NFL Nation: Jon Bostic

INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton's recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament has progressed to the point where Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said on Thursday the club's preference is to re-sign Melton who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 11.

"We do want to bring back Henry and we'll work through that process," Emery said at the NFL combine. "He's made progress. He's made positive progress."

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastHenry Melton collected 13 sacks combined in 2011 and 2012, but played in just three games last season.
Slapped with the franchise tag by the Bears last season ($8,454,725) after posting 33 tackles and six sacks in 2012, Melton started just three games before landing on injured reserve on Sept. 27 -- Melton has 15.5 sacks in 48 career games.

After undergoing surgery and sitting out the final three months of the regular season, Melton has apparently dedicated himself to strengthening his injured left knee over the past couple of months.

"He's in every day early," Bears head coach Marc Trestman said. "He's got to drive in from downtown. If you see him, you'll see that he has been training and he has been working. He's very focused. You'll see he dropped some weight. He looks very good physically right now. Obviously he's in there working the knee, but he's been on time, he's working hard with [Bears head athletic trainer] Chris [Hanks].

"As I said, I spoke with him yesterday for 30-45 minutes and he's committed to getting himself back and he's got work to do to get there, but he's in a very good place right now and we all understand the situation and we'll see where it goes."

The Bears' ability to retain Melton is expected to boil down to money. Considered one of the top defensive tackles scheduled to reach free agency, there is no way of knowing how much other teams are prepared to offer Melton when the new league year begins on March 11.

The Bears find themselves in the same situation with the other unrestricted free agents the organization wants to return, namely quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback Charles Tillman and center Roberto Garza.

While the Bears cannot officially re-sign McCown until the beginning of free agency, the team does hold exclusive negotiating rights with the veteran quarterback and can agree in principle to a new deal. McCown posted the third-highest quarterback rating (109.0) when he completed 149 of 224 passing attempts for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in eight appearances (five starts).

"I talk to Josh pretty much weekly, or bi-weekly, I've talked to him two or three times anyways and I've texted with him. He's in the loop into what's going on. I've just called him on a personal level just to catch up with him and see how he sees the league and what's going on," Trestman said. "We just like to talk football. He knows exactly where he stands with us. I think that he's going to take his time, see where things are at, when he's ready to say ‘I want to come back,' I know Phil's going to do everything he can and we're going to do everything can to make sure he is."

Tillman, the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award winner and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, has publicly stated on multiple occasions that his decision to return to Chicago for a 12th season will be determined by the kinds of contract offers he receives.

Meantime, Garza, a 13-year NFL veteran center/guard, will likely have to accept a one-year, veteran-minimum contract with a relatively low signing bonus to stay with the Bears. However, Garza is a respected team captain and the leader of the team's revamped offensive line that started all 16 games together.

"It's a tough business," Trestman said. "We want Roberto back. He knows we want him back. We believe he should finish his career with the Bears. He does so much in our community. He's such a leader in our locker room. He knows how we feel about him. We just need to let this thing evolve and hopefully it's going to work out best, No. 1 for Roberto, because that's No. 1. And from his standpoint, and it should be, he deserves that respect. And hopefully it will work out for the Bears as well. We certainly want to see him back."

Emery also praised free-agent veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams who battled injuries for much of last season. Emery sounded as if the door is still open for Williams to return, and if he does, Williams is expected to compete with Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene for a starting spot.

"Saw a good football player [in Williams]," Emery said. "Saw a guy that has legitimately very good burst. Saw a player that has good instincts, gets around the ball and plays with a relentless style. We were not displeased with his effort. We were very pleased with where he was going and how he was progressing. Obviously, he had some injuries in camp, he had to get his feet back under him and once he did he started producing at a high level."

Other notable unrestricted free agents for the Bears include: defensive lineman Corey Wootton, defensive tackle Nate Collins, return man Devin Hester, safety Craig Steltz, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff and cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Kelvin Hayden.

Four Downs: Peterson in for a big day?

November, 27, 2013
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Adrian PetersonDavid Banks/Getty ImagesAdrian Peterson has four 100-yard rushing games this and ran for 146 against the Packers on Sunday.
The Chicago Bears' porous run defense made St. Louis Rams undrafted rookie running back Benny Cunningham look like Adrian Peterson last week. What's in store for the real Adrian Peterson on Sunday? The Adrian Peterson who averages 107.7 yards a game, the most of any Bears opponent in team history?

Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Adrian Peterson and the Vikings will run for at least 275 yards against the Bears on Sunday.


Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. If the Bears fail to stack the box with a minimum of eight defenders on every snap with the exception of third-and-long, then fire the entire coaching staff immediately after the game. The Vikings and Peterson are the NFL's 11th-best rushing offense (122.5) and the 25th overall passing offense (207.0). Make them throw to win. Last I checked, the Bears still do a decent job in the secondary defending the pass (No. 13), but are No. 32 out of 32 teams when it comes to run defense (145.2). If Minnesota tops 275 yards on the ground Sunday, there needs to be a formal investigation.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Peterson won't get a yard over 255. Seriously, the Bears, who have given up 123-plus rushing yards in six straight games (258 last week), will need to do some serious scheming to keep Peterson from winning this game. They've had some success in the past, but they just don't have the players. When your defensive line is Julius Peppers, projects and waiver-wire guys and your linebackers are two-thirds rookies, it's tough enough. But then you have breakdowns in gap discipline and, well, it's going to be a long day. Still, under 275.


Second Down

Fact or Fiction: Chris Conte will be a Bear in 2014.


[+] EnlargeJordan Reed
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Getty ImagesBears safety Chris Conte has had a tough season, but he's not alone on the defense.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. I understand the frustration over the safety position, but what Conte needs is competition, not to be flat-out released at the end of the season. Major Wright is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason so if he finds a team willing to pay more on the open market, let him go. But Conte's salary-cap number for 2014 is only $788,400. That's a reasonable figure for a player who will be 25 next year with roughly 40 career starts. Conte has made his share of mistakes this season, but his struggles have been magnified by the awful performance of the front seven. Were fans screaming about Conte last season when Brian Urlacher, Nick Roach and Lance Briggs were the three starting linebackers? That doesn't excuse the errors or poor angles, but Conte can be an effective free safety. However, I would strongly advocate the Bears have Conte compete for his job next summer. As we've written before, competition brings out the best in everybody.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears should have two new safeties. Look at how Phil Emery handled the offensive line this year. No more chances, no more "developing" the tackles of the "future." Just get rid of them and move on. The Bears' brain trust will say the right things now to boost up Conte and Wright, but I'm guessing we'll see a very different defense.


Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Jon Bostic has shown enough to warrant a starting job in 2014.


[+] EnlargeJonathan Bostic
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJon Bostic is learning on the fly as one of two rookie starting linebackers.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I put Bostic in the same boat as Conte. Bostic is clearly part of the Bears' future, being a 2013 second-round draft choice, but to simply hand him a starting job next season seems a tad premature. To put it nicely, Bostic has not played particularly well the past couple of weeks. Maybe if he closes the season out on a strong note, the Bears will feel better about handing him the job next year. But I'd make him earn it. However, this is the NFL, and the trend in the league is hand high-draft picks starting jobs, even if they don't deserve them. So it wouldn't surprise me one bit if the Bears go that route with Bostic.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Though you wonder if he'll be in the middle. The Bears need wholesale changes on defense, but Bostic will be one of the few holdovers. He's been thrust into a difficult position, especially with the defensive line turnover, but he has the spark and he has the IQ to be a starter.


Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Julius Peppers is playing his final season as a Bear.


[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
AP Photo/Greg TrottUnder his current deal, Julius Peppers will be a cap hit of more than $18 million for the Bears next season.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Peppers seems like a goner unless he agrees to take a drastic reduction in pay in 2014. The Bears can't afford to carry a player on the 53-man roster with a projected cap hit of $18,183,333 unless that player is a franchise quarterback. Peppers has shown the ability to still have good games from time to time, but he is no longer one of the NFL's premiere pass-rushers. If you can no longer get to the quarterback, then you can no longer cash the really big checks. For a couple million dollars, I'd bring Peppers back for another season. But not for the $14 million he's scheduled to earn in 2014 under his current deal.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. His cap number is more than $18 million next season. Peppers has already had his contract restructured twice, but I wouldn't count on a third time. Peppers was a good signing, and he still his moments but the Bears need depth. It's best to use that money elsewhere. But hey, if he wants to play for a lot less money, I'm sure the Bears would be up to re-sign him. I just don't see it happening.

