Which Bear is most likely to ...
... make his first trip to the Pro Bowl?
Since the Monsters of the Midway are still weak at the wide receiver position and lack a primary target – maybe even a secondary target – chances are Greg Olsen is going to catch a fair amount of passes as a tight end/receiver hybrid-type player. Even though he's technically second on the depth chart behind veteran Desmond Clark, offensive coordinator Ron Turner gets Olsen on the field as often as he possibly can in a variety of alignments to create mismatch opportunities.
Olsen isn't quite ready to be the next Jason Witten, but he's the smart money to lead the team in receptions and might be a Pro Bowler despite the fact that eventual Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez is now in the NFC.
... not go back to the Pro Bowl?
Yes, the Midway Monsters are finally in good shape at the game's most important position after making that blockbuster trade for Jay Cutler, but fans expecting the strong-armed signal caller to throw for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns right out of the shoot are setting themselves up for disappointment. Not only does Cutler have a weak crop of wideouts, but he won't have to score 30-plus points each and every Sunday since he now has a defense that can hold the enemy in check.
Cutler will have a hard time putting up Pro Bowl numbers his first year in the Windy City, plus he'll have some stiff competition in the NFC: Drew Brees, Marc Bulger, Daunte Culpepper, Jake Delhomme, Matt Hasselbeck, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, and Kurt Warner have all been there before, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan will be there soon, and soon-to-be Viking Brett Favre gets sentimental votes no matter how many interceptions he throws in December.
Urlacher may be primed for a bounceback year.
Warren Wimmer Photography
... have a bounceback 2009 after a disappointing 2008?
If Brian Urlacher is no longer an annual candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in the middle, and he's obviously not since he missed out on the last two Pro Bowls, then perhaps he needs more help on the flanks. Now that Pisa Tinoisamoa has been signed to take over on the strong side, coupled with Lance Briggs being in the prime of his career on the weak side, maybe Urlacher is ready and willing for a Ray Lewis-esque visit to the Fountain of Youth in 2009.
Not only is he another year removed from the back and neck issues that slowed him down a little, but everyone at Halas Hall raved about No. 54 re-dedicating himself completely to the game throughout the offseason program.
... continue the downward trend he's been on recently?
Urlacher isn't the only Bear who's been ignored by Pro Bowl voters the last two years, as Olin Kreutz doesn't appear to be a premier player anymore at the center position. Even with Matt Birk leaving Minnesota for Baltimore, and switching conferences as a result, Kreutz probably won't be on the fast track back to Pro Bowl status because there are a lot of miles on his odometer these days.
While Kreutz is a warrior – the former All-Pro hasn't missed a game since 2002 – and still casts a long shadow in the Bears locker room, he's now clearly behind the likes of Andre Gurode and Shaun O'Hara.
... win a starting job in training camp?
Free agent signee Frank Omiyale has started only one game in his NFL career and spent most of his time as a reserve tackle, but there's a very good chance he supplants incumbent Josh Beekman at left guard. Even though Beekman played fairly well this past season – his first as a starter – after the Bears had a revolving door at the position in 2007, he's a bit undersized for Chicago's man-on-man blocking scheme and likely a better fit at center one day.
General manager Jerry Angelo said clearly this offseason that he now prefers tackles that can also play guard, as opposed to guards that can also play center, which bodes well for Omiyale but not so well for Beekman.
... lose his starting job during the season?
Danieal Manning was Chicago's top pick in the 2006 NFL Draft – albeit in the second round – and might still be the best pure athlete on the team, yet he's had a difficult time translating all of his athletic ability into production on the football field. No longer in the mix at free safety and currently hanging on as a nickel back and kick returner, Manning nursed a minor injury near the end of OTAs and watched helplessly as Corey Graham got snaps with the first and second team at nickel.
If both Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher remain relatively free of injuries, and the coaching staff decides that Graham is too good to take off the field, Manning could be nothing more than a return man before long.
... work his way into the lineup as a rookie?
Since Devin Hester is not a legitimate No. 1 and Earl Bennett has done nothing to inspire confidence as No. 2, don't be surprised if third rounder Juaquin Iglesias and fifth rounder Johnny Knox are called upon at some point in 2009. Although Iglesias is the higher-regarded prospect and played against better competition at the collegiate level, it's easy to see why everyone is so excited about Knox with the way he ran his routes and caught the ball throughout minicamp and OTAs.
It's hard to believe a receiver taken in Round 5 can be a difference maker as a rookie, but Knox offers twice the explosiveness of Rashied Davis right now and might make for a dangerous No. 3 lining up in the slot.
Melton (left) might not make the 53-man roster.
Warren Wimmer Photography
... bide his time for a while on the practice squad?
Henry Melton was a hot name leading up to NFL Draft weekend even though he was not invited to the Scouting Combine, opening up eyes with a very impressive workout at his Pro Day at the University of Texas. He's a tremendous athlete – he was originally a tailback for the Longhorns – and has a lot of potential, but there's no way he can compete alongside the likes of Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye this early in his career.
There may have to be an injury before the start of the regular season for Melton to be considered for the 53-man roster by Week 1, so the Bears could lose him if they try to slip the fourth rounder through waivers for the purposes of putting him on the practice squad.
... be a pleasant surprise?
While Matt Forte was one of the few true workhorse backs in the league last year and looks to be the next great ball carrier for a franchise that has produced its fair share, one could argue that Kevin Jones is just as important to the success of the Chicago running game. Forte averaged less than four yards per carry as a rookie and slowed down in December because he was overworked, but Jones is much healthier now than a year ago and re-signed with the Bears in part because he was promised a bigger role offensively in 2009.
Forte had a tough time in short-yardage and goal-line situations when you investigate the numbers, so Jones can put his no-nonsense style to good use and help a ground attack that was just 24th in the NFL this past season.
... be an unmitigated disaster?
The pass defense has suffered the last two years thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness at both cornerback and safety, but the pass rush deserves just as much of the blame – especially supposed sack specialist Mark Anderson. Terrific as a rookie with 12 sacks, Anderson has been on the back of a milk carton ever since and produced a grand total of one QB takedown in 2008 even though he was on the field more often than not in obvious passing situations.
Not only does Israel Idonije's move back to end from tackle signify that Anderson is on borrowed time, but Angelo drafting both Melton and Jarron Gilbert this past April most likely means Anderson will be allowed to walk away after his contract expires at the end of this season.
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.