Chicago Bears minicamp begins Tuesday with a 2 1/2 hour workout and subsequent sessions Wednesday and Thursday for the club’s final work until it reports to training camp on July 26.
Here’s a quick look at five things to keep an eye on at minicamp:
1. J’Marcus Webb vs. Chris Williams at LT: Both players continue to alternate taking repetitions with the starters, and it’s likely the team won’t make a final determination on clear-cut No. 1 at the position until sometime in the preseason.
Because of collective bargaining agreement rules concerning contact during offseason sessions, it’s difficult to gauge either player’s performance essentially against air. Observers can only focus on at this point is how quickly the player explodes out of his stance, whether they’re correctly carrying out assignments and not false starting.
Webb led the NFL with 15 offensive penalties last season (resulting in eight stalled drives), and Williams missed seven games with a wrist injury.
Offensive coordinator Mike Tice always has considered Webb and Williams to be the Bears’ most athletic offensive linemen. But both players have struggled with consistency in the past.
Two years ago the Bears opened the season with Williams as the starting left tackle only to move him inside to guard; a move that, in part, came as a result of circumstance considering the team needed him to replace center Roberto Garza -- then a guard -- who missed time with a knee injury. Williams played so well the team made the move permanent.
Originally drafted in the first round to be the left tackle of the future, Williams -- entering a contract year -- is definitely capable of unseating incumbent Webb, who according to Pro Football Focus, ranked as the worst full-time starter at left tackle in the NFL in 2011 after surrendering 38 quarterback pressures.
2. Return of Gabe Carimi at RT: The team will continue to exercise care in easing Carimi back into action as he rehabilitates from a season-ending injury to his right knee that resulted in two surgeries. So don’t view it as a setback if Carimi sits out of practices at some point during minicamp.
Considering training camp is more than a month away, it makes sense to continue to ease Carimi back into the mix. Carimi says he feels “explosive” now; so no need to blow up his positive rehabilitation progress by rushing him back too soon.
3. Cornerback competition: Free-agent acquisition Kelvin Hayden finally made his way onto the field during the club’s last session of organized team activities, and he performed well, showing the beginnings of what should be a hotly-contested fight for the starting cornerback spot opposite Charles Tillman.
Most of the offseason competition at the spot has been between Tim Jennings -- a 15-game starter in 2011 -- and free-agent acquisition Jonathan Wilhite, and sources have called it a neck-and-neck battle so far. So adding Hayden into the equation will complicate things for sure, but in good way.
It’s also worth mentioning the team drafted two corners in Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy, who haven’t yet flashed, but might be on the verge as they gain confidence and familiarity with the defensive system.
“I know some of the ability that some of the guys can bring to the team,” Jennings said. “We’ve upgraded in some of the positions, not only at corner, but I think at safety and d-line. It’s just gonna raise our level of competition and give us a chance to improve. It’s gonna be really competitive. Overall we’ve made great improvement in the secondary, whether I’m out there or not.”
4. Forte-less backfield: Forte hasn’t signed his franchise tender, so technically he’s not under contract and not subject to fines of up to $60,000 for unexcused absences on all three days of minicamp. Sure, Forte could sign an injury waiver, report, and participate. But that’s not happening. Like quarterback Jay Cutler, we’d be “shocked” if Forte attended.
So with Forte expected to miss, look for free-agent acquisition Michael Bush to receive the bulk of the reps along with Kahlil Bell and second-year man Armando Allen, who at OTAs has resembled a poor man’s Darren Sproles. Bush definitely isn’t as explosive as Forte, and he’s not as capable a receiver out of the backfield. But Cutler has lauded Bush for consistency and “always (being) in the right place.”
Realistically, Bell is probably as good a player as Bush given that he flashes speed, power and elusiveness. But it’s unlikely he’ll be given a legitimate shot to fill the No. 2 role behind Forte because of the four-year, $14 million deal the club gave Bush.
5. The Devin Hester package: Hester didn’t attend the last OTA session, but in workouts so far the team has definitely shown some plays designed specifically for the speedy receiver; plays that should get the ball to him in space and let him gain a good chunk of the yardage after the catch.
So all the raving about Hester really isn’t some contrived campaign to boost his confidence. The club has significantly simplified the system, making it much easier for Hester to play fast without overthinking.
The new passing game involves a lot more straight up route running than reading and reacting like the club did in Mike Martz’s system over the last two years.
“That’s gonna definitely help; a lot less thinking,” Cutler said. “Hot routes and breaking stuff off (like what the team did under Martz) isn’t really something we’re gonna be a part of. So it’s gonna be a lot easier for those guys. I think Devin’s gonna have a big year for us.”