The time has come ladies and gentlemen. The time for full NFL team practices is upon us, where veterans mingle with the incoming rookie class for the first time this season. It's a time known as organized team activities, or OTAs.
For the next three weeks, the Chicago Bears will dive head first into OTAs, taking their first steps in developing the 2014 roster. Media will have full access to practices each of the following three Tuesdays.
During lunchtime tomorrow, we'll be front and center at Halas Hall getting our first look at this year's Bears team. Here are the storylines we'll be following the next three weeks.
Safety is the thinnest position on Chicago's roster. Chris Conte was graded one of the worst safeties in the league by Pro Football Focus last year, Ryan Mundy has just 15 careers starts and two interceptions in five NFL seasons, M.D. Jennings had two pass breakups in two full seasons as a starter for the Green Bay Packers, Brock Vereen is a fourth-round rookie, and Craig Steltz and Danny McCray are special teams players.
From that group, two starters must emerge. Conte and Mundy will likely get first billing but beyond that, it's anyone's guess where the depth chart lies. If the team immediately inserts Vereen with the second team, it will signal their desire to give him an opportunity to earn playing time.
If they stash him down with the third team behind both Steltz and Jennings, it could mean Vereen's road to production on defense could be a long one. At the very least, Vereen should be working with the second team at some point early in training camp if he's going to get a legitimate shot to start in 2014.
While safety may be the team's weakest position, there may be just as many questions at linebacker.
Lance Briggs will start on the weak side and D.J. Williams will start in the middle. Yet both are aging veterans who missed significant time last year. It risky to assume both will stay healthy for 16 games this year.
On the strong side, three players will get a shot to start: Jon Bostic, Shea McClellin and Khaseem Greene. The staff believes Greene is best fit at WILL, so he'll also likely serve as Briggs' primary backup, while GM Phil Emery said both Bostic and McClellin will get looks at MIKE as well.
A roster spot also has to be saved for Jordan Senn, whom the team signed on the first day of free agency to replace Blake Costanzo as the club's special teams ace. And then there's UDFA Christian Jones, who is a versatile, athletic linebacker who fell out of the draft due to failed drug test at the combine. Where does Jones, who has the talent to play in the NFL, fit in Chicago's linebacker picture?
It's a position in serious flux for the Bears, one that will get thrown on its head if either Williams or Briggs is injured. There is plenty of talent at the linebacker position but it's still unclear how it will all fit together. Tomorrow will be our first chance to document the process of ironing out Chicago's linebacker unit.
Palmer, Fales or Johnson?
There's only one certainty in regard to the Bears' quarterbacks this year: Jay Cutler will be the starter for as long as he's healthy. Beyond that, it's an open competition between Jordan Palmer, Jerrod Johnson and sixth-round rookie David Fales for the primary backup position.
Palmer is the frontrunner due to his age and a strong showing in the preseason finale last year, yet the trio as a whole lacks any significant NFL experience. Cutler has missed time due to injury in each of the last three seasons and as we all know, quarterback is the most important position on the field. So it's likely the winner of this QB competition will be in charge of Chicago's offense at some point this year.
This is an extremely important competition. The passer that shows Marc Trestman the most over the next three months will be living in the shadow of Josh McCown, who excelled as the club's backup in 2013.
If Palmer, Johnson or Fales steps into that role and fails, a la Caleb Hanie in 2011, the season could quickly derail off the tracks.
Lining up Houston
The Bears signed former Raiders defensive lineman Lamarr Houston in the opening moments of 2014 free agency. They followed that up by spending big on both Willie Young and Jared Allen, then snagged Israel Idonije a few weeks later.
Signing four defensive ends has led many to believe Houston this year will play as much defensive tackle, where he has plenty of experience, as defensive end.
Last week, defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni did not dismiss the idea of moving Houston around.
"He's playing the end position, but in his career at Oakland, he played some inside," Pasqualoni said. "He's a good pass rusher, and he could be a good pass rusher from inside, too. He doesn't necessarily have to stay outside. He's big, he's very physical, he's powerful—he could go inside to play, and he can go inside and play a run block, too. So there's some flexibility there, and that's great to have."
It appears the Bears will begin with Houston on the edge but it will be interesting to see if he moves inside and how often that occurs.
Since drafting Kyle Fuller, Bears brass have been adamant their first-round pick will see plenty of field time his rookie season.
"A player picked this high we expect him to contribute this first year," Emery said during the draft. "Obviously, with the number of multiple-wideout sets that you face – and multiple receivers, whether that's two tight ends with two wideouts – we expect him to come in and contribute right away."
The plan for Fuller is to line him up in the slot this year before eventually shifting him outside after Charles Tillman retires. Yet does that mean Fuller has to compete with Kelvin Hayden and last year's nickelback Isaiah Frey for the starting gig? Or will the Bears just hand it to him?
And what if he struggles? Does Hayden get pushed back into the starting lineup? Will Hayden and Frey be battling for a roster spot? How does all this affect Sherrick McManis?
We'll begin answering these questions tomorrow.
Wilson the Third
The Bears believe last year's seventh rounder, Marquess Wilson, can step into the club's No. 3 receiver role left vacant after Earl Bennett was cut this offseason. It's a substantial leap of faith for a player that caught just two passes his rookie season.
Emery said Wilson has packed on weight and is currently around 200 pounds. Tomorrow we'll see how he looks at the heavier weight and whether or not he'll have to compete with veteran newcomers Josh Morgan and Domenik Hixon.
Collins still Explosive?
After emerging as a viable 3-technique starter last season, Nate Collins landed on IR with an ACL tear. The question now becomes: How healthy is the knee?
The Bears invested heavily in defensive tackles this offseason, so Collins must show his knee is 100 percent if he's going to have any shot at keeping his spot on the roster. If he struggles to show explosiveness at the snap or has a setback in his recovery, Collins could end up on the short end of the stick. His uphill climb begins tomorrow.
Carey's First-Team Reps
Despite having two-time Pro Bowler Matt Forte, the Bears invested a fourth-round pick in Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey. Forte is still one of the best running backs in the league but he'll be 29 by season's end, the year in which most ball carriers begin to decline.
It will be interesting to see how Trestman plans to use Carey. Will Carey be inserted occasionally with the first team, often with the first team or never with the first team? If the team practices short-yardage, does Carey get those carries?
Carey's workload from the start will give us a strong indication of how Trestman plans on deploying his two-headed backfield this season.
The Bears do not currently have a starting kick or punt returner. Devin Hester is in Atlanta and it's unclear who will be his replacement.
Eric Weems is a Pro Bowl kick returner, Domenik Hixon has return experience and the Bears signed Chris Williams, a record-setting CFL returner, late last year.
Who gets first billing out of that group for kickoffs and punts? Or is there a rookie in the bunch who can emerge as a weapon on special teams?
Time will tell.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.