Nearly sixty miles south of Chicago down I-57 lies Bourbonnais1, a village of close to 20,000 residents. The town known for Olivet Nazarene University, Kankakee River State Park and Perry Farm Park is overrun each summer by the Chicago Bears as well as media members and fans that are ready to see and talk some football. Fans descend from across the state–Chicagoland, Rockford, the Quad Cities, Bloomington, Peoria and more–to see Bears stars like Jay Cutler, Lance Briggs and Matt Forte. The Road to Bear-Bonnais2 for starters and long-shot hopefuls has been a longer journey than a simple drive down I-57. There are some new faces in Bears’ camp to watch for. Park your car and head towards the practice fields of Olivet Nazarene University to check it out.
Running Backs: Ka’Deem Carey vs. Jordan Lynch vs. Shaun Draughn
Matt Forte is the undisputed starter after another Pro Bowl effort last season. The competition to back him up is underway as holdover Michael Ford competes with Carey, Lynch and Draughn for spots on the team. Of the new faces, Ka’Deem Carey3 is the most likely to slide in behind Forte on the depth chart. The fourth round draft pick from Arizona ran for nearly 4,000 yards in two collegiate seasons, averaging 26 carriers per game. While he’s not the fastest of the bunch, Carey is instinctive and tough to tackle–two vital traits for a successful NFL running back. Jordan Lynch–a Chicagoland native and Heisman trophy finalist from Northern Illinois University–is on the periphery of the competition as camp begins. The former quarterback has a lot to learn about his new position; pass blocking and catching balls out of the backfield were not part of his repertoire in college. Shaun Draughn is another long shot to make the Bears’ roster. After going undrafted and spending three journeyman-like seasons in Kansas City and Baltimore, Draughn must dazzle during preseason games to stay with the team. He did return kicks with some success in 2012 so watch for him as a long shot to steal that job from former CFL standout, Chris Williams. A winning Bears’ backfield starts with a healthy and productive Matt Forte. But the men that stand in his shadows must be ready to contribute when called upon. Eventually that call will come.
Defensive Ends: Jared Allen vs. Lamarr Houston vs. Willie Young
Football fans know about Jared Allen. The former Chiefs and Vikings star arrives in Chicago on the wrong side of 30 with something to prove. Although he racked up double-digit sacks in eight of his ten NFL seasons, analysts suggest Allen’s performance won’t match the $15.5 million in guaranteed money and $32 million in total contract dollars4. But thus far in camp he looks energetic, feisty and is very much the vocal leader Julius Peppers was not. The word around training camp is that Lamarr Houston has a “little nasty” to him5–and that’s a good thing. The beefy defensive end will start opposite Allen, slide inside to tackle on third downs and may just double the six sacks he collected last season in Oakland. When Willie Young signed with the Bears he thought it meant a chance to line up as a starter. That’s not going to happen although Young–an avid fisherman–will get plenty of time on the field in Chicago, especially on third downs when Houston moves inside to play tackle. And, with just six career sacks in four seasons, he isn’t yet a reliable sack producer. Expect him to challenge for snaps and bring toughness; Young seems to work hard and is responsive to coaching. Get excited. The talent at DE has been upgraded for the 2014 season. There is no doubt about it.
Defensive Tackles: Ego Ferguson vs. Will Sutton With Jeremiah Ratliff, Stephen Paea and Nate Collins returning these two rookie tackles will have to earn their playing time. Second round pick Ego Ferguson looks the part–6’3″ and nearly 310 pounds with excellent foot speed6. Thus far in camp he has shown the ability to get up-field but has ended up on the ground7 more often than you’d hope. To be fair Ferguson is just a few days into his first professional training camp and is competing against a well-constructed offensive line. He’ll get better–he needs to because the Bears expect him to be a key member of the line for seasons to come. Will Sutton is a big dude. The former Arizona State DT weighs in at nearly 320 pounds. As a third round draft pick the coaching staff is looking for promise and coach-ability rather than an immediate contribution. Sutton needs to use this training camp to improve his hand technique and point-of-attack moves and counter moves. His playing time will be limited early this season unless there are injuries. Neither Ferguson nor Sutton will start on day one for this revamped Bears’ defensive line. But Phil Emery hopes he’s found a tandem that will challenge the middle of opposing offensive lines for years to come.
Safeties: Ryan Mundy vs. M.D. Jennings vs. Brock Vereen vs. Adrian Wilson
It wouldn’t be a Bears’ training camp without several new safeties suiting up. The duo we hoped would start for years to come has split up. With Major Wright in Tampa Bay and Chris Conte still recovering from injury, there will likely be two new starters at safety when the Bears kickoff the season. Ryan Mundy is the surest of the bunch and should start at strong-safety. He’s a strong tackler, an instinctive player and–with five years in the league–has enough experience to quickly learn Mel Tucker’s system. The Bears signed M.D. Jennings away from the rival Packers on a one year deal. And although he started all 16 games last season he is likely a backup in Chicago. A free safety with just with just one interception in three seasons won’t fix this bugaboo position for the Bears. The most intriguing safety in camp is fourth round draft pick Brock Vereen. Trestman and Tucker have been impressed enough to give him the bulk of the first string snaps at free safety so far. He has the poise and vocal leadership to eventually transform into a defensive leader and has the range and height (6’0″) to excel at the position. Mel Tucker8 likes what he sees thus far: “Brock has done a nice job. He has great attention to detail. He’s very sound from a technique standpoint. He’s smart, he plays fast. He does not make a lot of mistakes.” Nice praise for a mid-round draft pick that may just start alongside Mundy this fall. There is little interesting to say about Adrian Wilson. He has a pedigree–five Pro Bowl selections–that’s tough to match. But a thirty-four year old safety that missed the entire 2013 season to injury is around for depth, competition and his veteran presence. Because he likely won’t be a special teams contributor at this stage of his career, Wilson will have a hard time making the team. Another Bears’ season means another transition at safety. Conte has a tough road ahead to earn back his starting position. Let’s hope Mundy and Vereen prove talented enough to fill a void in the Bears’ secondary.
Punters: Pat O’Donnell vs. Tress Way
Seriously? You’re going to make me talk about punters? Fine but let’s keep it short… Pat O’Donnell is a sixth round draft pick that had Bears’ fans chanting “Mega-Punt” every time he booms one down field in camp. The big-legged kicker has the physical ability to land on a Pro Bowl NFC roster sooner than later if he improves on the finesse side of his kicking game. His competition, Tress Way, looks more skillful early in camp. But he’ll have to perform miles better than O’Donnell during the preseason to win the job. Meet Pat O’Donnell. The new Bears’ punter.
Long Snappers: Brandon Hartson vs. Chad Rempel
Just three sentences–this one counted. Bears’ long-time snapper Patrick Mannelly retired. One of these guys–or maybe someone else–will take his place and be a suitable replacement.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com ~ @SecCitySports