Chicago Bears training camp starts in less than 48 hours. It's an exciting time for everyone involved with the organization, from the coaches and players, to the media and fans.
The club started 7-3 last season and looked as if they were headed for a deep run in the playoffs. Injuries derailed the campaign but the club is healthy now. Throw in a new GM in Phil Emery, who infused the team with fresh talent, and there's plenty of reason for optimism in 2012.
Coach Lovie Smith, speaking to reporters on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University this afternoon, is one of the many that feel this club has the potential to do something special this year.
"In the offseason you try to put together the best team you possibly can," Smith said. "We just feel like, as we look at our roster coming into camp, it looks about as good as it has since I've been here. We realize that. We embrace that."
WR Brandon Marshall
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
Filling an obvious void – obvious to everyone except for former GM Jerry Angelo that is – Emery loaded up on talent at the receiver position. He traded for Brandon Marshall, a top five overall receiver in the NFL, while signing two more wideouts and drafting another, Alshon Jeffery, in the second round.
When you throw in the addition of running back Michael Bush, as well as recently signed Pro Bowler Matt Forte, it's easy to see why many feel this could be the best offense in franchise history. Smith said he believes this is as good a group of playmakers as he's ever had.
"Look at our additions – just look at the receiver that we brought in – we brought in a ‘1' receiver (Marshall), so just starting with him, you add a lot," said Smith. "We brought in another running back (Bush), who was a starting running back in the NFL. I think as you look across our board at our skill positions, we have improved quite a bit, and that should put points on the board, which we're trying to do. We're in a position to have the best balance offensively that we've had in a long time."
The Bears rushed for more than 2,000 yard as a team last year for the first time in 20 seasons. That was accomplished with a patchwork offensive line and a running back corps that ended the year without its top two ball carriers. With Forte, who signed a four-year deal last Monday, and Bush sharing carries, the club should once again be able to move the ball on the ground.
"Matt negotiated, and when it's time to go to work, he'll be here just like the rest of his teammates," Smith said. "He's a team player, and that's what we have on our football team, a bunch of team guys that know their role and know that the guy next to them is banking on them being here doing their job."
Yet it's not just the running backs and receivers that should see a bump in production this year, but also the tight ends. Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz ignored his tight ends in the passing game. As such, a big, talented player like Kellen Davis was severely underutilized in 2011. Under new OC Mike Tice, that will not be the case.
"We're going to use the tight ends in a few different ways," said Smith. "I just feel like we have good players there, and we have options when we want to go to our tight ends. A lot will be said about our running game, rightfully so, and our wide receivers and our passing, but the tight end can be overlooked a little bit, if you can overlook the 6-7 guys."
With so much talent at the skill positions, it appears the only thing that could hold back Chicago's offense is the front five, which did not receive any significant upgrades this offseason.
T Chris Williams
At left tackle, there will be a positional battle between J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams. Quarterback Jay Cutler has been sacked more than any other signal caller in the league the last two years combined. As such, the competition between Williams and Webb will be arguably the most important of the numerous battles soon to take place.
"We feel like we can win with both players," Smith said. "As much as anything, as far as how guys matchup right now, it isn't real important. Just being in position where you're going to get reps, and both of those guys sure will be getting good quality reps.
"Not only them, I'm excited to get Gabe Carimi [back]."
Carimi, last year's first round selection, played just six quarters in 2011 before suffering a dislocated knee, which cost him the remainder of the season. At the time of his injury, he was playing better than any lineman on the roster. As such, the Bears view him as an additional first round pick this year, one that should help bring the entire group back to respectability.
Another boon to the offensive line will be Tice, who should be able to get the most out of his front five. Where Martz tried to fit players into his rigid system, Tice will mold his schemes around the strengths of his players. If that means doubling the left edge or using backs to chip, so be it. Whatever it takes to make sure Cutler isn't running for his life every time he drops back.
"I feel good about what Mike Tice and the rest of the offensive staff will bring this year," said Smith. "I think this year, as you watch us play, how we play offensive football, this is more the look that we all kind of envisioned us being."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.