The 2008 draft featured one of the best running back classes in recent memory, and the Chicago Bears took full advantage of the deep class by adding the best running back in franchise history since the late great Walter Payton, former Tulane sensation Matt Forte. Since Payton, the Bears have seen flashes of brilliance from runners like Neal Anderson, Thomas Jones, Anthony Thomas, Rashaan Salaam, Cedric Benson, Raymont Harris, and James Allen, among others. But, not one of them looked as good as Forte in their first-year.
The No. 1 prospect in the Bears organization, Forte was selected in the second round (44th overall) of the ’08 draft and was expected to contribute as a rookie. But Forte did more than contribute; he became the team’s starter after the release of Benson and a stellar showing in training camp and the preseason. Forte beat out veteran Adrian Peterson for the starting job and went on to start all 16 games last season. In his first career start against the Indianapolis Colts, Forte carried the ball 23 times for 123 yards and a touchdown. That performance set the stage for things to come and Forte finished the year with 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns. Not only did Forte show he’s an outstanding runner, but he also displayed his versatility by hauling in 63 passes for 477 yards and four touchdowns. The Bears are expecting even bigger things out of Forte this year after they went out and acquired two impact players that will change the reflection of the offense, quarterback Jay Cutler and future Hall of Fame tackle Orlando Pace. With Cutler behind center, defenses can’t focus primarily on Forte and will have to worry about the passing game even if the Bears don’t possess a legitimate No. 1 receiver. And with Pace on the left side, the offensive line is more formidable and will ultimately lead to Forte flirting with a 1,500-yard season.
Even though the Bears don’t have a No. 1 receiving threat on the outside, the middle of the field is occupied by one of the rising stars at the tight end position in Greg Olsen. Since being selected in the first round of the 2007 draft, the No. 2 prospect in the organization has been a crucial part of the passing game and has improved in each of the last two years. As a rookie, Olsen played in 14 games, starting four, and caught 39 passes for 391 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, Olsen took the next step in his development and eclipsed his first-year production by posting 54 receptions for 574 yards and five touchdowns. The Bears commonly use a two-tight end set on offense and ask a lot from the tandem of Olsen and Desmond Clark. Olsen is the receiving threat with the deep speed, while Clark is the blocker who has the ability to beat a defense downfield with his deceptive quickness, hands and intelligence. The Bears front office and coaching staff are enamored with Olsen’s ability, and judging from his performance during the last four games of last season, where he caught 20 passes for 176 yards and three touchdowns, the sky’s the limit for No. 82.
As good as the running back class was in 2008 draft, the offensive tackle crop was the most popular, especially in the first round. There were seven offensive tackles taken in the first round, and the Bears used their first pick on one of them, former Vanderbilt star Chris Williams. At 6-foot-6, 315 pounds, Williams, the third best prospect in the organization, was a dominant performer on the left side with the Commodores, but as a rookie with the Bears he never had a chance to show his talent. During the first week of training camp, Williams experienced some discomfort in his back and went in for tests. It was revealed that he had a herniated disk, which required surgery, and he missed the first seven weeks of the season. When he returned, he played in the final nine games of the year on special teams. Entering this season, the signing of Pace, who will play left tackle, moves Williams to the right tackle where he’s listed as the starter. It will be interesting to see how Williams handles the action on the right side. At Vanderbilt, he was known more as a finesse blocker and not a mauler type that will fight until the whistle blows. To play the right side in the NFL, you have to play with a mean streak. Williams is not a guy who’s shown a consistent fire play after play.
Ironically, the Bears have three players on offense that were teammates at Vanderbilt: Cutler, Williams and the No. 4 rated prospect in the organization, wide receiver Earl Bennett. A third round pick of the Bears in the 2008 draft, Bennett made a great first impression at Vanderbilt with Cutler at the helm. At the time, Cutler was a senior while Bennett was a true freshman, and the two of them together were the perfect pair. With Cutler, Bennett caught 79 passes for 876 yards and nine touchdowns, the highest touchdown total of his three-year collegiate career. The Bears are hoping that the Cutler-Bennett connection can revive their success from college and flourish together in the NFL. As a rookie, Bennett was a major disappointment; he played in just 10 games and didn’t catch a single pass. This season, after spending most of his time on the sidelines last year, Bennett is expected to take the next step and become a starter. Bennett is very talented and possesses great awareness and hands, and with Cutler throwing him the ball, it will give him the optimal opportunity to be successful.
When you discuss a team’s top prospects, potential and upside are the two intangibles that are constantly discussed. And, the player who may have the most upside on the Bears roster is the fifth rated prospect in the organization, cornerback Zack Bowman. A former JUCO transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, Bowman decided to attend Nebraska and quickly became one of the nation’s premier cornerbacks during his junior season. But during fall practice, Bowman suffered a torn ACL to his left knee and he had to redshirt. He returned the following year and played well, but the explosion he had prior to the injury didn’t return. The Bears saw Bowman’s potential and drafted him in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. As much as the Bears liked Bowman, they didn’t keep him on the 53-man roster to start and placed him on the practice squad. In Week 7 last year, Bowman was signed off the practice when three of the Bears cornerbacks were injured heading into a division showdown against the Minnesota Vikings. Bowman played a vital role in the game; he recovered a fumbled punt in the endzone for a touchdown and made his first career interception that clinched the game for the Bears. Bowman sustained an injury to his arm that occurred prior to the game saving interception and showed his toughness by returning to make the play of the game. The injury turned out to be a torn bicep, and it required season-ending surgery. At 6-foot-1, 193 pounds, Bowman has great size and tremendous skill. The impact he has all depends on his health, and if he can stay healthy, the Bears will have received a steal and a future Pro Bowl cornerback.
Four defenders grace the bottom five of the top-ten: strong safety Kevin Payne (No. 6), defensive tackle Marcus Harrison (No. 8), rookie defensive end Jarron Gilbert (No. 9) and free safety Corey Graham (No. 10), as well as one future star on offense in 2009 third round pick wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias. Payne had a breakout year in ’08, amassing 88 tackles and a team high four interceptions. He solidified his status as the team’s starter at strong safety. Another safety that made a name for himself last year was Graham. A former fifth round pick, Graham came into his own last year and produced 91 tackles and an interception. He will battle with Craig Steltz, who just missed making the top-ten, for the starting free safety job this season. Harrison has excellent size and quickness inside, and as a rookie, he showed that he could contribute on a regular basis. As a situational defender, Harrison had 28 tackles and two sacks and will compete with the oft-injured Dusty Dvoracek for a starting job in the trenches. First-year players Gilbert and Iglesias will have an opportunity to showcase their skills in training camp, but it’s likely that Iglesias will receive more action this year.Three players were considered for the top-ten, but missed the final cut; the aforementioned Steltz, second-year quarterback Caleb Hanie and rookie wide receiver Johnny Knox. Hanie and Knox are developmental players who have a lot of promise, while Steltz has a legitimate shot at winning the free safety job.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com.