The Bears report to training camp July 24 following the direction of a calibrated organizational compass.
A year ago, Marc Trestman's first camp as coach featured all the baby steps inherent in implementing a new program. Since then, growth and understanding fostered between Bears coaches, players and executives have propelled the evolution of their roster and schemes, breeding the optimism with which the Bears will make their annual pilgrimage to Bourbonnais.
Now comes the next step: trimming the roster from 90 players to 53 over the span of five weeks and four exhibitions. The Bears' talented, experienced roster leaves only small pockets of drama in that process, but there will be no shortage of intrigue and fun along the way.
So grab your sunscreen, your bug spray and plenty of clean underwear as we get you ready to go camping with the Bears using our superlatives guide to 2014 training camp.
Happiest camper — Jay Cutler: Can you imagine Chicago's collective state of mind if Cutler had departed in free agency and a new quarterback were about to make his debut? Instead, Cutler can relax under the security of a new, seven-year contract that guarantees him $54 million. He returns to an offense that features two Pro Bowl receivers, a Pro Bowl running back, an athletic pass-catching tight end and the best line he has played behind in a Bears uniform. And Cutler, 31, can build this summer on his year of experience in Trestman's system. "Less thinking and able to go fast," he said.
Most to gain — Shea McClellin: It's not an exaggeration to assert McClellin's career depends on how he produces in his first season at linebacker. The Bears moved their 2012 first-round pick from defensive end because he failed to win consistently at the point of attack against the run and finish his pass rushes with sacks. The club is counting on McClellin's athleticism to be an asset at linebacker, where he can play with vision from off the line of scrimmage. McClellin, understanding what's at stake for him, got leaner and stronger in the offseason.
Most likely to succeed — Marquess Wilson: Last year's seventh-round pick emerged from spring practices as the Bears' clear choice for No. 3 receiver, the victor in a position battle that never materialized. The job appears to be Wilson's as long as he stays healthy and his hands don't morph into cinder blocks. Wilson trained during the offseason with Brandon Marshall at the South Florida facility the Bears' Pro Bowl receiver co-owns. Wilson worked on first-step explosiveness, which should augment his smooth stride.
Fiercest frontline position battle — Safety: With due respect to the special teams savants for whom the Bears' exhibition punts will be appointment viewing, the competition at safety blends intensity and importance like no other. Pencil veteran free agent Ryan Mundy into one spot. The other, though, is wide open. Incumbent Chris Conte might not be fully recovered from right shoulder surgery he had in late March. Fourth-round pick Brock Vereen is known for his smarts, but history shows it's tough for rookie safeties to make all the reads and checks. Packers castoff M.D. Jennings is in the mix and five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson is trying to come back from a torn Achilles tendon at 34. Watch the exhibitions to see who tackles best — a major weakness among last year's safeties.
Fiercest depth position battle — Receiver: Much of the intrigue behind the top three receivers stems from the Bears' need to replace Devin Hester as their return specialist. Chris Williams, the 5-foot-8 speedster from the CFL, is a leading candidate to return kicks, and his explosive cutting ability showed in spring practices as a slot receiver. Six-year veteran Josh Morgan is adept at catching passes despite contact, but he's not a threat after the catch. Veterans Eric Weems, Micheal Spurlock and Armanti Edwards will try to make the roster on special teams.
Most anticipated newcomer — Jared Allen: There's no mystery of the unknown with Allen, as there is among the Bears' heralded defensive rookies. But there's excitement surrounding what the five-time Pro Bowler could do for the defense with his talent and charisma. And just seeing No. 69 in navy and orange after six years in a Vikings uniform still is somewhat jarring. "Change is good if you allow it to be good," he said. "It definitely energizes you. For me, it's the excitement of being a part of something great."
Best dressed — Charles Tillman: Tillman expected to spend his 12th NFL season playing for coach Lovie Smith in the Buccaneers' new uniform. Have you seen those monstrosities? Someone plastered a digital alarm clock on a football jersey. Tillman re-signed with the Bears, though, after the Bucs didn't meet his asking price. His first foray into free agency led him back into his familiar No. 33. "I just want to win a ring and call it a day," Tillman said.
Most compelling comeback — Jimmy Clausen: The former Notre Dame star hasn't played in a regular-season game since 2010, but his career gained a foothold in June when it took him only six practices to convince the Bears he can challenge Jordan Palmer for the backup quarterback spot. Clausen spent last season recovering from surgery to repair the labrum in his right shoulder, and now he insists he's as healthy as he has been since college. Honorable mention here goes to safety Adrian Wilson, who was on the street until after the Bears' concluded their offseason program.
Most improved — Kyle Long: Let offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer explain Long's evolution at right guard: "Without being rude, we'd be saying he's coming from an infant who couldn't feed himself to a graduate from college — that's how far he has come in one year." The Bears' 2013 first-round pick was so raw that he had to learn basic techniques at last year's training camp. Now he's a Pro Bowler.
Most endangered veteran — Chris Conte: There's a formidable list of challengers for Conte's starting safety job, including Wilson and Vereen. Conte's familiarity with the defense would be an advantage if he can recover from right shoulder surgery and get on the field for his contract year. Middle linebacker D.J. Williams also can't relax. Jon Bostic, last year's second-round pick, is more comfortable now that the Bears adjusted his run fits to let him stay squared to the line of scrimmage longer.
Brightest rookie spotlight — Ego Ferguson: Ferguson, the Bears' second-round pick, and third-rounder Will Sutton need to develop quickly because they figure to be in a defensive tackle rotation with Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea, veterans with inauspicious injury histories. Ferguson started only 12 games in college, which is why the Bears see significant upside in his ability to control blockers against the run.
Best one-on-one matchup — Kyle Fuller vs. Alshon Jeffery: The Bears' first-round rookie cornerback against their third-year Pro Bowl receiver —what's not to love? Jeffery's 6-foot-3 frame and long catching radius will challenge Fuller's understanding of leverage and body control. That should only help Fuller as he prepares for his role playing outside in sub packages. In the trenches, Allen vs. left tackle Jermon Bushrod won't disappoint, either.
Most intriguing veteran prospect — David Bass: Marquess Wilson's roster spot is too secure to earn this title. Bass, meanwhile, is competing for the fourth — and maybe last — defensive end spot. The Raiders' seventh-round pick last year landed with the Bears after final cuts, and he contributed a sack and a touchdown. This year, he must be less mechanical in his pass rushes and diversify his repertoire of moves.
Most loveable long shot — Jordan Lynch: The former Northern Illinois quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist will try to author a fairy tale by making his hometown team as a running back. The Bears like his vision and toughness as a runner, but the numbers aren't in his favor. Basically, he's competing with three more experienced backs for one roster spot. Earning a practice squad spot, where he could develop his skills, would be a success.
Best coaching sideshow — Reggie Herring: If you visit Bourbonnais to watch practice, make sure you're within earshot of the Bears' new linebacker coach. His grizzled Southern twang and colorful personality already have made an impression on his players. Herring soaked his shirt with sweat during several spring practices. "I love the guy," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "He's intense. He's kind of a throwback."
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