Locker Room Buzz: Chicago Bears

November, 5, 2013
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Observed in the locker room after the Chicago Bears' 27-20 win over the Green Bay Packers:

McClellin
McClellin ribbed: “Three sacks bro,” Zach Minter and David Bass joked repeatedly as second-year defensive end Shea McClelllin attempted to speak to the media after a career day in which he posted a career-high three sacks. McClellin knocked quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of the game in the first quarter, and said that while “I wish him a speedy recovery, stuff happens.”

Coming into Monday night's game McClellin had 3 career sacks, before matching that number against the Packers.

More ribbing: Rookie middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic sports a long goatee, and as he stood in front of his locker, fellow rookie Kyle Long joked about the facial hair being made of Velcro.

Meanwhile veteran linebacker James Anderson said Bostic played well “by the hair on his chinny chin chin.”

Bostic finished the game with four tackles, and spent some time after the game speaking with Anderson in depth about how to defeat blocks from centers. Anderson to Bostic explained the importance of attacking the edge of the blocker as opposed to striking him down the middle.

Emery makes the rounds: General manager Phil Emery could be heard saying “it feels good” as he walked through a celebratory locker room patting players on the back headed toward the team's buses.

It's your birthday: Cornerback Tim Jennings strolled through the locker room and alerted anybody within earshot about the 31st birthday of return man Devin Hester. Jennings said he bought Hester a watch for his birthday, and later joked, “Yeah, right.”

Hester racked up 113 return yards on four kickoffs and a punt return. Hester's longest return of the day was a 29-yard kickoff return.

Jon Bostic to play under Briggs' wing

October, 17, 2013
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- When leading somebody down a dark tunnel, trust is the key, and so it will be Sunday when veteran linebacker Lance Briggs stands alongside rookie linebacker Jon Bostic, who will be seeing his first significant NFL action.

With linebacker D.J. Williams lost for the season because of a torn pectoral muscle, Bostic will finally get his chance to shine after a solid preseason. Briggs remembers when he was in Bostic’s shoes.

“Jon is further along than I was as a rookie and he understands things,” Briggs said. “He understands all our concepts. For him, it’s just about getting game experience. There are things that he is still learning to trust. It’s just like me when I was young and Brian [Urlacher] would give me a tip off. I might be a step late because I didn’t really trust what he was saying.”

[+] EnlargeJonathan Bostic
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWith D.J. Williams lost for the season, rookie Jon Bostic has been thrust into the lineup.
Anything Briggs says Sunday will likely be followed with the words “trust me.”

“For him he just has to know that hey, if it’s going to be there, if it’s a tip off, they’re probably going to run it,” Briggs said.

Bostic has played primarily on special teams this season, but the second-round pick out of Florida has been taking notes when it comes to the defense and often asks Briggs why things sometimes look different on the field than they did in practice.

“I’ll tell him that depending on the down and distance there are certain checks and adjustments you want to do differently than first and second down or against certain formations,” Briggs said. “For him it’s just allowing himself to be as sharp as he can be on Sunday.”

Coach Marc Trestman is less concerned about the transition from the veteran Williams to the rookie Bostic, primarily because of Briggs’ presence.

“I do know enough to watch (Briggs) work every day, his ability to communicate, his understanding of the defense and the standards that he has and wants to get to with our defense,” Trestman said. “I think that Jonathan is in very good hands.”

Bostic’s speed could come in extremely handy as the Bears go up against Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris.

“For Jon, you don’t want to think too much when you’re on the field,” Briggs said. “That’s what practice is for, getting that kind of stuff down, getting your keys down and your reaction to be as sharp as it can so that once you get in the game you read and react. You allow your athletic ability take over.”

Briggs’ ability to communicate figures to be put to the test as he guides a young teammate.

