Two days before Bears players report to Bourbonnais, here are five things I know I want to watch in training camp:
1. Fangio’s mind. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio played a conservative scheme last season, saying he couldn’t rush his unit from Step 1 to Step 5 without making the time-consuming, necessary stops in between.
It showed, too. The talent-deficient Bears were improved, but only one team finished the season with fewer interceptions. Four had fewer takeaways.
The Bears hope the addition of veteran inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, plus defensive end Akiem Hicks, will improve the defense’s database of knowledge. By spending five of their first draft picks on defenders, the Bears believe they’ve improved their talent base.
If they’re right on both accounts, they’ll help to unlock another impressive weapon: Fangio’s creativity. I’ll be curious to see how it manifests, even in practice.
2. Running men. John Fox came to Chicago a firm believer in what he described as a “wave” of running backs. After the Bears refused to even make Matt Forte a contract offer this offseason, he’ll get his wish: three middle-round selections — one in each of the past three seasons — combining to take Forte’s place.
Jeremy Langford will get the first look, but he needs to improve his pass catching to carve out an every-down niche. Ka’Deem Carey was dynamic in spurts last year, but the larger, more physical Jordan Howard was drafted for a similar role. Jacquizz Rodgers could contribute, too.
The running back spot is the sexiest horse race in training camp, but don’t expect any one player to claim the position for himself.
Intelligent people can disagree about the wisdom of paying top dollar to one running back. The Bears can see both sides, it seems; they tried to lure the Broncos’ C.J. Anderson in the spring.
Bears fans are about to learn about life without Forte. Expect growing pains.
3. Tight end questions. The Bears traded Martellus Bennett, and then did little to make fans forget him. They’ll enter camp desperate for one, if not two, tight ends to emerge to solidify the position.
Zach Miller re-signed to be the group’s leader. But can he stay healthy? Khari Lee figures to land a job, but he has one career catch.
The rest of the group is a mish-mash of underperforming veterans (Tony Moeaki and Rob Housler combined for seven catches last year) and undrafted rookies from small schools (Harvard’s Ben Braunecker and Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Joe Sommers), among others.
The bet here is at least one of the Bears’ Opening Day tight ends is entering camp this week with a different team.
4. Passing grade. Jay Cutler is on his third offensive coordinator in as many years. He’s had three quarterbacks coaches, too, though last year’s, Dowell Loggains, was promoted this offseason.
Alshon Jeffery has a new receivers coach after Mike Groh, a holdover from the Trestman regime, left for the Rams during the offseason.
Kevin White is finally on the field after a lost rookie year; he hadn’t shared a huddle with Jeffery, ever, until mandatory minicamp.
It would be understandable, then, if it takes weeks for the Bears to find the rhythm in their passing game.
They can’t afford for it to, though. Their first three games are against the Texans, Eagles and Cowboys; going 0-3 to start the season could, like last year, put the Bears in a hole from which they can’t escape.
5. Injuries. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: the biggest accomplishment of any team’s offseason is finishing it healthy.
White’s shin injury, Fox’s dodging of questions and the receiver’s season-ending surgery cast a pall on the Bears’ last Bourbonnais trip. Another receiver, Marquess Wilson, broke his clavicle the year before during camp.
One name is already worth monitoring this week: outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who had offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and didn’t participate in offseason practices, could be slowed at the start of camp.
An injury will certainly come at some point during the Bears’ stay at Olivet Nazarene University. Still building depth, the Bears can’t afford for it to be a player of consequence.