What We Learned: Veteran Minicamp

With veteran minicamp in the rearview mirror, the Chicago Bears can focus entirely on the NFL Draft. Did we learn anything new about this team during the week in Lake Forest? Here are five of the most important conclusions we can make after three full days of workouts at Halas Hall.

1. Orton and Hanie are going to be starter and backup at quarterback
All that fist-pounding talk from general manager Jerry Angelo at his season-ending press conference about needing to stabilize the quarterback position was a big waste of hot air.

Kyle Orton is going to be the starter for this football team, and that fact was never in doubt based on how the organization went about its business in the offseason. If Angelo truly wanted Orton to be challenged for the starting job, then he at least would have brought in the likes of Byron Leftwich or Jeff Garcia for a free-agent visit – Orton didn't exactly toss and turn all night after Brett Basanez was signed. And all this daydreaming about trading for Denver's Jay Cutler can stop immediately, since Angelo parts with Day-1 draft picks about as willingly as Linus parts with his blanket.

Caleb Hanie has apparently progressed enough to be the primary backup to Orton, as he threw the ball very well in minicamp, is a good athlete in the pocket, and seems to be a favorite of head coach Lovie Smith.

2. Wide receiver is the biggest question mark on the team without a doubt
The offensive line is in trouble right now with John Tait having hung up his spikes and John St. Clair bolting for Cleveland, but the receiving corps simply has to be addressed first and foremost.


WR Earl Bennett
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images

Of the six wideouts on the field during minicamp, two of them came to the Bears originally as defensive backs (Devin Hester and Rashied Davis), two of them are former seventh-round picks with single-digit career receptions in the league (Devin Aromashodu and John Broussard), and two of them have never caught so much as one NFL pass (Earl Bennett and Brandon Rideau). While it would be great to add another young tackle like Michael Oher of Ole Miss opposite Chris Williams, Angelo might have to roll the dice with a pass catcher like Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland in Round 1. There simply isn't enough talent to get the job done, and continuing to rely so much on the terrific tight end combination of Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen isn't acceptable.

Plainly speaking, Bennett and Rideau got the majority of the first-team reps alongside Hester during minicamp, yet the two of them were only active on game day a total of 12 times combined in 2008.

3. Revolving door at safety continues to be a problem on defense
If there isn't much of a difference between the two safety positions in this system, as the coaching staff has professed, why did they feel the need to flip-flop Mike Brown and Kevin Payne between strong and free this past season?

The truth is there is a difference between the two spots, as the strong safety spends more time as an in-the-box defender and the free safety is primarily the last wave of coverage deep down the field. The Bears tried to shift Brown to free safety in an effort to keep him healthy and away from some unnecessary contact, but he wasn't nearly as effective and got moved back to strong safety because that's where he became a playmaker over the years – Payne was miscast back at free safety as a result. Maybe Payne will be a better player since he can line up at strong safety again now that Brown is no longer in Chicago, but the rest of the depth chart is muddled at best: Newcomer Josh Bullocks is a better player in shorts than in pads, Craig Steltz keeps getting switched from strong to free and back, and Zack Bowman came into the league as a corner.

And you can forget about Danieal Manning, who is going to be the nickel back and kick returner – his time at free safety has expired.

4. Bringing in Marinelli to coach the defensive line was a brilliant move
Rod Marinelli may not qualify as the most important free agent addition of the offseason, as Smith believes, but he's already made a positive impact.


Rod Marinelli
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images

The production he got out of his defensive line when working as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay is the stuff of legends, as Pro Bowler Warren Sapp and Co. were nothing short of dominant for the better part of a decade for the Buccaneers. Much more so than the former D-line coach, Brick Haley, Marinelli is very animated going about his business on the practice field and really likes to get his hands dirty when it comes to teaching technique and explaining the finer points of the Cover 2 scheme. And while Haley had accomplished absolutely nothing in the NFL, Marinelli has the players' respect because they all know what an impressive resume he's put together – before he took the top job in Detroit, of course.

Tommie Harris went so far as to say it's a "privilege" to be instructed by Marinelli, which is the kind of talk you usually don't hear about a position coach.

5. Draft weekend must be concentrated heavily on offensive players
There is still reason to be optimistic about what was once a dominant defense, as Marinelli should get more out of the front four, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are still a great pair of linebackers, and there is a lot of talent in the secondary.

However, on the offensive side of the ball, it's hard to imagine this cast of characters as presently constituted consistently putting points on the board. Yes, Matt Forte is a special running back and looks to be a future Pro Bowler, but he'll still have to do a lot of the work himself because the blocking is going to be average at best. Clark and Olsen will create mismatch problems for enemy linebackers and safeties, and they'll have to be big again in 2009 because the receivers flat-out aren't NFL-caliber as a group right now.

Angelo must go after another bookend blocker in addition to a playmaking wideout on Day 1 of the draft without fail, while Day 2 can be reserved for stockpiling depth regardless of position.


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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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