Less than two weeks into training camp, it would be easy to criticize the Bears' most recent draft, considering first-round pick Chris Williams remains unable to practice because of a strained back that he suffered almost before breaking a sweat.
Fortunately for the Bears, second-round running back Matt Forte has more than made up for the disappointment over the slow start of Williams, who was supposed to be one of the guys paving the way for the running game from the left tackle spot.
Forte has been everything coaches expected: a multi-talented player who can run inside and out, catch the ball and block when called upon. But he has also impressed teammates, coaches, fans and observers with his maturity, intelligence and level-headed demeanor.
Forte already acts like he has been here before, even though he hasn't. He's confident without being cocky.
"I wanted to come out here and compete and go into the season starting and all that stuff," he said. "It's all in your mindset and what you want to be."
Forte wants to be the Bears' featured running back, just as he was at Tulane last season when he rushed for 2,127 yards and also caught 32 passes.
He's also smart without being a smart-aleck.
"This is a job," he said. "You've got to put time in the books, study film, come out here and do even more than 100 percent every day."
He knows his place as a rookie without being subservient.
When second-year safety Josh Gattis took a shot at him in 11-on-11 recently, Forte's withering stare was more than enough to make it known that he didn't appreciate being the target of anyone's overzealousness.
Teammates have already noticed Forte's proficiency at picking up the blitz, which requires a combination of knowing the playbook and the situation plus the desire to perform the grunt work that sometimes comes with a skill position. It's something Cedric Benson never mastered, but Forte appreciates it when he hears that veterans have taken notice of his willingness to do the little things.
"It means a lot," he said. "It means they're paying attention, and also that I'm paying attention to what's going on in the classroom and displaying it on the football field. Learning is a big part of the game as a rookie, and it's going well."
Knowing the playbook won't improve Forte's athleticism, but it will complement the speed, quickness and power he's already demonstrated.
"You'll know what you need to do, and you can make your decisions faster," he said. "Therefore you can play faster."
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner was encouraged by Forte's performance from the first snap at Halas Hall in the offseason, and he continues to be impressed.
"He's exactly what we expected," Turner said. "It's no change. He's going to continue to be a good player. He's very mature for his age, very intelligent, very instinctive, and just kind of even-keeled. He's got a tremendous amount of pride. He does not like to make mistakes. When he does make a mistake, he's not real happy about it. He's got a tremendous focus about him."
For now, Forte continues to share first-team reps with veteran Adrian Peterson, but he's clearly on the fast track to owning the job outright – but he's not campaigning for it. He doesn't need to, because there are other people talking him up.
"Each day we see something else he can do," head coach Lovie Smith said. "But for the most part, he's what we thought he would be. He's what we hoped he would be: a guy who can run it inside and out and can catch the ball."
News & Notes
The sight of the six-time Pro Bowl center taped up and in full pads, leading his team out of the huddle and up to the line of scrimmage, was the most positive sign that a maligned Bears offense could have hoped for during a steamy afternoon practice.
Seeing the burly 6-2, 292-pound Kreutz pull out to lead the interference on a running play might not compare to watching Devin Hester streak along the sideline and run down a pass that appears to be overthrown by 10 yards, but it's probably more important to an offense in transition.
Kreutz missed the first week or so of practice to rest an Achilles' tendon that required minor surgery shortly before camp began. Without him, the line specifically and the offense in general were without their rudder. The offensive line that opens the 2008 season will have new starters at three of the five positions from a year ago. Both starting wide receivers will be new, and so will the featured running back – and maybe the quarterback.
It's rare that the addition of just one player can solidify a unit in search of an identity, but Kreutz has been a leader since before most of the current Bears joined the team, and no one carries more clout on the field or in the locker room.
"Olin's a leader of this team. Not only a vocal leader but just a leader by example," Turner said. "He's a great football player, so you miss that part of him. But we miss his leadership in the huddle, so it's nice to get him back." …
Bernard Berrian had 20 more catches and 381 more receiving yards than any Bears teammate last season, but he departed as a free agent for Minnesota when the Vikings offered him $42 million over six years.
It remains to be seen if anyone on the current roster can fill that 71-catch, 951-yard void that Berrian left, and Smith doesn't seem thrilled about addressing it.
"That seems like a long time ago," he said. "Bernard's somewhere else right now, and we like our receivers we have. I'm 50 years old. I forget pretty quick. Bernard was here last year, right? I can talk about our receivers quite a bit. We like everything they're doing. We appreciate what Bernard did for us in the past."
With several wide receivers competing for starting jobs and playing time, the evaluation process might take until the final preseason game. And even then the depth chart might not be set in stone.
"I can see a lot of guys getting reps," Turner said. "The guys we [keep], I could see all of them being involved. I don't think it'll be a situation where it's just going to be two or three guys playing 90 percent of the time. If we have five or six, I can see them all getting a lot of playing time."
Even the role as No. 1 receiver is still up for grabs.
"We have a lot of guys we think can move into that role, but we haven't given out any starting jobs or anything like that," Smith said. "We definitely think Devin Hester can be a No 1 receiver for us, Brandon Lloyd has looked good, Marty Booker has been a No. 1 receiver, and we like what Rashied Davis has been able to do. Earl Bennett was a high draft pick for us and Mark Bradley's coming back, so we have some good depth."
The debate about whether Hester can be a No. 1 receiver has been a lively one, but Smith hasn't wavered.
"I wouldn't doubt anything that Devin Hester could do, whether it's returning punts, taking a couple snaps at quarterback or playing cornerback," Smith said. "I think he'd be able to figure it out." …
Second-year cornerback Corey Graham, a fifth-round pick out of New Hampshire last year, got a crash course with the first-team defense while starter Charles Tillman was excused for personal reasons. And Graham has made the most of his time in the spotlight.
"Corey's done an excellent job," said defensive coordinator Bob Babich. "His progress from last year to this year has been excellent. We've noticed that he's playing with an awful lot of confidence, and when you're out there as a corner, that's an important part of playing that position."
Like Tillman, Graham has good size (6-0, 193 pounds), and he's a physical player. It's not just his confidence that has impressed his coaches.
"His movement is a lot better," Babich said. "Last year when he first came [to camp], he had the [leg] injury and he kind of hobbled through it, even throughout the season. He had it in the spring, and he hobbled throughout the season. Now he's completely healthy, and he's a tough guy, too. He's a big corner that plays physical."
Graham was second on the Bears with 20 special-teams tackles last season, but he didn't see much time on defense – although that should change this year. …
Smith was perfectly willing to talk about the Brett Favre situation, but as it pertains to the future Hall-of-Famer as a Packer, not as a potential Bear, as a Thursday story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggested as a possibility.
"As a fan, whenever Brett Favre is involved with something, you take notice," Smith said after Thursday afternoon's practice. "As a quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, you just think about the two times that you play him. That's about my involvement with it."
What about the rumors of a trade within the NFC North?
"No reaction," Smith said. "It doesn't affect us. We have our quarterbacks. I'm not going to talk about somebody else's players."
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