Eric Hartz: What do you expect out of Kyle Orton this season? He's had a solid record as a starting quarterback and seems to have a good head on his shoulders, despite his party-boy reputation. Is he the long-term answer for the team under center, or is he simply the best option the team currently has?
John Crist: I will always maintain that Rex Grossman is the superior passer, but Orton is better suited to lead this team since the Bears will once again be leaning heavily on suffocating defense and solid special teams. While Orton may not be talented enough to single-handedly win a game, Grossman has proven time and time again that he's more than capable of single-handedly losing one. Orton's confidence has grown by leaps and bounds since being named the starter by head coach Lovie Smith, and it seems that the rest of the locker room has noticed that maturation process — he was named a team captain, an honor that Grossman never earned, on Monday.
Orton is signed through 2009 and has a chance to develop into somewhat of a permanent solution under center for one of the most quarterback-challenged franchises in the history of the league, but I still think the Bears will look into selecting another signal-caller on Day 1 of the NFL Draft next April.
EH: The Bears were cursed by many a Colt fan on the first day of the NFL Draft as Chicago took Tulane's Matt Forte, a player many of us here at ColtPower.com were very high on. The Colts turned out OK, re-signing Dominic Rhodes and adding rookie Mike Hart for depth behind Joseph Addai, but give us an update on our former draft crush. Is he the total package many of us thought he was?
JC: Simply speaking, Forte has been the anti-Cedric Benson thus far in the Windy City: an every-down back on the field and a pleasure to deal with off it. Forte has been especially impressive in the passing game, running routes and catching the ball as well as most receivers and also proving to be a willing blocker. He's not afraid of contact near the line of scrimmage, and the coaching staff is already quite comfortable with the idea of making him the primary ball carrier right out of the chute as a rookie.
Ron Turner's play-calling was way too predictable this past year because of Benson's shortcomings in the passing attack, so the offense should be much more well-rounded with Forte leading the charge.
EH: What about Mike Brown? The Bears safety is one of the league's best when healthy, but he hasn't been healthy in four years and was injured in the season opener in 2007. He's once again made a comeback, but how many leg injuries can one player suffer without seeing his skills fall off? How has he looked in the preseason, and to what extent are the Bears counting on Brown?
JC: Jerry Angelo admitted before the draft in April that he simply can't continue to count on Brown year after year, yet it certainly appears that this defense is putting a lot of faith in his ability to stay healthy once again. I believe it's somewhat unfair to call Brown injury-prone because all of the leg problems he's had since 2004 have been unrelated, and the torn ACL he suffered in last year's season opener — the defense was shutting out the high-powered Chargers and he'd already intercepted a pass before he went down — was the textbook example of a freak accident. But you can't ignore the fact that he's missed 43 of his last 64 regular season games, which is a shame because he's one of the best safeties in the league and has forgotten more about football than most defenders will ever know.
Brown was back on the practice field by the offseason program — without a knee brace, mind you — and up to his old antics as usual, but I've been cautioning Bears fans all along about getting too excited because of his dubious track record.
EH: How is Devin Hester progressing as a receiver? We all know — Colts fans especially — what he can do in the return game with his speed and agility, but how well are those skills translating into the offensive scheme? He had 20 receptions and two touchdowns last season, but also fumbled seven times. Are the Bears counting on him to do more this season, or will they use him sporadically to keep him fresh for his specialty?
JC: Hester most definitely has the skills necessary to be an elite wideout, and he finds a way to take your breath away with a great catch or an ankle-breaking move in practice most every day. He's going to start the game Sunday night opposite Brandon Lloyd, but I'd be surprised if he was on the field for 40 or 50 plays because he's simply too valuable with what he can do on special teams. Coach Smith is convinced that his most dangerous weapon can develop into a primary receiver one of these days, although I think he should be very happy if the former cornerback can simply be a third option and come up with 35-40 receptions in 2008.
The Midway Monsters are going to have to rely on four or five wideouts to make significant contributions — Marty Booker and Rashied Davis will be in the mix, as could Mark Bradley and rookie Earl Bennett — because nobody can be qualified as a go-to guy.
EH: The Bears have taken fans on a roller-coaster ride the last few this decade — following up a 13-3 season in 2001 with three straight losing seasons, then winning 11 and 13 games, respectively, capped by an appearance in Super Bowl XLI. Then in 2007, the team missed the playoffs again going 7-9. So where do you see the elevator stopping for the team this year: up or down?
JC: Based on what I've seen every day in training camp and up close during the preseason, this looks like a 6-10 club to me. The only phase of the game that is a known quantity right now is special teams, because of Hester's mesmerizing ability as a return man coupled with arguably the best coverage units in the league.
The offensive line is riddled with question marks and will force those skill-position players to work extra hard, while the defense, even with all those Pro Bowlers, may not be as good as some people think it is ñ simply putting top-flight players on the field won't get it done since offenses are always finding new ways to beat you.
As for the future, Smith is secure because of the big-money extension he signed before the 2007 season, but both coordinators, Turner on offense and Bob Babich on defense, are feeling their seats warm up in a hurry.
Be on the lookout for Part III of this three-part series on Friday. To go back and read Part I, where Eric answers five questions from John, Click Here.
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