Chicago Bears training camp opens in Bourbonnais this week, and there's an air of optimism surrounding the team I've not seen in my nearly seven years at this job.
I suppose that's what happens when you trade for the first true franchise quarterback, Jay Cutler, your team has owned in decades, as the Bears did this offseason. Regardless, it is a bit weird that people seem more excited about the 2009 season now than they did they did about the 2007 season, when the team was fresh off a Super Bowl appearance, in the weeks and months proceeding it.
I'll concede that I too am excited, and I have high hopes for improvement on last season's 9-7 season. Having said that, there are numerous issues that need to be settled in the next three weeks or so before I feel really confident. Here are a few of them:
1. Establish depth with some square pegs at wide receiver. We know Devin Hester will likely be the No. 1 wideout, though he is far from an established top dog. I do think Hester showed enough late last season, though, that he can be counted on to be productive.
It is what is beyond Hester that really worries me. Rashied Davis is the most established among the other receivers, but I'm sure hoping someone else wins the No. 2 spots ... and the Nos. 3 and 4 spots as well. Davis proved one thing to me last season — that he can't be counted on to make the big catch. Hopefully some combination of Earl Bennett, Juaquin Iglesias and Brandon Rideau emerges and somehow adequately fills the spots behind Hester on the depth chart.
2. Find out if Corey Graham can play safety, and if not, leave him alone. Graham was about as solid as anyone at cornerback for the Bears last season. They've nonetheless been using him off and on at safety during organized team activities the past several weeks.
I understand the reasoning behind moving Graham. Chicago has an abundance of depth at corner, and with the departure of Mike Brown, is lacking a single established veteran starter at safety. I like young Kevin Payne, but I don't like the prospect of Josh Bullocks, Craig Steltz or Danieal Manning starting next to him. See if Graham's the answer, but if he struggles to adjust to the new position, move him back to where you know he can help.
3. Consider signing a veteran backup for Cutler. Everyone in Chicago would much prefer that the backup quarterback become the most forgotten Bear on the team. The reality is that, in a sport as violent as professional football, even the most durable of players are at risk of major injury.
Consequently, teams have to have a Plan B, and right now, the Bears' Plans B and C at the most important position of all are Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez. If they're so dazzling in Bourbonnias for the first week or two that the Bears are convinced they'd ably fill in for Cutler, then that's fine. Otherwise I'd strongly consider investing in a more established backup by about the second week or August.
4. Figure out what role, if any, Hester will have on kickoff and punt returns. The once dynamic return threat seemingly disappeared last year, when Hester's focus on becoming a solid receiver contributed to his sudden decline in the return game. I thought, and still think, it was a mistake that the Bears ever did anything that risked hurting Hester's status as perhaps the greatest returner in league history, but they've made their own bed, and have far too little receiver depth to turn back now.
Manning had a fine 2008 in returning kickoffs, and I'd continue to let him handle that role. I'd also consider a substitute at punt returner unless Hester offers some form of tangible evidence that he can approach his form of two years ago. Last fall, he was a stuttering, backwards-running detriment to the team when returning punts. He doesn't have to break records, but he needs to be an asset, not a liability, if he's going to continue to be back there.