“There are always certain tip-offs before a play, but once game time comes, you have to get 11 of us aligned, making some of those adjustments, throwing out some of the tips and keys to him,” Briggs said. “I know [veteran linebacker] James [Anderson] will help too. Major [Wright] and [Chris] Conte, Peanut [Tillman] and Tim Jennings, we have a good group back there that does understand how teams will attack us.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears rookie linebacker Jon Bostic was not fined by the NFL for the hit he delivered to Detroit Lions wide receiver Kris Durham as Durham lay on the ground after recovering onside kick in the final minute of the Lions’ Week 4 victory against the Bears at Ford Field, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.

Bostic
Bostic was not penalized by the officials for the tackle, but Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz took issue with the hit during his postgame news conference last Sunday.

“Kris Durham made a couple big plays at the end, probably no bigger than recovering the last onside kick,” Schwartz said. “He took a big shot for it, too. We talk a lot about player safety and he’s lying prone on the ground and is getting himself up and takes a helmet right to the back and we don’t get any call there. It’s a little hypocritical to talk about player safety when we allow that to not get called. Kris toughed it out, and he had to hold onto that ball and he did. He did a nice job today”

The league did fine Bostic $21,000 in the preseason for lowering his head and making forcible contact with a defenseless player. Bostic appealed the fine.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman said on Monday that he is unsure if rookie linebacker Jon Bostic will be disciplined by the NFL for the hit he delivered to Detroit Lions wide receiver Kris Durham as he lay on the ground following an onside kick with 43 seconds left to play in the Bears’ 40-32 defeat at Ford Field on Sunday.

Bostic
“I did not see it, I really didn’t see it,” Trestman said. “I haven’t heard about it and I haven’t heard from the league about it. We’ll see what happens the next couple of days.”

Bostic was not penalized by the officials, but the hit upset Lions coach Jim Schwartz who referenced the incident during his postgame news conference on Sunday.

“Kris Durham made a couple big plays at the end, probably no bigger than recovering the last onside kick,” Schwartz said. “He took a big shot for it, too. We talk a lot about player safety and he’s lying prone on the ground and is getting himself up and takes a helmet right to the back and we don’t get any call there. It’s a little hypocritical to talk about player safety when we allow that to not get called. Kris toughed it out, and he had to hold onto that ball and he did. He did a nice job today”

The NFL fined Bostic $21,000 in August for lowering his head and making forcible contact with a defenseless San Diego Chargers wide receiver, Mike Willie, during a preseason game at Soldier Field. Bostic appealed the fine.
Earlier Wednesday, we discussed the hit that has cost Chicago Bears linebacker Jon Bostic $21,000 in NFL fines. As you recall, Bostic hit San Diego Chargers receiver Mike Willie with the top of his helmet to dislodge a potential completed pass.

In live action, the hit looked like countless others we've witnessed in football and seen celebrated on highlight shows and by NFL Films. But the NFL found Bostic in violation of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 (b2), which bars a player from "lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player's body."

[+] EnlargeJon Bostic
AP Photo/Scott BoehmLeading with his shoulder would have made this Jon Bostic hit legal, an NFL executive said.
Because the ruling doesn't pass our amateur smell test, I thought it was fair to relay a response from the NFL's vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino. In this NFL Network appearance, Blandino was asked what Bostic should have done differently to ensure it was a legal hit under NFL rules.

Here is what Blandino said:

"The Bostic hit is illegal because he used the crown of his helmet to deliver a forcible blow to the body of the receiver. For this hit to be legal, he has to get the helmet to the side and use the shoulder to deliver the blow, or hit the receiver with his head up. Those are the two techniques that we are trying to get back in the game. So using the crown to deliver the blow to the body, that is a foul when you're talking about a hit on a defenseless player."

As we discussed earlier, the NFL is moving away, with all available speed, from anything resembling contact with or to the head. Instead, as Blandino said, it would prefer players hit with the shoulder. If leading with the head is unavoidable, the player must have his head up so that contact is to the face and with the facemask rather than the crown of the helmet. Welcome to the new world order.

I cringed and started worrying after the third or fourth time I saw Jon Bostic's highlight-reel hit last week. Would the collision between Bostic, the Chicago Bears' rookie middle linebacker, and San Diego Chargers receiver Mike Willie surface as the first example in 2013 of the NFL's continued emphasis against head-to-head contact?

The answer appears to be yes, based on a tweet from teammate Lance Briggs that reported the NFL fined Bostic $21,000 for the play. (The fine has since been confirmed by ESPN and other outlets.)

