What We Learned: Offseason Program

Thursday is the last day of offseason practice for the Chicago Bears. Highlighted by a trade for Jay Cutler, the Monsters of the Midway are a different team heading into 2009 than they were at the end of 2008. What did we learn throughout minicamps and OTAs? Start with these five observations ...

1. Bears fans can't expect miracles overnight even though Cutler is special
While there is no question Jay Cutler has more natural ability than Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, and Kyle Orton, he's not going to come to town and single-handedly transform what has been a below-average offense for several years.

For the most part, Cutler was every bit as good as advertised during OTAs at Halas Hall, slinging the ball all over the field in impressive fashion and bringing a sense of confidence to the huddle that has been absent recently. But he's getting used to a new city, learning a new playbook, and going to work with a new cast of teammates, and it showed periodically during drills – he didn't know what to do with the football at times and was forced to either tuck it and run or chuck it out of bounds. Though his numbers for 2009 will inevitably dwarf what the Grossman-Griese-Orton trio put together in the Lovie Smith era, fans may be foolish to expect Cutler to throw for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns on reputation alone.

It's going to take some time for Cutler to become 100 percent comfortable in offensive coordinator Ron Turner's system, meaning it could be a month or so into the regular season before everything starts to click.

2. It's fair to question if Harris will ever again be as good as he once was
From the general manager to the head coach to the player himself, everybody in Lake Forest swears up and down there's nothing wrong with Tommie Harris and he'll be just fine this coming season.


Harris did not do very much work during OTAs.
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images

But Bears backers have a reason to be nervous about their three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, as Harris has done very little during the offseason program – he didn't take a single rep in either 7-on-7 or 11-on-11, as a matter of fact. It's quite understandable that the organization wants to take it easy with him, and Harris himself admitted last week he's tried to come back too quickly from injury before, but there are whispers around the league that the gregarious 26-year-old is already playing on 36-year-old knees. The former first-round draft pick was a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year candidate during the Super Bowl season of 2006 before being shelved on injured reserve, and he hasn't been the same since.

We'll have to wait until the players put the pads on in training camp to see if Harris is ready to be a difference maker again, but don't be surprised if he's not a three-down option and has to be spelled rather frequently by second-year pro Marcus Harrison and rookie Jarron Gilbert.

3. The talent at the skill positions could be better than the experts think
Not only should Cutler's presence alone make the backs and receivers better players this year, but it's possible the Pro Bowler's partners in crime just might be good enough to get the job done.

Devin Hester may never be a true primary target in this league, but he's catching the football consistently, is a better route runner than he's given credit for, and should only benefit from Cutler's accuracy delivering on deep patterns. The tight end combination of Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen continues to be one of the best around, and Olsen in particular looks primed for a breakout campaign – 70-75 receptions is not out of the question. And while Matt Forte broke down to some degree last December, partially because of a bad toe but also due to too much work, Kevin Jones is much healthier now than a year ago and should be a bigger part of the offense.

There has been all kinds of chatter with regard to the Bears signing Plaxico Burress or making a trade for Brandon Marshall, but Cutler told reporters Wednesday that he has what he needs to succeed and doesn't expect any further additions to be made.

4. This D can get back to elite status only if the secondary makes strides
Even though the Midway Monsters finished 28th and 21st, respectively, in total defense the last two seasons, there is an enviable amount of talent in the front seven and plenty of bodies at most of those positions.


Payne is a much better fit playing strong safety.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The defensive backfield, on the other hand, is another story altogether and could be the most important factor in this team stopping enemy offenses as well as it did in the division-title years of 2005-06. With Mike Brown no longer in the mix, Kevin Payne finally gets to play strong safety full time and should be a much better player as a result – whether or not Craig Steltz is capable of taking over at free safety, however, remains to be seen. Cornerback has also been an issue for the Bears, mostly because the duo of Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher keeps getting banged up and thinning the depth chart in the process.

One player who is going to contribute defensively one way or another appears to be Corey Graham, who played rather well at corner stepping in for Vasher last year, then made a move to safety to compete with Steltz during OTAs, and now may supplant Danieal Manning as the nickel back in obvious passing situations.

5. Don't expect any of the nine draft picks to make a big splash as a rookie
Sure, Gilbert could be used liberally in the rotation at defensive tackle if Harris doesn't return to form any time soon, but the Bears probably won't get a major impact from any of their first-year players.

Everybody in football knew Chicago was weak at receiver heading into draft weekend, and while third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias and fifth-round pick Johnny Knox both look like they can play so far, they're still working behind the likes of Rashied Davis and Brandon Rideau at this point – seventh-rounder Derek Kinder is a candidate for the practice squad at best. Cornerback D.J. Moore and linebacker Marcus Freeman were a pair of bargains in Rounds 4 and 5, respectively, but they were lucky to get reps with the second-string D during OTAs and, barring a rash of injuries, won't challenge for playing time until 2010.

With Jerry Angelo signing three starting-caliber offensive tackles and a pretty good linebacker, Pisa Tinoisamoa, in free agency, there isn't as much room for rookies as there has been in the past.


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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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