NFC North: Charle Tillman

NFC North pregame notes

January, 3, 2010
1/03/10
11:51
AM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- No surprises or official lineup changes to announce prior to Minnesota’s 1 p.m. ET kickoff, but here’s one situation to monitor.

We discussed last week the possibility of Minnesota limiting cornerback Antoine Winfield’s exposure given the clear impact his sprained foot continues to have. Winfield told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he will play in short yardage and nickel situations only. If that’s the case, Benny Sapp will be the Vikings’ starter at cornerback alongside Cedric Griffin.

Over in Detroit, the Lions confirmed that quarterback Daunte Culpepper will start against Chicago. The Bears will start Nate Vasher in place of injured cornerback Charles Tillman. Their starting safeties will be Craig Steltz and Kevin Payne.
 
  AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  The arrival of quarterback Jay Cutler has stoked the enthusiasm of Bears fans.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- One night this week, a twin-engine plane flew over this college town an hour south of Chicago. As about 10,000 people watched, a skydiver jumped from the plane and began floating to the ground. Orange smoke billowed from a hand-held canister.

Camp Confidential: NFC North
Vikings: Sun., Aug. 2
Packers: Sun., Aug. 9
Bears: Thurs., Aug. 13
Lions: Fri., Aug. 21
Training camp index

Ooooohs were followed by ahhhhhhhs. The circus continued.

It's been that kind of training camp for the Chicago Bears, who aren't trying to suppress the lofty expectations generated by the acquisition of quarterback Jay Cutler. Players and coaches have embraced record-setting crowds who have arrived -- mostly by car, not from the sky -- to watch practice at Olivet Nazarene University,

"The support has been absolutely tremendous from day one," Cutler said early in camp. "We've just got to go out and win games now."

Coach Lovie Smith scheduled a physical camp, putting players in full pads for nine consecutive days at one point. But nothing has wiped away the near-giddiness players and coaches are carrying themselves with. After going 9-7 with quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman last season, the Bears can only imagine what they can do with Cutler behind center.

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Just the other day, Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs stopped among a group of reporters and playfully chided them for ignoring him amid all of the excitement.

"You guys know I'm still on the team, right?" Briggs said. "I mean, I'm going to have to do a dance for you guys or something."

The Bears have been dancing all summer long.

Key questions

1. Who is Cutler throwing to?
It's plainly evident that tight end Greg Olsen is already Cutler's favorite receiver. The two have a clear connection both on and off the field, and offensive coordinator Ron Turner has spent the offseason working on ways to maximize Olsen's size and speed.

 
  Jerry Lai/US Presswire
  Tight end Greg Olsen has emerged as Jay Cutler's favorite target early on.

The unspoken reality is that none of the Bears' wide receivers are close to Olsen's level right now. Devin Hester and Rashied Davis are the team's only receivers who have caught more than seven passes in their NFL careers. But Davis appears to be no better than No. 4 on the depth chart and might not make the team.

Earl Bennett went his entire rookie season without a catch, but he has maintained his grip on a starting job this summer by displaying reliable hands and a thorough understanding of the offense. His relationship with Cutler -- they were college teammates at Vanderbilt -- doesn't hurt, either.

But an otherwise green class of rookies has left Cutler talking up a pair of nomads as possible depth at this position. Brandon Rideau (6-foot-3) and Devin Aromashodu (6-foot-2) are two big targets who have looked decent while hauling in Cutler's pinpoint passes. If the season started today, it appears Rideau would be the Bears' No. 3 receiver.

Draft choices Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox appear to be buried deep on the depth chart, as would be expected for rookie receivers.

2. What's the deal with Tommie Harris?

The mystery surrounding the Bears' best defensive lineman has extended from spring into summer, and after two weeks of training camp
it's still not clear how much Harris can be counted on this season.

  Harris

Smith said at the beginning of camp that Harris was completely healthy, but in truth Harris has been limited throughout the summer and acknowledged this week that he had surgery on his left knee in March. Smith now admits Harris has soreness but said there hasn't been a setback in his health.

At the very least, it appears the Bears are heavily protecting Harris from summer wear and tear. At worst, they are waiting for his knee to improve before they let him engage in extended full contact. In either event, it's the continuation of a 20-month odyssey for Harris' left knee, one that for now has left him a near nonfactor.

It's an especially sensitive issue for the Bears, who need Harris' interior disruption in order to meet their goals as a defense. His primary replacement this summer has been Israel Idonije, but Idonije is best suited as a swing backup. After losing 40 pounds this offseason, Idonije now weighs 266 pounds and doesn't have the build to stand up as a full-time defensive tackle.

