The offense was much better in 2006 than it was the year before, but will the fresh influx of young playmakers be the difference? The defense has remained remarkably intact under head coach Lovie Smith considering the amount of player movement these days, but have last season's injured superstars been nursed back to health? What about the new-look running game, depth at defensive tackle, and an aging offensive line?
There are myriad questions that will have to be addressed on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, but here are the five biggest:
1. Can ‘Good Rex' finally conquer ‘Bad Rex'?
Rex Grossman was arguably the most heavily scrutinized player in the entire NFL last season, as his Jekyll-and-Hyde performance was utterly brilliant one week, downright atrocious the next, and completely unexplainable either way. Like way too many signal-callers in today's game, he got too much credit when the team played well and too much blame when the team played poorly. But considering the fact that this offense added more speed and athleticism at the skill positions than any in the league, the cast of characters that now surrounds him has never been better.
GM Jerry Angelo will likely reward Grossman with a contract extension midseason if he gets off to another hot start, but if he yo-yos once again, look for the former first-rounder to be wearing a different uniform in 2008 – likely holding a clipboard.
2. Will Mike Brown and Tommie Harris be healthy?
While Harris may be the best in the business at his position, Brown is the single most indispensable part of this defense – at least among those that never dated Paris Hilton, of course. The Bears gave up a combined 409 yards rushing to Frank Gore, Ronnie Brown, and Tiki Barber the first three games after Brown was lost for the season in Week 6, and then they were ravaged for a collective 907 yards passing by Marc Bulger, Tim Rattay, and Jon Kitna down the stretch. Brown will be moved back to free safety after an IR-plagued stint at strong safety, and although the "injury-prone" label may be unfair at this point, it's hovering like a vulture.
A lot of Bears fans are concerned with depth at the defensive tackle position after the dismissal of Tank Johnson, but so long as Harris regains his Pro-Bowl form, whomever lines up alongside him will have plenty of opportunities to make plays.
3. Is Cedric Benson the answer in the backfield?
Benson combined with three-time leading rusher Thomas Jones to form one of the top tailback tandems in the league last season, but there was no way the two of them could coexist for another campaign. Jones was traded to the Jets in March for a flip-flop of second-round draft picks, so Benson finally has his wish and will be the unquestioned No. 1 option in the running game. And while he was a battering ram in the second half of last season and topped the 100-yard plateau in the finale against the Packers, concerns about his durability surfaced yet again when he was sidelined in the Super Bowl because of a bum knee after just his second carry.
4. What will ultimately happen with Lance Briggs?
Briggs and his infamous agent, Drew Rosenhaus, have been playing chicken with the Bears front office for quite some time now, but it appears that the two-time Pro-Bowler will have to swerve off the road very soon. The deadline for him to sign a long-term extension with the team was July 16, which means if he wants to play at all this season, he'll have to do it for the one-year franchise tender of $7.2 million. It remains a possibility that he stands by his threat to hold out until Week 10 of the regular season in order to get his point across, but since each of his 16 game checks is worth roughly $450,000, he'll probably come crawling back to Lake Forest with his tail between his legs before Week 1.
Second-year pro Jamar Williams impressed as the starter during mini camp and OTAs and Angelo simply loves draftee Michael Okwo, plus the weakside linebacker position has proven to be disposable during Brian Urlacher's tenure in the Windy City.
5. How much can Devin Hester impact the offense?
If there is one thing the Monsters of the Midway have truly been lacking on offense for quite a while, it's a home run threat. Devin Hester looked to be overmatched when lined up at cornerback opposite NFL wide receivers as a rookie, but he set the world afire as a record-setting return man and has been moved to the other side of the ball. He looked nothing short of sensational in the offseason program at Halas Hall, catching every pass thrown his way while lining up everywhere from wideout to slot receiver to tailback in the process.
Hester is not going to reel in 50 passes or score a dozen touchdowns, but he'll author his share of highlight-reel plays and serve as an effective decoy since opposing defenses will have to account for him on every snap.
The Bears report to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais on Thursday, July 26 and will hold their first training camp practice at 3:00 p.m. the following day. Click Here for the full training camp schedule.
|John Crist is the Editor in Chief of BearReport.com and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.|