When you watch the replay in the video above, you see Willie reaching for a short slant pass and begin the process of catching it when Bostic launched a perfectly-timed hit to dislodge the ball. If you slow it down frame by frame, you see that the top of Bostic's helmet made contact with the bottom left side of Willie's helmet. No penalty was called.

[+] EnlargeJon Bostic
AP Photo/Scott BoehmJon Bostic was fined $21,000 Wednesday for his hit on San Diego Chargers wide receiver Mike Willie.
In sum, it's a play we've all seen countless times in NFL games. Many of them have been celebrated by NFL Films. But in 2013, and forever more, it is the type of contact the NFL wants to at least appear to be discouraged.

The NFL instituted new rules this year barring contact with the crown of the helmet, but in this case, it used one of its previously established rules to hand out the fine. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 (b2) renders this action to be illegal: "Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player's body."

We can argue until we're blue in the face about whether Bostic lowered his head or if his head was simply tilted downward in a form tackle position when contact occurred. You can also question whether "defenseless position" was originally contemplated for a receiver reaching for a pass when both feet are on the ground. In this case, Willie took two steps before Bostic hit him. It wouldn't have been outrageous to call the play a catch and fumble.

But as we've discussed before, that ship has sailed. The conversation is over. At last count, more than 4,000 former NFL players are suing the league for concussion-related issues. Head safety is the league's top priority, legally and otherwise, and you can expect more aggressive interpretations of its rules moving forward.

Briggs later tweeted his disgust that the NFL fined Bostic but that the low hit on Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller, which ruptured multiple knee ligaments, has gone unpunished. So goes the world we live in, like it or not. It's cheaper, for both the league and its players, to take out a player's knees than to hit him in the head. There is no going back now.

Briggs: Bostic fined $21K for hit

August, 21, 2013
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CHICAGO – Chicago Bears rookie middle linebacker Jon Bostic is apparently lighter in the wallet after the crushing preseason hit he put on San Diego Chargers wide receiver Mike Willie last week at Soldier Field.

Bears' starting weakside linebacker Lance Briggs tweeted on Wednesday morning from his Twitter account (@LanceBriggs), “Shaking my head moment. NFL fines Jon Bostic 21K for his clean hit against the Chargers.”

Briggs went on to Tweet, “Bostic's s hit illegal. Hit on Dustin Keller. Legal.”

Keller, a tight end for the Miami Dolphins, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason on a low tackle by Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger. The hit is legal by NFL standards.

Bostic’s targeted Willie’s chest region on a short pass to the right on the third play of the third quarter that was ruled incomplete last week in the Bears’ 33-28 victory over the Chargers. Bostic was not flagged on the play.

The rookie out of Florida is scheduled to earn a $405,000 base salary in 2013 in addition to a $1,246,036 signing bonus. He can appeal the fine.

Bostic has been working as the Bears’ No. 1 middle linebacker since veteran D.J. Williams suffered a calf injury at the beginning of training camp.
Jay Cutler AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler is expected to play a series or two against the Panthers on Friday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here are five things to keep an eye on Friday night when the Chicago Bears face the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.

1. OL blocking: It's likely the Bears go into this game with a starting five up front that you won't see once the club opens the regular season Sept. 8 against Cincinnati, mainly because of the calf strain suffered by starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who isn't expected to play. The plan is to play the starters just a few snaps. So in that limited amount of time it's important to see how well the group protects and opens the lanes in the ground game given all the changes made schematically. Count on a starting five of Roberto Garza, James Brown, Eben Britton, J'Marcus Webb and Matt Slauson. Rookie Kyle Long should see plenty of snaps, too, and is also a player to keep close tabs on. The only way skill-position players such as quarterback Jay Cutler, receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte excel is for the offensive line to sufficiently do its job. If in limited duty, the starting offensive line performs similarly to the way the group played in 2012, it will be clear the group still needs extensive work.

