I finally had the opportunity to make the trek down to Bourbonnais to get my first look at this year’s Bears squad and I was generally pleased with what I saw.
Starting with the offense, I got the opportunity to see some of the new weapons the Bears have added to Jay Cutler’s arsenal. Roy Williams is all the Bears could expect in a No. 1 receiver — just at an older version. He may drop his fair share of passes and bring back memories of Muhsin Muhammad for Bears fans, but he’s also going to come up with some big catches and help bail Cutler out of trouble when the quarterback is scrambling for his life.
Williams looked relaxed and confident out on the field wearing his floppy hat while running patterns at the beginning of practice. You can usually tell a star by his body language and the Bears haven’t had a receiver move like that in quite some time. Every catch drew a rousing applause from the faithful fans and it appears Williams is on their good side — at the moment. Should he start dropping passes, he could quickly hit the doghouse.
One of Williams’ former teammates in Dallas, receiver Sam Hurd, also has a strong presence about him. The Bears have longed for just one receiver with size and now they have two. But Hurd likely will be competing for the final roster spot on the receiver depth chart and his contribution would likely be on special teams, where he made a name for himself with the Cowboys. Still, if the Bears wind up facing a team with a physical secondary, Hurd could play a nice role in the slot. He’s got great hand-eye coordination and often flashes the ability to make acrobatic catches.
With Williams penciled in to be the No. 1 receiver, it shifts the depth chart in an order that it should be. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox — who did not practice Saturday — can be used as second and third options and can stretch the field rather than being used as possession receivers. Earl Bennett can fill in for Williams as the possession receiver and the Bears suddenly have depth at the position.
In the backfield, Matt Forte looked as good as advertised — physically speaking. You can tell he put in a lot of work in the offseason. But he didn’t seem as explosive as he’s been in the past. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say he doesn’t want to over-exert himself until he gets insurance in the form of a lucrative contract extension.
New running back Marion Barber is going to give me, and every other Bears fan that enjoys watching a bruising back run, thrills on Sundays. He takes the ball and goes straight up the field with it, not stopping to dance in the backfield or avoid tacklers. That kind of running style can’t be maintained for a long period of time from a featured running back, but Barber can be effective with it in a reserve role with the Bears. After Forte wears the defense down, Barber will punish them in their fatigued state.
One of the highlights from practice on Saturday involved Barber and linebacker Brian Iwuh. Iwuh penetrated the gap and met Barber in the backfield head on. The collision was so loud and violent that it met the vocal approval of the fans. I think after Barber caught the defense off-guard on Thursday, they’re much more prepared for his running style now and will bring the fight to him.
The tight end position definitely has a different look this year. No longer are Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark — mostly pass-catching tight ends — the focal point. Free agent Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis have assumed the primary duties. I’m excited about this duo. They have the hands and size to make catches when called upon, such as in the red zone, but their No. 1 job will be to create holes for the run game and to protect Cutler. I think they’ll do a fine job.
The offensive line remains just as big a concern as last year, which only makes sense considering they didn’t address it too seriously this offseason. They often looked discombobulated Saturday against a pretty good Bears defensive line. Julius Peppers blew past J’Marcus Webb into the backfield on three straight plays in line drills. That should be expected to a small degree considering how talented Peppers is, but Webb should at least put up a fight.
I’m impressed with Gabe Carimi at right tackle. He made his fair share of rookie mistakes and Israel Idonije got past him pretty easily on one play, but he’s going to be a solid anchor in the run game.
Nobody else stood out that much on the line. I did make an effort to keep an eye on Chris Williams to see if he really is as bad as the media has said he’s been this camp… and he is.
The defense looks like it’s going to be among the league’s top units again. The strength of the defense will be its front seven, anchored by last year’s Pro Bowlers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Peppers. I really like the Bears’ depth along the line, particularly at tackle. It’ll be interesting to see how the starting tackles shake out. I think Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina will get the first shot to start opposite Anthony Adams, but Amobi Okoye is pressing to get some action. As I mentioned in a tweet earlier in the day, it’s good to see jersey No. 91 in the backfield for a change.
I think Nick Roach will do just fine at strong-side linebacker, but there’s definitely room for improvement. Otherwise the linebacker position is solid with the two Pro Bowlers and the backup, Iwuh, who will primarily be a special teams player but can fill in adequately in a pinch.
The biggest concern on defense, of course, is the secondary. Charles Tillman had a solid season last year but if he were to go down, the Bears would be in big trouble. Zack Bowman and Tim Jennings are in a full-blown competition for the other starting cornerback role. In a perfect world, Bowman would emerge because he has a nose for the football and he’s bigger for run support. The problem is that Bowman lost his job because he wasn’t doing well in run support against the Packers in Week 3 last year. Jennings took over and played well enough to keep his job and help the Bears advance in the postseason.
At safety, Chris Harris is finally where he belongs in the run-supporting strong safety position. I don’t feel confident about any of the Bears’ options at free safety. When Major Wright was drafted, I was skeptical because he’s a good tackler but doesn’t have great range in coverage. I’m willing to give him a chance before writing him off, though. Craig Steltz is just another guy and rookie Chris Conte is athletic but doesn’t have extensive experience playing the position.
In summary, I feel very confident heading into the season. You can’t get a full grasp of how the team will perform from just one training camp practice, but you can get a sense of how individual players have progressed from last season and you can get a better read on the new additions to the team. If I had to make a prediction at this point, I’d say the Bears will get into the playoffs as a wild card and possibly win one playoff game. But their offensive line, unless aided greatly by the tight ends and a run-blocking back like Barber, will be the one last obstacle holding them back from Super Bowl XLVI.