With the team due to report to Bourbonnais on Wednesday, we take a look at four players who will play an important role in the outcome of the season. Although three of the players are on offense, there is a member of the defense to keep an eye on.
RB Cedric Benson: The fourth overall pick in 2005 was promoted to the first team for most of the off-season -- but only because incumbent Thomas Jones boycotted all "voluntary" activities in an effort to force a trade or get a restructured deal.
Last season Benson started at a huge disadvantage because of a month-long holdout and never challenged Jones for the job, as the veteran compiled his most productive NFL season, rushing for 1,335 yards. Benson carried just 67 times for 272 yards, as his freshman season was further retarded by a sprained knee in his first start that caused him to miss the next six games. Now, Benson is healthy, he'll be at camp on time, and he knows the offense. But Benson still is not the favorite. There is no chance that Jones won't be in tip-top shape regardless of how much of the off-season program he missed. Jones is a legendary weight room worker, and Benson's mere presence last season seemed to inspire him to new heights.
Nevertheless, the Bears didn't use such a lofty pick to employ Benson as a backup or a change-of-pace guy. He has always been a workhorse back, and he has always been very productive. Jones enters camp as No. 1, but Benson is probably no worse than 1A, and he could take the job with an impressive preseason.
Unless Benson is a total bust, he should at least wind up splitting carries in a Bears offense that aspires to be heavily run-oriented.
WR Mark Bradley: As a rookie who was originally considered extremely raw because he played just two years of D-1 football and was never a starter, Bradley made huge strides as a pro and was a starter by Week Four. He emerged as a legitimate threat two games later with five catches for 88 yards in the first half, but he suffered a torn ACL later in the game and missed the remainder of the season.
Bradley has bounced back well ahead of schedule but is currently behind Bernard Berrian on the depth chart, although that could change as soon as Bradley is 100 percent. Unlike most of the Bears' other receivers, Bradley has all the skills to be a complete receiver and take some attention away from Muhsin Muhammad, who showed his age last season and dropped more passes than a go-to guy should. Bradley is big, strong and fast, and his home-run ability could go a long way toward giving the Bears a legitimate passing game.
CB Ricky Manning Jr.: The Bears overpaid for a 5-foot-9 nickel corner with some questionable off-the-field concerns, but if Manning can prevent the kind of torchings that the team suffered at the hands of Steve Smith, maybe he's worth $21 million. Manning believes he is capable of starting, although it would be difficult imagining him playing ahead of Charles Tillman and especially Pro Bowler Nathan Vasher. He's a pricey insurance policy, but if he turns out to be the piece that elevates the Bears' defense from excellent to Super Bowl quality, he'll be worth the money.
QB Brian Griese: Brought in as the backup to Rex Grossman, Griese could be playing sooner than later if the starter's injury history is any indication. Griese brings a much greater level of experience to the table, and his past performance as a starter has some team observers believing he's already better qualified to be the Bears' starter.