The Chicago Bears this morning wrapped up the 13th practice of 2014 Training Camp on the game field at Olivet Nazarene University. Overnight rain left the practice fields unusable, so the team shifted to Ward Field, where field turf was installed three weeks ago.
It was a warm, overcast session with a constant threat of rain that never materialized. Roughly 4,000 fans showed up for today’s practice, which is actually impressive considering the weather conditions.
-OL Eben Britton (hamstring), T Jordan Mills (foot), CB Isaiah Frey (hamstring), WR Chris Williams (hamstring) and LB Lance Briggs (day off) did not practice. WR Marquess Wilson (collarbone) and OL Brian de la Puente (knee) were not in attendance.
NOTES FROM DAY 13
-Today’s practice was the second-to-last session of training camp and the final practice in full pads. The club will undergo a glorified walkthrough tomorrow before breaking camp on Wednesday.
-Tight ends Zach Miller and Dante Rosario rotated alongside Martellus Bennett in two-tight-end sets with the first team, as well as with the second team. Both players had strong practices, with Miller connecting on four balls 15 yards or deeper, as well as one touchdown during red-zone drills. He’s a good route runner with solid hands, and he makes the most of every opportunity.
Later in practice, Rosario beat LB D.J. Williams on a skinny post off the right seam. He snatched the ball out of the air, which elicited a round of “ooooohs” from the crowd, before throwing a wicked spin move on CB Kelvin Hayden, leaving the defender on his butt.
At this point, I believe both Miller and Rosario are ahead of Matthew Mulligan in the tight end pecking order. Mulligan doesn’t offer much as a receiver and coordinator Aaron Kromer likes to use a third tackle as his extra edge blocker, so the Bears don’t have much use for a one-dimensional blocking tight end. Rosario and Miller are veterans who have shown steady playmaking ability this offseason. If the club chooses to keep three tight ends, they’ll provide quality insurance in case of a Bennett injury.
-The coaching staff used a heavy rotation of safeties today. Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray were the first duo to line up with the starters. Chris Conte and Adrian Wilson then took reps with the first team, with Brock Vereen rotating every two plays with Conte.
Conte knocked off some the rust today and looked very comfortable on the field. During red-zone drills, QB Jordan Palmer tried to find WR Micheal Spurlock in the back right corner of the end zone. Conte broke on the ball and undercut Spurlock for the interception before returning it 100-plus yards for a touchdown.
It was a solid play by Conte, one that should help his confidence going forward. In just his second practice since shoulder surgery in March, Conte is still a work in progress but as much as some Bears fans may not want to admit it, he’s probably the best option on the roster at this point. No one else has stepped up to claim the starting free safety role in Conte’s absence. If he plays in the preseason like he did his first two years in the league, don’t be surprised if he emerges the starter alongside Mundy.
-Conte’s interception was great but in reality, it was a horribly thrown pass by Jordan Palmer that set up the play. Palmer threw into double coverage down the left sideline, which was a poor decision, then floated a duck that took a day and a half to get to the end zone, which was poor execution.
Palmer isn’t an awful quarterback but he’s wildly inconsistent and shows hesitancy in the pocket. He doesn’t appear confident in the offense, which is a bad sign.
Jimmy Clausen hasn’t been lights out either – he threw one pass to a tight end that was so thoroughly covered, the ball bounced off the back of the defender’s head – but he’s the signal caller who appears to have the most potential if Jay Cutler were to go down.
-CB Charles Tillman had a strong practice, racking up 3 PBUs on the day, all against WR Brandon Marshall. Tillman hasn’t had his best camp but even at 33 year old, he showed today he can still hang with the best of them. If his body holds up, there’s no reason to expect anything less than a standard, productive season from Tillman in what could be his final season in the NFL.
-Austen Lane has emerged the leader for the club’s No. 5 defensive end spot. Over the past two days, Lane has taken reps with the second team in nickel packages, while David Bass and Cornelius Washington have been stuck on the third team.
Lane has good size (6-6, 265) and he’s athletic off the edge. He beat rookie offensive tackle Charles Leno routinely today, showing good burst and hand usage. If the Bears keep five defense ends, Lane appears to be the frontrunner for that final position.
-For the second day in a row, Jared Allen picked up a sack during the two-minute drill. After a lackluster offseason, Allen is rounding into form.
-CB Sherrick McManis had a solid PBU at the start of practice and then stripped WR Josh Morgan on the next snap. Overall, he’s had a very strong camp defensively an, when you add in his value as a coverage player on special teams, it’s easy to see why McManis has locked up the club’s No. 5 cornerback spot.
-During positional drills, I paid close attention to secondary coach John Hoke. On one drill, he had his corners mirror receivers with their hands behind their back. It’s a drill that teaches players to use their eyes and bodies, instead of their hands, in man coverage.
On the next drill, he had the corners stay in the hip pocket of the receiver while staring down at his feet. When the receiver broke down out of his stride, so then did the defender. It was a pair of interesting drills that highlights Hoke’s emphasis on reading keys and using proper technique.
-With Briggs taking the day off, the starting linebacker group consisted of Shea McClellin (SAM), D.J. Williams (MIKE) and Khaseem Greene (WILL). Jon Bostic was used in nickelback sets with both Greene and McClellin. Bostic also worked with the second team at MIKE alongside Christian Jones (WILL) and Jerry Franklin (SAM).
Franklin also took reps in second-team nickel and the past two days he’s lined up with three of the starting special teams units. Coming into camp, most assumed Jones would claim the club’s sixth linebacker spot, yet it appears Franklin is giving him a run for his money. It’s worth nothing that Jones is not a member of any first-team special teams unit.
-During punt drills, punters Tress Way and Patrick O’Donnell struggled early. The most consistent thing about those two in camp has been how inconsistent they’ve been, so it wasn’t surprising to see them shank a ball here and there.
Then something switched with O’Donnell about halfway through the drill and he started sending balls into orbit. On about four straight kicks, O’Donnell booted the ball 70 yards or deeper. He was also the only holder used with the first-team field goal unit, which is a sign this faux competition may soon come to an end. Megapunt is here to stay.
-WR Micheal Spurlock, who scored a touchdown in the preseason opener, has been given plenty of reps with the starters the past two days. He’s not an elite receiver but Spurlock is definitely capable. He made two straight nice catches on deep balls from Cutler during team drills and it appears Spurlock is firmly in the mix to be Marquess Wilson’s short-term replacement.
-CB Tim Jennings, who missed almost all of the first two weeks of camp with a quad injury, has looked a bit rusty since re-joining the team yesterday. More notable is the fact he’s only being used in nickel sets. In base sets, Tillman and Kyle Fuller stay on the field, with Jennings joining them in the slot in sub packages.
“I honestly don’t know what I feel like right now because I’m playing some nickel. That’s all new to me,” Jennings said after practice.
The initial plan was to rotate Fuller in on passing downs but, at least for the time being, Jennings will be the one coming off the field in base packages.
-OL Dennis Roland has been working at right tackle with the second team the past week, yet was moved inside to right guard today. When Kyle Long needed a breather after one rep, the team inserted Roland with the first team. Roland is a veteran tackle and if he can show value at guard as well, he’ll claim one of the final offensive line roster spots.
-During team drills, Jordan Palmer dropped back to pass. He could not find an open receiver and quickly became jittery in the pocket. He began to scramble out of the pocket to his right before quickly firing a pass to …. DE Willie Young. Young, who was well blocked on the play, seemed surprised that Palmer threw the pass right to him, yet he held onto the ball and returned it for a touchdown.
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.