Projecting the starters at the “uncertain” positions

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The Bears are in the midst of their organized team activities and it’s difficult to gauge just how much progress players are making during the summer and without pads on. Hence, it’s still too early to accurately project which players have a leg up on the competition for those positions that are up for grabs. Just ask Craig Steltz, who was slotted as the starting free safety for most of last off-season before losing his job to Danieal Manning entering training camp.

However, we all have our assessments of who should be the starters when the 2010 season begins, and here’s how I feel the open positions will shape up.

Running Back
The job is Matt Forte’s to lose and I wouldn’t expect there to be much competition between he and Chester Taylor for the starting role. The Bears signed Taylor in the off-season because they know the importance of having a one-two punch at the position. They were aware of how ragged they were running Forte because they did not have a reliable backup running back due to a preseason injury to Kevin Jones last year. The run game struggled mightily as Forte struggled to find holes and also ran timidly due to an injured knee on which he had to have surgery. If Forte can’t regain the spark he had as a rookie, though, don’t be surprised if Taylor takes over as the primary ball carrier.

Tight End
This is probably the most difficult position to forecast because we won’t know how much Greg Olsen has improved his blocking until they put the pads on in training camp. The Bears signed Brandon Manumaleuna in free agency because he’s an excellent blocker, which is a prerequisite for tight ends that play in Mike Martz’s offense. As long as Olsen has improved his blocking to the point that he’s not a liability, he’ll be in the starting lineup. If not, we could see Manumaleuna in that role. Desmond Clark is the wild card. He has an outside chance to be a starter because he possesses a good combination of blocking and catching, but there’s also a chance he could be released. Kellen Davis is a big body with soft hands but he, like Olsen, needs to improve his blocking. Clark and Davis are on the hot seat if the Bears choose not to carry four tight ends. At this point, it appears Olsen will remain the starting tight end.

Left Guard
The Bears badly need to figure this position out because it’s imperative to the success of the offense in both the run game and pass game. Tackle Kevin Shaffer spent some of this off-season working at the position, but he now appears to be out of the mix as youngsters Johan Asiata and Lance Louis seem to be the frontrunners for the job. Josh Beekman could also be in the mix if the coaching staff doesn’t feel strongly enough in the other two. Asiata and Louis were both projects coming out of college and the hope is that new offensive line coach Mike Tice can take their measurables and turn that into production. Asiata has received the bulk of the work during OTAs and he could be the leading candidate at this point.

Right Tackle
Frank Omiyale was moved back to tackle, the position the Bears signed him to play last off-season and the position at which he’s most comfortable, after a stint at left guard last year. He’s most likely going to be the opening day starter barring some unforeseen changes. Shaffer is also in the mix but he’s more than likely going to be a versatile swing man who can fill in at multiple positions along the line in the event of an injury. Rookie J’Marcus Webb is still a project and unless the light turns on pretty quickly for him, he probably won’t see much of the field.

Left/Right End
Chances are that Julius Peppers will line up at both the left and right end positions as the Bears try to exploit matchups and get the best possible pass rush they can. Who lines up opposite him is still a hot topic. The last time the Bears chose Mark Anderson over Alex Brown (in 2007, Brown was benched; in 2010, he was cut), Anderson looked overwhelmed and he underperformed. Has Anderson been in this defense long enough to finally make the transition to a full-time starter? The Bears will rotate their ends, anyway, but they need solid production from whomever plays opposite Peppers. With Peppers and defensive tackle Tommie Harris likely facing three blockers on any given play, that means the other defensive end won’t see many double teams unless the opposing offense keeps a tight end in or uses its running back to help out. Anderson is the front runner, but I like Israel Idonije and I think he should be given a strong look. He reminds me a lot of Brown in that he’s not a flashy player but he’s a solid contributor with a good motor and will find himself in position to make plays. Rookie Corey Wootton could see some action as well if he enters the season healthy. Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton are wild cards. The Bears like both of them and neither one saw much action as rookies last year. They could play either outside or inside.

Defensive Tackle
The Bears have had high hopes for Marcus Harrison since drafting him in the third round of the 2008 draft and have given him the opportunity to start opposite Tommie Harris. If he reports to camp in shape and continues to improve, this could be his breakout year. It’s becoming redundant to say so, but it’s true — the addition of Peppers will make everybody along the defensive line better because of the attention that Peppers commands. Whoever starts next to Harris will have a chance to routinely beat one-on-one blocking. Anthony Adams has been one of the most consistent players for the Bears over the last few years. And as mentioned previously, Gilbert and Melton could vie for playing time. But Harrison appears to be the best option at this point.

Strong-side Linebacker
With injuries at the linebacker position last year, we got to see a lot of different combinations. The Bears elected to re-sign Pisa Tinoisamoa and he is the favorite to start on the strong side this year with Nick Roach providing the most competition. Roach played well throughout the season at both strong and middle linebacker. The Bears traded Jamar Williams when they acquired Chris Harris so that’s one less body in the mix. Hunter Hillenmeyer could see reps on the outside, but he figures to be Brian Urlacher’s primary backup. I like Tinoisamoa because he plays fast (which is necessary in this defense) and he makes plays. Although he’s smaller than the ideal strong-side linebacker, he plays bigger than his frame would suggest.

Strong Safety
I’m a little baffled why the Bears keep trying to force feed Manning to Bear Nation. He’s one of the best kick returners in the game and one of the most athletic players on the whole team, but he still lacks ideal instincts to be an effective defender. The Bears announced early this off-season — before the draft — that they’d move Manning to strong safety this year, his fourth position on defense. When they drafted Major Wright in the third round, it was thought that Wright would play free safety and Manning would be the strong safety. Then, the Bears pulled a rabbit out of their hat and reacquired Harris, who is best suited to play strong safety. What’s baffling is that during minicamp, the Bears lined up their starting safeties opposite their strengths — Harris at free and Manning at strong. I’m guessing that once Wright — who just signed his contract at the end of May — gets acclimated to the defense, Harris will move back to where he belongs on the strong side and he’ll bump Manning to the reserve role.

Free Safety
Continuing from the previous explanation, I believe the Bears’ plan all along has been to insert Wright at free safety when the season begins. In recent years, Lovie Smith has not hesitated to play young, inexperienced players in his defensive backfield (both Manning and Harris played and contributed as rookies). Harris was a sixth-round pick. Al Afalava was a sixth-round pick as well. They also tried giving Brandon McGowan, who was an undrafted free agent, playing time until he got hurt. So, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them start a third-round pick at free safety. Steltz has shown some flashes during off-season workouts, but he’s not a true free safety. My guess is that Wright, Manning, or Harris will be the starting free safety when the season begins, with the early nod in favor of the rookie.

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