Bears Voluntary Minicamp Primer

We break down eight things to watch for during the Chicago Bears three-day voluntary minicamp this week, including a potentially disgruntled running back, the structure of the new 3-4 defense and more.

The Chicago Bears today begin voluntary minicamp. It’s a three-day session during which John Fox and the new coaching staff will have their first chance to work with players on the field.

This week’s activities will be our first look at the new-look Bears and a roster overhauled by first-time GM Ryan Pace.

As such, practice this week will set the stage for the 2015 campaign, and we’ll be front and center.

Here are the eight biggest storylines surrounding this Bears as they step on the field for the first time this season.

Fox in Charge

Since John Fox took over as head coach of the Bears, there’s been a renewed sense of structure at Halas Hall. After Marc Trestman let the inmates runs the asylum, Fox stepped in and laid the groundwork for a regime dependent upon discipline, which began with the trade of Brandon Marshall, who was little more than a migraine to the team last season.

Today will be our first chance to see Fox in action on the practice field. What type of presence will he bring? Will Fox assert himself into the drills and be hands-on, or will he let his assistants run the show?

Fox has 13 years of head coaching experience, so it will be very interesting to see how a grizzled veteran conducts his first practice in the Windy City.

Pace of Practice

Under former head coach Lovie Smith, practices were very loose, akin to floating down a lazy river. Under Trestman, sessions were up-tempo and hectic, akin to being thrown into the deep end of the wave pool.

Where will Fox’s practice style fit along this spectrum? Will he and the assistants be screaming endlessly at the players, as they did under Trestman, or will there be a sense of calm?

The demeanor of the coaching staff today will tell us a lot about how Fox plans to treat and mold his players.

Will Forte be Present?

Running back Matt Forte, who is entering the final year of his contract, skipped voluntary workouts two weeks ago. In terms of his preparation for the 2015 season, Forte’s absence means very little. Yet in terms of his dedication to the team, his presence or absence this week will be very revealing.

If Forte shows up, then it’s clear he’s on board for the upcoming campaign. If he’s a no-show again, it could portend problems in the very near future.

Forte turns 30 this year but wants a contract extension. In today’s NFL, that’s like a 4-pack-a-day smoker trying to get long-term health care. Yet we’ve seen in the past his willingness, whether it’s right or wrong, to put himself ahead of the team.

The Bears are installing a brand new offense under a brand new coaching staff. Forte is a veteran but even experienced players should be in attendance during the incubatory sessions upon which the offense will be built.

If Forte is again nowhere to be found, he’ll put himself a step behind the rest of his teammates and could earn the ire of the new staff. Considering the Bears could clear more than $8 million of cap space by waiving him, in addition to an extremely deep class of running backs in this year’s draft, Forte may put his future in serious question if he’s again absent.

Cutler in a Competition?

Fox said this offseason that Jay Cutler will have to earn his role as the club’s starting quarterback. That’s great to hear but with only Jimmy Clausen and David Fales as his backups, two QBs nowhere near as talented as Cutler, will this be a true competition or was Fox just saying what everyone wants to hear?

If Clausen is rotating with the first team this week, then it’s clear a competition is underway. But if he’s relegated to his usual role as backup, then we can safely assume Cutler will again be under center this season.

Defensive Front

The Bears have a lot of bodies along the defensive front seven but we still don’t know where each player will line up in coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 system. Will players be slotted into fixed roles or will there be a heavy rotation?

This is crucial, as there are question marks surrounding nearly every front seven player on the roster. Will Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Houston rotate at defensive end and outside linebacker? Will Shea McClellin and Christian Jones get to rush off the edge, as they did in college? Is Ego Ferguson a pure nose tackle or can he fill a 5-technique role as well? How does Jared Allen fit? And where in the world is Will Sutton going to play?

With the transition to a 3-4, there are many questions about the composition of the front seven. We’ll get our first chance to answer some of those questions today.

Building the Offensive Line

Kyle Long is a two-time Pro Bowl guard but there are many, including Fox, who believe Long could excel at the tackle position.

Will the Bears give Long a legitimate shot at right tackle or will he stay in his fixed spot at guard?

Additionally, does Matt Slauson retain his role at left guard or will Michael Ola challenge for the starting spot? How will the presence of new center Will Montgomery, who replaces stalwart Roberto Garza, affect chemistry up front? Will free-agent acquisition Vladimir Ducasse rotate with the starter or is he a Day 1 backup?

We’ll know more about the coaching staff’s plans for the front seven after today’s session.

Return Men

The Bears struggled mightily to find competent punt and kick returners last year, to the point it was almost laughable.

So how will new coordinator Jeff Rodgers handle these two crucial roles?

Marc Mariani has great speed and returned a kickoff for a score last season but his overall body of work as a kick returner was very poor last year. Eddie Royal has punt-return experience but he’s put in very little special teams work the past few years.

Senorise Perry returned kicks last year, while John Chiles also has limited experience as a returner. Does Rodgers have enough to cobble together competent return units? We’ll soon find out.

Ray McDonald

Defensive tackle Ray McDonald will speak with the media today for the first time as a Bear.

This is significant, as his off-field rap sheet last year includes investigations into domestic battery and rape. The front office took a big risk with McDonald, who will weigh the team down if he’s unable to stay out of trouble.

His press conference today will give us an idea of his mindset heading into the season and how he plans on putting the negativity behind him. How he handles the barrage of tough questions he’ll be forced to answer will tell us a lot about his mental state and how plans on moving forward.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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