. Is he really THAT good and warranted all the run Jay out of town talk as a result of his stellar play or is the system taught and ran by Coach Marc Trestman THAT good? More importantly now, who is going to be this year’s #2 backup and should we expect a similar performance from them if THEY are pressed into game action for a significant stretch of games? Bears fans are hoping they won’t have to test this merit but preparation is the key to survival. It was 2009 the last time starter Jay Cutler played in all 16 games (even though in 2 seasons after that he missed just 1 game) so there is no guarantee he will play in all 16 regular season games in 2014. That leads us to who do you trust more between Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen? Neither name may make you jump up and down but like Offensive Coordinator Aaron Kromer said they aren’t looking for a superstar they just want a guy that can read coverage and get the ball to the right guy and run the team. Both of these guys are more than capable, despite the fact neither has thrown a regular season pass since 2010. Both are veteran guys that would have top notch passing options at their disposal, if pressed into action. I say let the games play themselves out and may the best man win. Hopefully, whoever wins the gig will just be high fiving Jay all season with a cap turned backwards and a headset on. I’d prefer Clausen just because he’s the younger of the 2 and has more to prove plus I really liked him coming out of Notre Dame but that’s none of my business.

Bears fans should have plenty to cheer about in 2014 as the team seems primed to put 2013 behind them and march towards a playoff run...
Bears fans should have plenty to cheer about in 2014 as the team seems primed to put 2013 behind them and march towards a playoff run…

 

5. Who will step up as the #3 Wide Receiver in the absence of the injured Marquees Wilson? This was a huge blow (losing Wilson for the forseeable future with a broken clavicle) and one that the team wasn’t expecting. What they were expecting was the 2nd year pro out of Washington State stepping up and making big plays similar to what Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery make in the Bears passing game. Those dreams will be on the shelf at least for the first 9 weeks of the season (barring any setbacks in Wilson’s recovery). There is a cluster of various pass catchers to sort through (and even more may be added as the preseason goes on) but my early favorites are veterans Josh Morgan and Eric Weems and my sleeper is former Canadian football stand out Chris Williams (or maybe a combination of all 3 if they all make the cut). Morgan is the most physical (6’1″ 220 pounds) of the 3 and likens himself to Anquan Boldin (as far as being a physical blocker and making tough catches). Weems has been with the team since 2012 and has shown sure hands and excellent route running so far in camp. Williams (also a favorite to replace the departed Devin Hester as a punt returner) is slight in build at 5’8″ 175 pounds and is a change form the 6’4″ Marshall and 6’3″ Jeffery on the outside and has speed to burn. He has also excelled in camp as a receiver and will get his opportunities in the preseason to show what he can do. I think Morgan may ultimately be the #3 guy because Weems and Williams have return value that make them good fits for 4th and 5th receivers but I can see them getting some run on offense as well due to their playmaking ability with the ball in their hands. Which leads me to #4 on the list…

4. Who will provide that “pop” in the return game, now that Devin Hester has taken his kick return prowess to Atlanta? Eric Weems made the Pro Bowl in 2012 as a return specialist with the Falcons and has been waiting for a chance to do it again full time. Chris Williams is a former CFL punt returner that boasts the type of speed and quickness you covet in a punt returner. Veterans like Armanti Edwards and Michael Spurlock were added to the mix for competition purposes but I can see a scenario where Weems and Williams make the team as receivers and Weems handles the kickoffs and Williams handles punts. The preseason will dictate who eventually does what but my money is on Weems and Williams splitting the duties. This, like many of the other battles, should be exciting to watch.

