Adding a Pro Bowl quarterback to a franchise that hasn’t seen stability at the position in quite some time is surely going to draw a lot of attention. That being said, it comes as no surprise that most of the eyes in the packed house at Olivet Nazarene University are fixed upon Jay Cutler and follow him wherever he goes, whether it be in the middle of the field for team drills or on the sideline by the water coolers. Or, as my cousin put it, Cutler “really does have a beam of light from heaven that follows him everywhere, much like a stage light.”
It’s because of this obsession with the new face of the franchise that I know there are several players who are flying under the radar. Here are ten other guys, who could play pivotal roles for the Bears this season, to monitor throughout the preseason.
The player whose on-field performance could have a greater impact on the Bears’ fortunes than Cutler’s is Tommie Harris. It’s no secret that the key to success in Lovie Smith’s gap-control defense is the play of the front four, specifically the three technique. Harris has all the tools to become one of the best defensive linemen in the league, somewhere he appeared destined at the start of his career. Now he has to find a way to stay healthy and on the field. If he can revert to his old form, the defense will make more plays and Bears fans will get to see more of Cutler and the offense.
Pace, as odd as it is to write this about a future Hall of Fame tackle, embodies everything “flying under the radar” means, at least in his few months as a Chicago Bear. It’s hard to believe his signing by the Bears was only the second-best story on April 2. But when you sign on the same day the Bears fix their quarterback position, that’s bound to happen. Pace has had trouble staying healthy the past few years in St. Louis and the Bears, while possessing good depth on the offensive line, will find it more difficult to move the ball without him in the game.
It’s very likely that the best receiver on the Bears this season will actually be a tight end. Olsen has developed good chemistry with Cutler during the off-season and everybody — including the coaching staff and even Desmond Clark, whom Olsen has supplanted on the first team — is taking notice of it. I would not be surprised if Olsen is at least named an alternate to the Pro Bowl this year. I know those are high expectations, especially with Tony Gonzalez, one of the best tight ends in league history, switching conferences to join the Atlanta Falcons. But Ron Turner has proven that he likes to get the tight ends involved in the game plan, and now with a better quarterback, that playbook can open up even more.
Tinoisamoa has already started to turn heads through the first couple days of training camp with some jarring hits on running backs. That’s exactly the kind of physicality you want from a strong side linebacker. Playing alongside two Pro Bowlers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, as well as rejoining former coaches Lovie Smith and Bob Babich can only make Tinoisamoa even better. Assuming Rod Marinelli helps the front four step up their level of play, I’m confident we won’t see too many run plays get past the second level, and we’ll see Tinoisamoa cleaning up the pile quite often.
Bennett’s comfort level with his former college quarterback and current pro quarterback will help him take a big leap in his second year in the league. It goes without saying that the Bears are taking a big leap of faith in trusting Bennett, who did not have a catch in his rookie season last year, to be the starting receiver opposite Devin Hester, and electing not to bring in a veteran. I’m okay with that decision because I think Bennett will be competent at worst and most likely instrumental. I can envision he and Cutler hooking up much the same as Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd did at the beginning of last season. Hester, of course, will still be the go-to guy but Bennett could be the one Cutler trusts to make a big play when needed.
Essentially a rookie this year with few snaps last season, Williams will have much to prove. He was drafted to be the Bears’ cornerstone left tackle for the next decade, but finds himself as the bookend right tackle to seven-time Pro Bowler Orlando Pace. That’s actually an ideal position for Williams to develop as he’s not charged with protecting the blindside of Cutler. Williams, like Pace, needs to prove he can stay on the field. And if and when he does, he’s going to be a solid player and extremely important to this offense.
Bowman arguably had one of the most impressive off-seasons of any Bear and has made a huge improvement in his game. The fact that he was named the starting cornerback while Charles Tillman recovers from surgery says an awful lot about his talent and the coaching staff’s trust in him. If he continues to make strides and becomes the primary backup cornerback, that certainly gives the Bears versatility in the secondary and could allow them to move Corey Graham back to free safety, should Danieal Manning not pan out there.
He’s having a quiet training camp so far, but it’s still early. A guy with his freakish size and speed combination can wreak havoc in the backfield. He’s versatile enough to play any position along the defensive line and could have a sleeper season much like Mark Anderson did in 2006. If he doesn’t find his way into the starting lineup opposite Tommie Harris, he’ll certainly factor into the rotation and could do his damage later in games when the opposing offensive line is tired.
After a terrific 2006 rookie campaign when he recorded 12 sacks to lead the team, he’s only picked up 5 and 1 sacks, respectively, over the past two years. This could be a make-or-break season for Anderson in that he’s got the best coach in the business teaching him technique and if he plays well enough, the Bears might choose to let Adewale Ogunleye walk after this season. If he fails, the Bears might not have much patience left to keep him around. But he’s got to find that extra burst off the line and around the corner that made him a special player three years ago.
Jones came to camp in great shape and is seeing more action on the field because the Bears want to bring Matt Forte along slowly following Forte’s hamstring injury in OTAs. But Jones also re-signed with the Bears this off-season because the Bears promised him more playing time than last year. We’ll see how true to their word they stay during the regular season, but expect to see a lot of Jones in training camp and preseason games. If Forte and Jones can work as well as Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson did in the Bears’ Super Bowl season, the 2009 Bears will be in great shape.