Defensive TackleIf Tommie Harris finally gets back to full strength after two years – two Pro Bowl years, mind you – of battling bumps and bruises, then he'll be on the short list of Defensive Player of the Year candidates. This defense is loaded with talent and experience, but Harris is bar none the single most dominant cog in the wheel. Dusty Dvoracek missed the first two weeks of camp with a bad calf, so he's still coming along slowly and needs to ultimately prove that he can stay on the field. In his absence, Anthony Adams has flown under the radar but fits this scheme well as a run-stuffing nose tackle. Israel Idonije and rookie Marcus Harrison are both locks to make the team and should be in the D-tackle rotation, but it may be hard to find room for Matt Toeaina even though he's proven that he's a quality player.
Conclusion: Keeping Harris running at full capacity is all that really matters, as he'll take on double teams almost every snap and make everybody else's job easier along the defensive line.
Defensive EndAlex Brown has been put back into the starting lineup ahead of Mark Anderson, and the former Florida Gator has responded with an excellent training camp and a happy-go-lucky demeanor. While Anderson was less than impressive down in Bourbonnais, he has a track record of being very successful when used as a pass-rushing specialist instead of an every-down D-end. Adewale Ogunleye was arguably this team's defensive MVP this past season, getting after the quarterback consistently, forcing a lot of fumbles, and defending the run as well as he ever has. Look for another big year from him in 2008. But last year's second-round draft pick, Dan Bazuin, hasn't shown that he can play at this level and is still bothered every now and then by the knee injury that cost him his rookie season.
Conclusion: Brown, Ogunleye, and Anderson will make for a well-rounded rotation once again, but Bazuin could be in real jeopardy of making this team unless he has a big preseason.
LinebackerThe starters are as strong as any team in the NFL. Face-of-the-franchise Brian Urlacher was noticeably happier at Olivet Nazarene University this time around, finally getting his contract situation taken care of and focusing solely on football. Lance Briggs was also a happy camper compared to this time a year ago, and there's no reason to assume he won't be headed to Hawaii for the fourth consecutive season. Hunter Hillenmeyer just might be the most overlooked and underappreciated player in Chicago, as his steady play over on the strong side in part allows Urlacher and Briggs to make all those tackles. The backups are also a reliable group, so look for Jamar Williams, Rod Wilson, and Nick Roach to make a lot of noise on special teams. However, like Bazuin, Michael Okwo might not make the final cut and brings more negative attention to general manager Jerry Angelo's poor 2007 draft.
Conclusion: It will be interesting to see if Hillenmeyer stays on the field in passing situations like he was more and more toward the end of last season, but this unit is a team strength either way.
CornerbackCharles Tillman missed a lot of work in Bourbonnais while attending to a family matter, but he was as tough and physical as ever when he was able to participate. His partner on the other side of the field, Nathan Vasher, showed no ill effects from last year's nasty groin problem and actually might be in better shape than normal since he was forced to start all of his offseason work a little earlier than usual. Second-year pro Corey Graham was one of the breakout stars of camp, taking over for Tillman with the first unit quite frequently and looking like he belonged out there. Fellow 2007 draftee Trumaine McBride, on the other hand, struggled immensely and did not have a good showing in the preseason opener either. If McBride does not improve quickly, he could drop behind physically-gifted rookie Zack Bowman on the depth chart before long.
Conclusion: Assuming they're both healthy, Tillman and Vasher will be one of the better corner combos in the NFC, while Graham is a top-tier special-teams performer in all four phases of punts and kickoffs.
SafetyEven after four straight years of unrelated lower-leg injuries, Mike Brown still goes out there every day without braces on his knees or tape on his ankles. But you would never know he's had so much trouble staying healthy if you watch him up close in practice, as the veteran flies all over the field and directs the defense before, during, and after most every snap. Brandon McGowan is very active around the line of scrimmage, although he's currently struggling with a sprained right ankle and will likely miss Saturday's preseason game in Seattle. Second-year pro Kevin Payne and rookie Craig Steltz are the immediate backup at both strong and free safety while Danieal Manning makes the switch to nickelback, so experience in the secondary could be a big problem if Brown goes down once again. Payne was quiet during camp, and Steltz wasn't making as many plays the last few workouts as he was the first few.
Conclusion: Brown will be the most indispensable player on the entire 53-man roster, and losing him this year could be even more devastating because of all the youth that surrounds him at the position.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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