1. Jay Cutler's progress learning the new offense: Should Cutler fail to rebound from throwing a league-high 26 interceptions last season, the Chicago Bears could be doomed to miss the postseason for a fourth consecutive season. It's safe to say nearly everything offensively hinges on Cutler's ability to properly run Mike Martz's offense -- the quarterback’s third offensive system in three years. Early reports indicate promise between Cutler and Martz. The two appear to have an excellent working relationship, mainly because Cutler respects the new offensive coordinator. If the bond between them remains strong, Cutler's second year in Chicago should be dramatically different than Year 1, when the former Pro Bowler posted a career-low 76.8 quarterback rating.
Unlike offensive and defensive linemen, it's easier to evaluate quarterback play during a non-padded minicamp. This weekend marks the first time Cutler will be on display working with his receivers as they run Martz's precise patterns. We may also get a glimpse at how the Bears plan to utilize tight end Greg Olsen. But for all the attention this offseason paid to tight ends, receivers, and Cutler’s protection up front, the Bears' offense will sink or swim based on the quarterback’s fortunes.
2. Is Brian Urlacher fully recovered?Soon to be 32, Urlacher, a six-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker, underwent neck surgery to treat an arthritic back in 2008, before undergoing a procedure in 2009 to repair a dislocated wrist suffered against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1. Because of injuries, Urlacher hasn't been the same dominant player he has been during the first seven years of an illustrious career. Like Cutler on offense, the fate of the defense rests largely on Urlacher's ability to stay healthy and direct teammates from the ultra-important middle linebacker spot. Hunter Hillenmeyer and Nick Roach did their best trying to fill in for Urlacher last season. But nobody can replicate the impact Urlacher -- when healthy --makes on a week-to-week basis.
True to his style, Urlacher stayed fairly quiet this offseason. But all reports regarding Urlacher’s voluntary workouts have been positive. When Urlacher takes the field Friday, it will be the first time anybody outside of Halas Hall has seen the middle linebacker in action in eight months.
3. The new-look defensive line: One of the main culprits behind the Bears' demise since 2006 has been the failure to generate a pass rush. The Bears feel they have addressed the issue by signing defensive end Julius Peppers, who has recorded double-digit sack numbers in six of his eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers. The addition of Peppers, plus the departures of Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown leave the Bears with two new starters at defensive end. The hope is that Mark Anderson, now in his second year working with Rod Marinelli, recaptures some of his magic from 2006 (12 sacks). But it's been three years since Anderson made any kind of noise, mainly because people around the league view the former fifth-round pick as purely a situational pass rusher, not an every-down defensive end.
There also appears to be some uncertainty at defensive tackle, where Tommie Harris is enjoying his first surgery-free offseason in recent memory. Harris remains a major wildcard in this whole equation, considering he's shown: the ability to dominate games from his under-tackle position and the ability to completely disappear from time to time. If Harris can get his mind and body right, he and Peppers could form a scary duo. The Bears would also benefit from a playmaker at nose tackle. Veteran Anthony Adams is a hard-working, dependable leader, but Marcus Harrison needs to take that next step. Up to this point, conditioning issues have prevented Harrison from living up to his full potential. It'll be interesting to see how Harrison looks and moves this weekend, because he possesses the athletic ability to dominate inside, but only if/when he remedies the bad habits.
4. The combinations at safety: Call this situation the ultimate precursor to what should develop into an interesting battle at training camp. Bears coach Lovie Smith used five different combinations at the position in 2009 alone, so now it’s time for stability. Has the club progressed any toward developing it during the early stages of the offseason? We’ll surely catch the first glimpses at minicamp.
Chicago drafted Major Wright (third round) and brought back Chris Harris in a trade to add to a talent mix that includes Danieal Manning, Craig Steltz, Al Afalava and Josh Bullocks. Efficient play at safety is one of the key factors to success in a Cover-2 based scheme. Although the roster appears to contain the required individual talent to achieve strong play at the position, the club needs to find the perfect combination at safety, which isn’t always easy.
Manning and Steltz worked with the first team during voluntary offseason workouts, but it’s likely the Bears will roll out several combinations at the position during minicamp. It’s believed that the Bears envision using Manning mostly at strong safety this season, which would mean Harris, Wright and Steltz could be fighting for the open spot at free safety. But based on the depth of the position on paper, some of the safeties could be used solely in situational roles.
5. How the receivers progress in Martz’s system: Despite all but one of the receivers (Rashied Davis) having accrued less than five years of NFL experience, the Bears claim to be pleased with the current personnel at the position. Perhaps we’ll get to see why at minicamp. How the receivers perform at minicamp will likely factor into whether the club makes a play for a veteran receiver prior to the start of training camp.
As it stands, the Bears receivers are certainly an explosive group with speedsters such as Devin Hester and Johnny Knox in the mix along with Devin Aromashodu, Earl Bennett, Juaquin Iglesias and Davis. But they're young. Martz’s intricate system relies on timing and route precision, traits seen mostly in veteran receivers. The club shouldn’t have a problem with coaxing such attributes out of the current group. The concern would be whether the Bears can get the receivers to gel quickly enough for the club to take advantage of their immense athleticism paired with Cutler’s strong arm by Week 1.
Veteran minicamp will provide at least some indication as to how far the group has progressed. Given the collective talent at the position and Martz’s fast-break system, Chicago’s receivers -- if they can pick up the system quickly -- could be primed for a banner year.