3. Which 2 Safeties will open the season as starters? This is one of the closest battles to watch leading into the 1st preseason game versus Philly and the coaches have stayed true to their word about it being an “open competition”. Incumbent Chris Conte is still seen by many to be the favorite for one of the spots, despite still being physically unable to perform due to a shoulder operation this spring. Veteran Craig Steltz also finds himself behind the “8 ball” due to recovering from off season surgery as well. Steltz has the advantage of being a valuable contributor on special teams but that may not be enough to save him as veterans Danny McCray and M.D. Jennings also have special teams experience and have had a chance to practice with the team (getting 1st team reps). Ryan Mundy was a free agent pickup the team signed to a 2 year deal and a guy they like because of his versatility and was considered an early favorite to start at Strong Safety. This was before the team decided to sign former Pro Bowl and All Pro Safety Adrian Wilson to add to the competitive mix. Add rookie 4th round pick Brock Vereen to the mix and this will make one heck of a battle that should go down to the wire. If the Bears keep 4 Safeties, I can see Wilson (barring he shows he still has it) and Mundy starting and Vereen and Conte backing them up (or any combination as the Bears vow the Safeties in their system are interchangeable anyway). It could be Wilson and Conte or Mundy and Vereen or Wilson or Vereen or Mundy and Conte. You get what I’m saying. As long as the front 7 is doing their job, the back end can focus ONLY on doing it’s job. Though the 4 I mentioned are my picks to win spots, the preseason could change all of that.

2. Can Cutler be the “General” that leads this team to new heights? This question has been asked since 2009 when the Bears acquired the rocket armed Quarterback from Denver. The difference this year is that the Bears may finally have a complete team around Cutler and have sealed the cracks in a defense that was all time terrible in 2013. Cutler has been looked at as a leader on the field and behind meeting room doors and also in spare time getting his offensive teammates on the same page. As a fan, I saw an immediate difference in Cutler’s play the 1st quarter of 2013. I saw a signal caller that trusted the design of the play and got rid of the ball quickly, checked down to a back instead of trying to force the ball when a play wasn’t there and wasn’t locked in on just one guy. He had some hiccups (like the game in Detroit and in primetime versus Philadelphia) but the promise to build on the corrections made to his game (mechanically and cerebrally) and the upgrades in personnel all around him depend on him to do something he hasn’t done since 2009 (play in ALL 16 games). Having the opportunity to build on the successes this offense enjoyed as a whole in 2013, returning all 11 starters, and building even more trust in what the coaching staff is putting in place each week puts Cutler and the Bears in position to do BIG things. The adversity he faced in a contract year where the backup QB was the toast of the town and finally having a pretty decent game against rival and arch nemesis Green Bay (for the first time in a long time) should give Cutler a confidence and comfort level (with a new 7 year $126 million dollar contract) he’s never had in his professional career. There is no where else for this elevator to go but UP!

1. is the “Granddaddy of them all”! Can this defense restore it’s “Nasty”? I think the answer, without even seeing a preseason or regular season game, to this point, is YES! Phil Emery struck while the iron was hot and scored 3 Defensive Ends in free agency in Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young that give this front 4 instant pass rush and stoutness against the run. 2 things they sorely missed in 2013. Add to that the re-signing of Jeremiah Ratliff at Defensive Tackle and the drafting of Defensive Tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton and the Bears upfront should be a very aggressive and violent bunch. Veteran Nate Collins is returning from an ACL tear and has been looking good in camp and Stephen Paea wants to prove that he was worthy of his 2nd round selection out of Oregon State and playing for a contract. The Linebackers should get a boost from having Lance Briggs back healthy and D.J. Williams, Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin give this unit speed for Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker to use in all kinds of alignments. Charles Tillman is back for one more season and wants to wash the taste of an injury riddled 2013 out of his mouth and the addition of 1st round pick Kyle Fuller plus the return of veteran Kelvin Hayden from a hamstring injury give the Bears good depth at Corner to the point that last year’s nickel back Isaiah Frey is in danger of not making the team. Veteran coaches Paul Pasqualoni, Reggie Herring and Cliff Hurtt add a new energy and intensity that should keep this defense on it’s toes so look for this defense to re-emerge as one of the better overall units in the league after last year’s epic collapse.

The Bears were a handful on offense in 2013 (as the video below shows). Fans hope the defense can step to the front and pull the cart in 2014…

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