It’s training camp week! I enjoyed a nice summer break from the nitty gritty of the business of professional football. We got to enjoy an admirable playoff run from the Bulls and an even better one from the Blackhawks, the kind of championship run the Bears would sure like to duplicate. We only had to endure about a month of putrid Chicago baseball between the end of the Stanley Cup celebration and the beginning of Camp Trestman. And despite two titles in four years for the Blackhawks, we now get down to business for the real “Chicago’s Team.”
There have been a lot of changes to the Bears since last year’s disappointing, playoff-less 10-6 season, and we’ll get our first look at how the team is shaping up under new head coach Marc Trestman — as well as a look at Trestman himself — when the Bears take the field in Bourbonnais.
Here are 10 story lines — in no particular order — that I’ll be watching as training camp unfolds.
1. Marc Trestman’s offense
There have been a lot of positive things said about Trestman in terms of his football intelligence and how detailed a coach he is. But make no mistake about it: Bears GM Phil Emery hired Trestman in large part because of his history working with successful quarterbacks and his knowledge of offense. Not since Mike Ditka have the Bears had an offensive-minded head coach. Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron, and Lovie Smith all have defensive pedigrees. And while a lack of talent supplied by the front office was the primary factor in none of those coaches winning a Super Bowl, it’s no coincidence that the Bears have not had a good offense — save for the Super Bowl year of 2006 — since the Ditka era. It’s no wonder offensive-starved Bears fans are optimistic to see what Trestman has to offer.
2. Jay Cutler learning curve
Trestman said he was anxious to get his hands on Cutler, but how anxious will Cutler be to learn yet another new offense in his medium-length career? Since his days with offensive-minded Mike Shanahan guiding him to a Pro Bowl appearance in Denver, Cutler has had to endure working with Ron Turner, Mike Martz, and Mike Tice in his relatively short, 4-year stint with the Bears. While some will criticize Cutler for the way he conducts himself with his bosses, I read between the lines and recognize a knowledgeable quarterback who knows he has had little to work with while in Chicago. If Cutler can’t “figure it out” with a guy like Trestman, who has an offensive- and quarterback-background, then I might start to have questions about Cutler. Let’s see how long it takes Cutler to pick up what Trestman is trying to do, because Cutler himself said it could take three years to learn and fully implement an offense. In this, his contract year, he doesn’t have that luxury.
3. Alshon Jeffery next steps
The Bears were aggressive in the 2012 NFL Draft by trading up in the second round to select the playmaking wide receiver out of South Carolina, a player with some of the best hands in the draft. Jeffery proved just how valuable a No. 2 receiver he could be last year in his rookie season — when he stayed healthy. However, he missed a lot of time due to various injuries, which could be a concern if it becomes a trend in the NFL. The Bears tried to help out Brandon Marshall this offseason by adding some offensive linemen, a pass-catching tight end in Martellus Bennett, and, obviously, an offensive-minded head coach. If Jeffery can stay healthy, it’ll be interesting to see how productive he can be with Marshall and Bennett taking up attention from the defense.
4. Martellus Bennett’s impact on the offense
The Bears traded Cutler’s good friend and legitimate pass-catching tight end Greg Olsen when the team hired Martz to be its offensive coordinator a few years ago. Since then, the Bears have not had any luck finding a player to stretch the middle of the field and open things up for the receivers. That might change this year with the addition of Bennett. Bennett — a friend of Marshall’s — is an extraordinary athlete with good hands who has never reached his full potential. This could be the time to do so where he’ll likely be given a chance to display his full array of talents — something he was not able to do as a backup in Dallas or in his one-year stint with the Giants last year.
