Tyler Dunne: How is Chicago's stable of wide receivers coming along? Does Jay Cutler have weapons to throw to?
John Crist: There is no question that the receiving corps was the biggest question mark on this football team heading into training camp, but starters Devin Hester and Earl Bennett have both been strong throughout and appear worthy of being a No. 1 and a No. 2, respectively, in the Windy City – even if they'd likely be a No. 2 and a No. 3 on another team. While slot man Rashied Davis is feeling the heat and could be on the cutting-room floor after the preseason, two unknowns, Brandon Rideau and Devin Aromashodu, have done well and earned first-team reps. And don't forget about the tight end combination of Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, which is one of the best in the NFL and should help Cutler move the chains consistently.
There may not be a 1,000-yard candidate on the roster as presently constituted, but all signs point to Hester being vastly improved as a full-time wideout and Olsen possibly making his first Pro Bowl.
TD: Speaking of Cutler, how is Chicago's new quarterback performing in camp so far?
JC: After being unfairly subjected to a lesser-of-two-evils competition between Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman last year, Bears fans have flocked to training camp in record numbers to see Cutler sling the pigskin. For the most part, he hasn't disappointed – even though he's not a big fan or interviews or autographs – and looks to be the real deal so far. Not only does he have a cannon attached to his right shoulder and isn't afraid to use it, but he's also incredibly accurate and tends to hit receivers in stride.
The NFC is loaded with former Pro Bowlers at the game's most important position, and while it may take a full year for Cutler to be totally comfortable with Ron Turner's scheme on offense, he adds an element of danger to the air attack that has been missing throughout the Lovie Smith era.
TD: Will the defense rebound from its subpar season?
JC: The coaching staff reiterates all the time that the three-technique defensive tackle position is the most important cog in the Cover 2's wheel, which means Bears fans have every right to worry since Tommie Harris is again being held out of action a great deal because of recurring knee problems. If Harris doesn't resemble the player that went to three Pro Bowls by the tender age of 25, then the defensive line is going to have to lean on its depth and get production from young talents like second-year pro Marcus Harrison and rookie Jarron Gilbert. The linebackers are in great shape and may be the best 4-3 trio in the league, but injuries at corner and inexperience at safety also need to be addressed.
While Smith is calling the signals this season and Rod Marinelli has gotten rave reviews for his teaching ability, this is a defense that's been living off of reputation for two years now yet is riddled with uncertainty.
TD: The Bills showed a lot of interest in Pisa Tinoisamoa when the linebacker was cut by St. Louis. Despite the team's mega hole at outside linebacker, Tinoisamoa wasn't signed. How is he playing so far for the Bears?
JC: Tinoisamoa isn't going to be handed the job at strong-side linebacker and still has to fend off the likes of Nick Roach and Jamar Williams, but the former Ram is the only one of the three that has a legit resume. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have both said they like what they see thus far from Tinoisamoa, even though he'll be playing a new position with different responsibilities in this defense. Instead of lining up on the weak side and covering running backs in the passing game, now he's over on the strong side and has to deal with bigger and stronger tight ends.
Saying that he's already made a lot of money in this game and only wants to play for a winner the rest of his career, Tinoisamoa must have believed the Bears were closer to a Super Bowl than the Bills – plus he played for Smith as a rookie in St. Louis.
TD: How do you see the Bears stacking up in the NFC North?
JC: The Bears look to be a better team on both sides of the football when compared to last season, but I still believe the Vikings to be the class of the NFC North and the eventual division winner. Even though I'm going to hold off on making any final predictions until the preseason is over and done with, the Monsters of the Midway should win double-digit games and be a threat for a wild-card berth in 2009. The Lions are still stuck in neutral with a first-year coach in Jim Schwartz, but don't sleep on the Packers because they have so much talent offensively – seeing a 3-4 team twice a year for the first time in a while will also be interesting.
I could see the NFC North putting three teams in the playoffs in 2009, although I also wouldn't be shocked if only the division winner qualified.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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