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|The Bears' offensive line will be improved, if for no other reason than coach Mike Tice.|
After a team-bonding bowling event Thursday, the Bears will take a break before reconvening on the camp of Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais for the start of training camp in late July. Here are five things we learned from all the offseason work, which included voluntary workouts, minicamps and organized team activities:
1. Julius Peppers gives the Bears exciting new options on the defensive line: "When you see him up close in person, it's a 300-pound man that moves like a defensive back," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said this week. In his six previous seasons in Chicago, Smith never had a weapon like Peppers on the defensive line, not even when Tommie Harris was playing at a Pro Bowl level. Expect the Bears to get creative with Peppers during games, flipping him from side to side depending on the match-up, and perhaps even occasionally using their prized free agent acquisition inside at tackle. After signing such a lucrative deal, Peppers is expected to have a double-digit sack total, familiar territory for the veteran who's posted ten-plus sacks in six of his eight years in Carolina.
2. The offensive line is in good hands: We all know about the imminent training camp battle at left guard, and the relative uncertainty surrounding right tackle Frank Omiyale, but hiring Mike Tice to coach the offensive line automatically makes this an improved unit. The line looks stronger, faster and more technically sound than in previous years, even though all the offseason work is done without pads. No disrespect to the previous coaches, but players rave about Tice and his attention to detail. Plus, Tice has instant credibility when he walks into the room because he was not only a former head coach, but also a former player, who has a knack for anticipating what his guys may or may not be thinking in certain situations. Being the biggest guy in the room doesn't hurt, either.
3. The secondary is still a question mark: Outside of Zack Bowman at left cornerback and Charles Tillman at right corner, questions remain about the safety and nickel positions after the offseason work. Smith spoke glowingly about Chris Harris and Danieal Manning on Wednesday, but Harris didn't exactly look lights out before missing a few workouts due to a minor injury, and Manning always seems to be given the short end of the stick by the coaching staff. Craig Steltz and Major Wright both performed well during workouts, but it may be a little premature to say the Bears have the safety situation entirely figured out. Corey Graham handled the nickel spot in the last few months, but does he stick? Do the Bears eventually give the nickel job back to Manning? What about depth at cornerback? Would the coaching staff trust Graham, Tim Jennings, Woodny Turenne, Joshua Moore or D.J. Moore to step in if something happened to Tillman or Bowman?
4. Matt Forte looks poised for a bounce back season: We saw the 2008 version of Matt Forte on the Halas Hall practice field this spring and early summer. After undergoing a minor knee procedure in January, Forte spent time working out in Florida while concentrating on speed training drills, exercises he was unable to perform last offseason because of a hamstring problem. Forte certainly appears faster and sleeker, and on the surface, should fit in very well in Mike Martz's offense. Chester Taylor is certain to get his share of reps in the backfield, but Forte represents an important piece of the future for the Bears. That's why it's crucial the younger Forte regains his form of two seasons ago.
5. The Bears are confident in the new offense: It's unfortunate Mike Martz wasn't available to discuss the offensive progress during OTAs, but Smith called Martz's system a "unique, special offense". Truth be told, the offense looked out of rhtyhm during the early OTA sessions, but seemed the pick it up near the end. "Whenever you put in a new offense, it's going to take a while," Smith said. "We needed every OTA and every offseason practice. I've seen so much improvement, [and] we've come along way. We have the majority of our offense and packages in."