3. Can the defense rebound from a down year?
If nothing else, Bears defensive players seem pretty happy this summer. Perhaps it was knowing that Cutler's arrival has taken some intense pressure off their shoulders. If all goes according to plan, the Bears defense can shed its self-inflicted expectations that it must shut out every opponent to compensate for an inconsistent offense.

But the Bears still have defensive questions as camp approaches its conclusion, including Harris and the safety position. They are giving Danieal Manning yet another opportunity to win a starting safety job, but cramping and hamstring issues have limited his practice time. Rookie Al Afalava has gotten some work with the first team, but that might be more by default than by merit.

Don't express those sentiments to Briggs, however. He and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher have been walking with a bounce in their step all summer. With Smith taking over as the de facto defensive coordinator, the tensions of 2008 seem to have evaporated.

"We don't have a weak point," Briggs said. "You can study us and find where our weak point is. You might say safety, but it's not really our safeties. Our weak point is our linebackers."

Briggs spit out that final sentence with a giggle, reflecting the overt confidence the Bears have that their defense can resurrect its mid-2000s dominance.

"I don't want to say we have a renewed confidence," Briggs said "But everyone is working so hard right now."

Market watch
Injuries have left the Bears secondary in flux for most of the summer. But the early camp flash of cornerback Zack Bowman -- and the sluggish return of veteran Nate Vasher -- has raised some interesting possibilities. Namely: Could Bowman win a starting job? And would that mean the end of Vasher's tenure in Chicago?

Bowman was an interception machine early in camp before being sidelined by a strained hamstring. He won't play in Saturday night's preseason opener at Buffalo, but there is plenty of time for him to get healthy and work his way back to the first team. In that scenario, the Bears might well make Bowman and Charles Tillman their starting cornerbacks -- assuming Tillman returns on schedule from back surgery.

It's unclear if the Bears would pay Vasher his $2.9 million base salary to serve as a nickel or dime back this season, especially considering his middling performance thus far in camp. Vasher said this week that he is "ready to go out and have one of the best years I've had," but not everyone in Bears camp agrees.

 
  AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  A healthy Orlando Pace could make a huge difference for the Bears offense.

Newcomer to watch
The acquisition of Cutler was the NFL's most significant offseason move, and I'm pretty sure you're well aware of his potential impact. So for this feature, we'll focus on a player the Bears signed on the same day they traded for Cutler: Left tackle Orlando Pace.

If he's healthy, Pace will protect Cutler's blind side as well as any left tackle in the game. He'll also serve as an anchor for a line that appears bigger and more athletic this season. The Bears are much better with Pace at left tackle and Chris Williams on the right side than with Williams at left tackle and Kevin Shaffer or another veteran on the right.

It was interesting to watch Pace put on a clinic during one-on-one pass drills this week. When he's moving well, Pace simply engulfs his opponent. From a physical standpoint, Pace is sore but otherwise healthy after missing 25 games the past three seasons. His continued health will be a significant factor for the Bears offense.

Observation deck
The Bears are saying Tillman should recover in time for the Sept. 13 regular-season opener at Green Bay. All I can tell you is what I saw this week. Namely: Tillman walking around the perimeter of the practice field for conditioning. Tillman's pace was pretty slow for a player who would be exactly a month away from what is his first game. Stay tuned. ... The Bears appear committed to second-year quarterback Caleb Hanie as Cutler's backup. Hanie has rotated on the second team with Brett Basanez, but it's clear whom Smith prefers. "We liked everything we saw from Caleb last year," Smith said. "He's in a pretty good position to be behind a guy like Jay Cutler." ... Defensive end Mark Anderson, who had 12 sacks as a rookie in 2006 but only six in two ensuing seasons, is trying to r
esurrect his career under new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. Coaches rewarded Anderson by making him a co-first team defensive end on their first depth chart. "Whatever [Marinelli] says to do, I do," Anderson said. "He's the best out there and I enjoy working with him. For me, everything is looking to the upside right now." ... Cutler's maturity level will be closely monitored after his bitter departure from Denver. From that perspective, it was interesting to hear him say that he expects to have influence over the makeup of his receiving corps. "I think they're definitely going to ask me," Cutler said. "If they don't ask me, I'm going to tell them what I think because I've got to be the one throwing to them on game day and I've got to trust them." ... During a team drill Tuesday night, Smith called defensive plays to defensive coordinator/linebackers Bob Babich, who radioed them in to Urlacher. .. The Bears have a competitive situation at strongside linebacker between Pisa Tinoisamoa, Nick Roach and Jamar Williams. Tinoisamoa is expected to win the job in base sets, but it's possible all three players will see action. "It's a good competition," Briggs said. "You're vying for a starting job in the best linebacking crew in the NFL. Whoever wins the job, [it will] probably be well deserved."

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