5. How much improvement has been made on the offensive line?
How dreadful it was to watch Cutler on his back last year — again, for the fourth season in a row in Chicago — largely due to the problems at offensive tackle. The middle of the line doesn’t get a pass, but we know where the pressure was coming from for the most part. It’s no coincidence that in Cutler’s Pro Bowl season in 2008, he was sacked an NFL-low 11 times. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Like it was an incomplete statistic. Especially since 11 sacks was sometimes a two-game total during Cutler’s four years with the Bears. So, with J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi struggling at tackle last year, the team went out and signed one of the best left tackles on the market in Jermon Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler responsible for the protection of Drew Brees in New Orleans. They also signed a legitimate starting guard in Matt Slauson, formerly of the New York Jets and drafted athletic Kyle Long in the first round of this year’s draft. Do these moves finally stabilize the line and keep Cutler protected? Hopefully these additions, plus a quick-hit offense by Trestman, will lower Cutler’s ridiculously-high 2.64 sacks per game (37 per year) average in his time with the Bears.
6. Can Shea McClellin be a player in the NFL?
Many were surprised by the selection of McClellin in the first round of last year’s draft, especially with some quality defensive ends available. The criticism about McClellin is that he’s a man without a position. Some say he should be a rush linebacker in a 3-4 system, but the Bears are not moving in that direction. Nobody can deny McClellin’s athleticism. There were several occasions last year when we could see McClellin’s closing burst to chase down a quarterback or ball carrier. But while McClellin has the speed reminiscent of the newly-retired Brian Urlacher, he also has Urlacher’s ability to be swallowed up by bigger offensive linemen and he fails to disengage and get back into the play. He’ll need to work on that — along with a few moves and counters — to improve his pass rush.
7. How Brian Urlacher’s absence will affect the defense
Speaking of Urlacher, things just won’t look the same in linebacker drills, or when the defense huddles up and the captain is calling the play, or when the defense is set up before the snap and the man in the middle is frantically signalling adjustments. These are small matters that can make a big difference on Sundays. The fact was, Urlacher just couldn’t play at a high enough level anymore to justify what the Bears would have had to pay for him. For a guy who revolutionized the middle linebacker position with his sideline-to-sideline speed to suddenly lose that speed, he was beginning to create a hole in the middle of the field. This has to be one of the most intriguing story lines of training camp and preseason because the Bears need a leader to step up and command the defense.
8. How will the remodeled linebacking corps function?
The Bears — who also lost Nick Roach via free agency — had to sign some quick fix players while they search for their long-term replacements. The team signed veteran D.J. Williams, formerly of the Denver Broncos, to be Urlacher’s immediate replacement. And the team also signed former Carolina Panthers outside linebacker James Anderson to replace Roach. Both are signed to one year deals, though. The Bears did draft linebackers Jon Bostic of Florida and Khaseem Greene of Rutgers, and word has it that the team is high on Bostic after OTAs and he could turn into a player. He’s definitely a player worth keeping an eye on throughout training camp and the preseason.
9. The differences between Lovie Smith’s defense vs. Mel Tucker’s
If nothing else, Lovie Smith’s defenses over the past nine seasons were always exciting to watch. No matter what happened on the offensive side of the ball — and there were quite a few shockingly bad offenses — you could almost always count on Smith’s defenses to step up, create a turnover, and either score themselves or set up the offense with a short field. Exit Smith, enter Tucker. Tucker is not known for preaching takeaways nearly as much as Smith was, but he can still command a room and get the most out of his players — so says former Bears safety and current defensive quality control assistant Chris Harris, who had a brief cup of coffee under Tucker in Jacksonville in 2012. Tucker will at least keep the Bears in a 4-3 system, and because there still remains so many players from the Smith regime, you can expect the king of the ball punch, Charles Tillman, and the rest of his defensive mates to be punching at the ball and trying to create turnovers. Old habits die hard.
10. What kind of role — if any — will Devin Hester have with the 2013 Bears?
The biggest rumor that will be floating around training camp and throughout the preseason is will Devin Hester remain a part of the Bears for 2013? With a big contract and a reduced role — he has been taken off offense altogether by Trestman and relegated to his special teams duties — the equation is rather simple: unless Hester returns to being the “Windy City Flyer” and being just plain “ridiculous” — thank you, Jeff Joniak — Hester’s value to the team is little to nothing. How much speed does the now 30-year-old player have left in the tank? And are his instincts all but gone at this point?