On June 20, after the Bears' final practice before the start of training camp, Lovie Smith admitted his outlook for the coming season was brighter than at any time in his four years as the Bears' head coach. Much of that optimism is a result of an offense that, at least on paper, appears to have more potential and more firepower than any Bears team in recent memory.
"The best team we've had since I've been here is coming up," Smith said. "So we're excited about that."
The shift of record-setting return specialist Devin Hester from cornerback to wide receiver, and the addition of rookie tight end Greg Olsen give the Bears two more impact players than they had on last season's 13-3 Super Bowl team.
"We have a lot of different options (on offense) now," Smith said. "Just Hester by himself. You saw him playing a little bit of running back today. He can do a lot of things. Olsen (is) a talent (with) wide receiver-type skills at the tight end position. He's a special athlete. We look for him to have an outstanding season. So we're excited about going a lot of different directions with our offense."
Olsen provided the highlight of Wednesday's practice, reaching out with one hand to snatch a deep pass in traffic down the middle of the field. Third-year wide receiver Mark Bradley has also impressed coaches throughout the June Organized Team Activity practices, and 5-foot-7 rookie running back Garrett Wolfe provides another option with big-play ability.
"I like what Garrett Wolfe has brought with his quickness, and Mark Bradley has really taken a step up," Smith said.
Recalcitrant Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs was the only player who didn't attend the spring OTA, and injured shortstop Mike Brown and defensive tackle Tommie Harris returned ahead of schedule. Left tackle John Tait was present but did not test his surgical ankle, although he's expected to be ready for the start of training camp.
"We like our team," Smith said. "We think they're hungry and ready to go. We got close (last season) and we're just anxious to take the next step with training camp and go from there.
"We have the core of our team back, we're more experienced and (with) the additions (of Hester on offense along with rookies Greg Olsen and Garrett Wolfe) that's why I'm a little bit more excited than I have been in the past."
NOTES & QUOTES
The Bears had little to day after DT Tank Johnson was stopped at 3:30 a.m. Friday in Gilbert, Ariz., for speeding. Johnson was alleged to be driving 40 mph in a 25 mph zone, and an officer "made observations that led him to believe Johnson was impaired." Sgt. Andrew Duncan said Johnson was "impaired to the slightest degree."
He was given a blood test, but the results are not yet known. Johnson has been suspended by the league for the first eight games of the season, but it can be reduced to six for good behavior ...
LB Lance Briggs, unhappy at being named the Bears' franchise player, was the only no-show at the team's OTAs, and it's unlikely he'll participate in training camp, although he's expected to end his tantrum by the start of the regular season. Coach Lovie Smith realizes the absence of the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker isn't an ideal situation, but he doesn't appear to be fretting over it.
"Guys have to make decisions based on what they think they need to do as a man," Smith said. "That's what Lance has done. But for us, it's about our team. Guys get hurt, you move on. You have to have a Plan 2 in case any of our players aren't here, and that's what we have. I'm excited about training camp. I hope Lance is there. If he's not, I mean, we've got a season to get ready for."
Smith said Briggs' backup, second-year player Jamar Williams, has made major strides in the off-season after spending most of 2006 on injured reserve ...
Smith doesn't see motivation being an issue when training camp starts on July 27.
"We went into last season talking about winning the Super Bowl," Smith said. "We didn't. We came up short, so that's our motivation. We know what it's like to play on that stage, (but) we don't know what it's like to win. The Colts have the championship. They have the Super Bowl ring; we don't. That's our motivation; to finish the job this year." ...
First-round pick Greg Olsen impressed during OTAs with his speed and pas-catching ability, but he understands he's still got a long way to go before he contributes at the level the Bears envisioned when they made the Miami tight end the 31st overall selection.
"I think I've done well," Olsen said after Wednesday's final OTA. "Obviously, I have a lot to improve on. But I think as far as the 14 practices off the bat, I think I did OK."
Olsen and second-round defensive end Dan Bazuin are the Bears only unsigned draft picks, but Olsen isn't concerning himself with negotiations between the Bears and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus.
"That's something I'm just letting work itself out," he said. "My job is to come out here and practice and do everything I can and I let everyone else handle that."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Jamar Williams had an outstanding off-season. I thought he stepped up and let us see some of his skills." – Bears head coach Lovie Smith discussing the replacement for Pro Bowler Lance Briggs, who skipped OTAs to protest his designation as the team's franchise player.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Just because former linebackers coach Bob Babich has succeeded Ron Rivera as coordinator, don't expect the Bears' defense to change.
"As long as Lovie's here, it's going to be the same," CB Nate Vasher said. "It's proven to be successful. I think with more guys being here in the system, Lovie's giving us a little more leeway with some of the calls, and he's giving us a little bit more leverage to do some fun things on defense. So we're excited about it."
When Smith was the Rams' defensive coordinator, Babich was his linebackers coach, and he was the first assistant Smith hired when he got the Bears' job. The two are much more similar in their thinking, and in their belief in the Cover 2 defense than Smith and Rivera were.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates
FRANCHISE PLAYER: OLB Lance Briggs: Tendered at $7.206M
TRANSITION PLAYER: None
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: TE Gabe Reid (not tendered as RFA)
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: RB Garrett Wolfe: 3/93; 4 yrs, terms unknown; LB Michael Okwo: 3/94; $2.245M/4 yrs, $580,000 SB; 2007 cap: $430,000; OG Josh Beekman: 4/130; $2.055M/4 yrs, $390,000 SB; 2007 cap: $382,500; S Kevin Payne: 5/167; terms unknown; CB Corey Graham: 5/168; $1.81M/4 yrs, $149,000 SB; CB Trumaine McBride: 7/221; $1.71M/4 yrs, $55,250 SB; OT Aaron Brant: 7/241; $1.697M/4 yrs, $42,100 SB
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED OG Ruben Brown: UFA; $2.2M/1 yr, SB unknown
PLAYERS ACQUIRED DT Anthony Adams: UFA 49ers; 4 yrs, terms unknown; S Adam Archuleta (trade with Redskins); FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo: FA Cardinals; 1 yr, terms unknown
PLAYERS LOST TE Richard Angulo (released); DT Alfonso Boone: UFA Chiefs; $7.2M/4 yrs, SB unknown; WR Justin Gage: UFA Titans; $1M/1 yr, $400,000 SB; FB Bryan Johnson (released); S Todd Johnson: UFA Rams; $4M/4 yrs, $700,000 SB; RB Thomas Jones (traded to Jets); DT Ian Scott: UFA Eagles; 1 yr, terms unknown; S Cameron Worrell: UFA Dolphins; $2M/2 yrs, $285,000 SB