Brandon Marshall and his possible connection with Jay Cutler
Is it possible that Mike Tice will call a play for Brandon Marshall in the receiver’s first game action with the Bears? Yes. And if he does, expect to see a crispness between Marshall and Jay Cutler not seen around these parts in a long time (at least, by preseason standards — veterans still have kinks to work out, too). But it’s also possible Cutler won’t look his way in what will most likely be a short outing for the starters. Still, Bears fans should feel like tourists in a foreign land, gazing upon No. 15 in quiet awe, a sight they’ve never seen before lining up at wide receiver. Just witnessing him stand in a Bears huddle and run block for the few plays he’s on the field will be a treat in itself.
The “Oakland Connection” backfield depth
New Bears general manager Phil Emery was brought in to close the talent gap between the Bears and the Packers and Lions in the division. Two of his first moves were to address the depth on the offensive side of the ball and he did so by adding possibly the best free agent running back available in Michael Bush and a veteran backup quarterback in Jason Campbell, who is capable of starting for a handful of teams. The two former Oakland Raiders both have quality talent and will be able to showcase their skills in the preseason, with Bush having a prominent role in the regular season.
How the tight ends are used and the development of Evan Rodriguez
With new offensive coordinator Mike Tice taking the reigns of the offense this season, we’re likely to see the tight end play a much bigger role than the position was used under former coordinator Mike Martz. Martz liked his tight ends to be big and beefy and to be used as inline blockers, essentially as a second offensive tackle. Tice will try to have his tight ends working the middle of the field and creating matchup problems for the defense. Of particular interest is how rookie tight end Evan Rodriguez plays in his first game action. The undersized end doesn’t figure to see much time as a blocker and was drafted specifically for his sure hands and versatility.
Ultra-tight roster competition at wide receiver
After years of anguish from not fielding a legitimate NFL crop of receivers, the Bears finally have strength and depth at the position. Four players already have roles solidified on the roster: Marshall, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, and rookie Alshon Jeffery. Special teamers Eric Weems and Rashied Davis will battle with Dane Sanzenbacher for what could be the final two roster spots. It’ll be interesting to watch how Jeffery’s skills and soft hands translate to the next level. The Bears felt like he had the best hands in the draft and he’s been impressive at training camp. Davis doesn’t have a whole lot to prove as he’s a veteran now in his second stint with the team. Sanzenbacher will be the player to watch. He’ll need to flash his reliable hands and also perform on special teams in order to have a shot at making the roster.
Undrafted rookie offensive tackle James Brown
The Bears took a shot on Brown by signing him to a contract after the 2012 draft. Brown has good size and was given a potential third-round grade by many draft experts, but he slid out of the draft due to off-field concerns including marijuana use. He has a good skill set and he’s worth watching to see how he handles NFL talent. If the Bears opt not to keep Brown after final cuts, it is unlikely he’ll make it back to their practice squad because he’ll surely draw interest from other teams. As such, he has to have good performances throughout the preseason.
A raw, but unleashed Shea McClellin
After the first few practices of training camp, Bears fans were in a panic because of how much first-round draft pick Shea McClellin was struggling, not just against starters but against some backup linemen as well. McClellin, through interviews, admitted he was overwhelmed and that he hadn’t expected what he went through early in camp. That’s understandable coming from a country boy from a small town in Idaho. McClellin finally began to settle in and stopped thinking too much and just started playing. Making a few plays in training camp is a lot different than having success against live competition, so keeping an eye on how McClellin reacts in preseason action, when he doesn’t have to stop or slow down around the quarterback, will be of utmost importance.
Defensive tackle rotation and progression
The Bears want to get more pressure and disruption from the defensive line, but particularly from the tackle position. That is why they took a chance on Brian Price by shipping a seventh-round pick to Tampa Bay for the troubled tackle. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli also wants to see Henry Melton step up to the next level and have a quicker first step off the ball and a shorter reaction time. Matt Toeaina figures to be his typical bullish self, clogging the middle and being a force in the run game. The player most worth watching is second-year pro Stephen Paea, who is settling in nicely now that he is healthy and has a year under his belt. He has freakish strength and the Bears are counting on him to use that as both a means to eat up two offensive linemen and give Melton a one-on-one matchup and also to push his way into the backfield and disrupt the timing and development of plays.
Contingency plan at linebacker
The story of most concern this training camp has been the prolonged absence of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. He’s experienced knee soreness as it has not responded well to football activity following last year’s season-ending injury. It would not be devastating if Urlacher could not play this year or if he missed a handful of games, but it would obviously hinder them a bit. What is the backup plan should Urlacher miss extended time? As it stands, Nick Roach slides over to the middle and free agent acquisition Geno Hayes replaces him at strong-side linebacker. That, with All Pro Lance Briggs on the weakside, is not altogether a bad trio of ‘backers, but it’s not what it could be with Urlacher. Beyond the starters, free agent pickup Blake Costanzo was added primarily for special teams purposes, and that leaves Dom DeCicco, J.T. Thomas, and Jabara Williams as the most noteworthy prospects to watch.
Hotly contested cornerback battle
The Bears added much-needed depth to the cornerback position and they did so in a manner that left veteran Charles Tillman feeling good about it. Peanut called this year’s unit the deepest he’s ever worked with as a member of the Bears and now we get an opportunity to see how the depth chart shakes out. New addition Kelvin Hayden is the ideal cornerback for Cover 2. He’s got size and strength and can be physical with bigger receivers. He has split reps with incumbent Tim Jennings and both of those players could get looks at nickelback. Of course, if that happens, that means D.J. Moore, who has been a solid nickelback the past few years, could lose playing time. Competition brings out the best in players, so the battle between Hayden, Jennings, and Moore can only mean good things for the Bears defense. Also in competition for roster positions are veteran Johnathan Wilhite, and rookies Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy.
Recognition, reading and reacting, from the safeties
I’ve often compared the instability at safety during the Lovie Smith regime to the quarterback carousel of the past two decades. Now that the Bears have solidified the quarterback position, it’s about time they settle on their safeties. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if they can do that with this collection of players. Chris Conte and Major Wright are the starters for now with veteran Craig Steltz and rookie Brandon Hardin — a guy with great size and instincts — behind them. Anthony Walters, who got some playing time last year on special teams before being placed on injured reserve, is also in the mix. The important thing to watch from all the safeties is how they read the field and whether they play sound, fundamental football while limiting mistakes. We cannot see blown coverage that leads to big plays. We cannot see missed tackles and poor angles. The safeties don’t have to be great; they just can’t be bad.