What a Difference a Year Makes

The Bears have learned negotiations go a lot smoother without a first round pick. By signing safety Danieal Manning and defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek, the team has agreed to terms with the entire 2006 draft class three weeks before the first training camp practice. The situation is a far cry from the Cedric Benson debacle.

While the importance of veterans missing off-season has been a hotly debated topic in Chicago over the last two months, there's no denying rookies can have their season altered by not being in camp on time.

A year ago, Benson staged the longest holdout by a draft pick in team history. After missing more than a month, he came into training camp and never challenged Thomas Jones for the starting running back spot. Without an opportunity to learn from his mistakes in the preseason, Benson struggled to pickup parts of the offense, which in turn limited the situations he could be called upon.

"Training camp is important," said head coach Lovie Smith. "You can look at what happened last year with a player like Cedric Benson who held out and missed most of training camp. He never got back on the right footing."

A medial collateral knee sprain also led to Benson finishing the season with just 272 yards rushing on 67 carries. Now healthy, the Bears are confident his hard work will pay dividends.

"And now Cedric Benson is another player I talk about who has been here throughout the entire off-season and has gotten better and better," Smith said. "We're really excited about what he may be able to do for us this year."

As far as the '06 draft class is concerned, there's little to no pressure. The team has all 22 starters returning and none of the rookies are being counted onto have an immediate impact.

Although Danieal Manning will push Chris Harris for the starting free safety spot, the Bears also have the luxury of not rushing the Division II prospect.

Devin Hester immediately upgrades the return game, but the raw athlete will take time to become an NFL corner.

Dusty Dvoracek will join a deep rotation at defensive tackle. He will be used in the nickel package and could move up the depth chart next season, if starter Ian Scott leaves as an unrestricted free agent.

Jamar Williams will provide depth as a versatile linebacker, who can play all three positions. The starting trio is set for this season, but with Lance Briggs' future in doubt with the Bears, Williams is a possible replacement.

Even though Mark Anderson is a potential steal, the Bears have two Pro Bowl alternates at defensive end. On a limited basis, he will be able to provide pressure off the edge and develop into something special down the road.

J.D. Runnels has an opportunity to offer the quickest return. The competition at fullback is wide open with veterans Bryan Johnson and Jason McKie both coming off injuries.

Tyler Reed has an uphill battle in order to make the 53-man roster. The amount of veteran experience the Bears have on the second string will make Reed a target for the practice squad.

No matter how things play out, the Bears have put the draft class in a position to contribute this year and succeed over the long haul.

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