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Analysis: The Bears’ outlook after Bourbonnais

BOURBONNAIS — The Bears’ stint at Olivet Nazarene University ended Sunday with the most physical practice of the 13 held by new coach John Fox.

With that chapter of the preseason in the books, the Sun-Times’ Bears beat writers broke down the team’s time in Bourbonnais:

1. John Fox’s first training camp was ….

ADAM L. JAHNS: Impassioned. Fox made physicality a point throughout camp, allowing more hitting and live-tackling in 13 practices than former coach Marc Trestman did over his two years. Similar to Trestman, Fox guarded against injuries – see rookie receiver Kevin White’s situation – but it’s his search for tough guys, as he put it, that’s part of his culture change. Scuffles seemed to happen every other day, and Fox wasn’t bothered by them. That’s a big difference from Trestman.

PATRICK FINLEY: Old school. What’s the best way to improve a team that struggled with tackling the past two years? Actually tackling people. And to improve the run game? Blocking in practice. Fox’s camp featured hitting, and to no one’s detriment; Alshon Jeffery’s calf injury happened during a walk-through Wednesday and Kevin White’s shin stress fracture occurred in June.

MARK POTASH: A good start. After the implosion in the second half of last season under Marc Trestman, the Bears needed to lay a foundation they can build on. Though they have a long way to go, they did at least that in training camp, as Fox and his staff established a physical standard, a positive mindset and a clear path toward growth. You gotta start somewhere.

2. Jay Cutler looked …

JAHNS: Fine. It’s camp. He was off limits for the Bears’ defense, so it’s difficult to judge him. Some of Cutler’s best throws came when he was allowed to make them. That said, Adam Gase’s offense does have plenty of quarterback-friendly characteristics to it, whether it’s quick reads or the arrival and use of a slot receiver.

FINLEY: Comfortable. It’s hard to be distressed when facing off against air, but the Bears quarterback showed a good command of Gase’s scheme. He looked like he was having fun, and even dodged Brandon Marshall’s verbal grenades from New York. Then again, Cutler had a great camp last year — remember the MVP talk? — and couldn’t carry over a lick of it into the regular season.

POTASH: Better than any quarterback the Bears could have gotten in the offseason. After six years, even Cutler knows better than to get too excited in training camp. But his ability to avoid turnovers — even in training camp — is a positive sign that he will be a more efficient quarterback under Gase.

3. The Bears should be encouraged by …

JAHNS: The offensive line’s approach. Other than center Will Montgomery, the starters are the same from last year, but the scheme changes in the run game have allowed them to play at a more downhill, in-your-face style. It’s led to plenty of cutbacks and longs runs from Matt Forte and Co., but also to plenty of skirmishes with the defensive line.

FINLEY: Their big free-agent pickups. Receiver Eddie Royal was the camp MVP, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee has been their most dynamic defender and Rolle is steady on the field and dynamic off it. That’s a pretty good hit rate for the only three veterans the signed to multi-year deals this offseason.

POTASH: Their improved running game. The Bears not only look like a team that will run the ball more effectively than they have, but will commit to the run as the basis of their offense. It makes the offensive line better. It makes Cutler better. As the defense finds its legs, the Bears will need an efficient, productive offense to set the tone.

4. The Bears should be discouraged by …

JAHNS: The lack competition at inside linebacker. Veteran Mason Foster has had good moments, but nothing has stood out to force the Bears to look at him over Shea McClellin and Christian Jones. Jon Bostic just doesn’t look fully healthy when he plays. His movements just aren’t in line with what McClellin and Jones are doing.

FINLEY: Their defense up the middle. They look like the opposite of a good baseball team right now. Jeremiah Ratliff is a thumper at nose tackle, but the team might move him to end to accommodate Eddie Goldman. McClellin and Jones are unproven, and the Bears are juggling safeties to play alongside Antrel Rolle. Will it be Brock Vereen? Adrian Amos? Ryan Mundy?

POTASH: The long road ahead for their defense. From a roster standpoint, one offseason was not enough to turn the Bears into a 3-4 defense. They still lack overall speed up front that 3-4 defenses need. Some retro-fits show promise — like Jared Allen, Jones and McClellin. But this will be a sometimes painful work-in-progress.

5. Player who caught my eye … 

JAHNS: There are a few. Receiver Eddie Royal made big plays throughout camp, proving he still has a connection with Cutler. Allen adjusted to the nuances of outside linebacker faster than most, including himself, thought he would. And for first time ever, McClellin finally had a good showing in Bourbonnais.

FINLEY: Jones bulked up, gaining maybe 15 pounds this offseason, but didn’t lose the playmaking abilities that intrigued last year’s staff. Unlike many of the Bears’ one-year signee Band-Aid fixes, the man nicknamed “Cheese” could contribute for years.

POTASH: Kyle Long. It’s not often an offensive linemen is the best player in camp. But Long challenged wide receiver Eddie Royal for that honor. Long’s technique is catching up with is athleticism to the point where he’s hard to miss on any play. Guard or tackle? At this rate, he could be an All-Pro at either position.

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