2. Cutler's command of the offense: Cutler is in the midst of learning his fourth offense in five seasons with the Bears, and it would be unrealistic to expect him to operate flawlessly against the Panthers. But he does need to show some degree of command of the new system. So far during training camp practices, for whatever reason, the timing between Cutler and the receiving corps appears to be off. Some of that is a function of Chicago's defensive line bearing down hard on Cutler every play during training camp, and tipping many of his passes at the line of scrimmage. But in this game, the offensive line will have every tactic at its disposal to combat Carolina's pass rush. That should open up some passing lanes for Cutler to be able to find some type of rhythm. It's also worth it to watch how quickly the Bears get in and out of the huddle. The club unnecessarily burned timeouts too often last season, and Marc Trestman's system contains much more verbiage than some of the schemes Cutler has operated in the past.

(Read full post)

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- One year after taking over for Jerry Angelo as general manager of the Chicago Bears, Phil Emery put his stamp on the organization by firing longtime head coach Lovie Smith, despite a 10-6 finish to the 2012 regular season -- the fourth time in nine seasons that Smith reached the 10-win plateau.

Emery took a rather unconventional route when hiring a new head coach, bypassing 2012 NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians in favor of Marc Trestman, who spent the previous five seasons enjoying success as the head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes. But Trestman is no stranger to NFL circles, having spent the bulk of his career coaching quarterbacks and calling plays for the likes of the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

While Smith’s strength was defense, Trestman’s strong suit is the offensive side of the ball, where the Bears typically struggled under the former regime. The most noticeable change in training camp has been the emphasis placed on reinventing the offense, while the defensive scheme has undergone little change under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.

Trestman’s greatest challenge: maximizing the talent of quarterback Jay Cutler before it’s too late. Cutler’s four seasons in Chicago can be best described as inconsistent -- with the quarterback, coaching staff and substandard personnel all sharing the blame for the team’s mediocre offensive output.

However, in the final year of his contract, Cutler is now surrounded by the most offensive talent during his tenure with the team, and by a head coach determined to make it work.

"I think on every level I’ve enjoyed the process with Jay, the interaction in our meetings, the level of content in our football discussions and his assimilation of the system based on the fact that he’s been in so many of them over the last four or five years," Trestman said. "Jay’s been all-in."

If that trend continues, the Bears have a legitimate chance to compete in the NFC North and earn just their second playoff berth in seven years. If not, the Bears would be expected to rebuild the roster heading into 2014.

HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler has to hurry up and learn new coach Marc Trestman's offense in more ways than one.
1. Cutler’s grasp of the offense: This marks the fifth different offense for Cutler in the last six years, dating back to his time in Denver under Mike Shanahan. After installing the offense approximately three times over the course of the offseason program and the first week of camp, the quarterback said he is still in the process of mastering Trestman’s West Coast system.

"It’s been going well," Cutler said. "There have been ups and downs. That’s any training camp. Guys are learning the offense and we’re moving along. Just the verbiage is the most difficult aspect. Any time you go to a new offense guys are going to be in similar positions on the field. It’s just learning the verbiage and being able to spit it out."

Trestman is constantly pressuring Cutler and the offense to get plays off in 16 seconds or less. This "controlled chaos" is a stark departure from the Smith era, when there wasn’t such an emphasis placed on running plays in such a timely fashion.

"Practice has been chaotic, and that’s the way coach Trestman wants it," center Roberto Garza said. "He wants it upbeat. He wants it competitive and as close to real game speed as possible so you do get those reactions to come out faster. He’s doing it so there’s not a big difference between practice and the game ... that’s his big emphasis."

2. Finding a complement to Brandon Marshall: Marshall joked before the start of camp that his offseason hip surgery was a result of the amount of times he was targeted by Cutler last season. Maybe he was telling the truth. Marshall was targeted a team-high 194 times in 2012. The next highest targets by a wide receiver? Earl Bennett with 49.

The Bears tried to address the problem in free agency by signing tight end Martellus Bennett to a four-year deal. Bennett had 55 receptions last season for the New York Giants, and should be a major upgrade over former Bears tight end Kellen Davis, who had a difficult time catching the football.

"I am [looking forward to having more weapons]," Marshall told ESPNChicago.com. "It was tough sledding last year. I think that's why I had to have the surgery. I had two or three guys on me every single play, but bringing in big boy Martellus, I don't think the league really knows how good he is. I didn't know, and that was one of my great friends in the league. So I'm excited to see him; he's going to be awesome this year for us."

Alshon Jeffery, a second-round draft choice in 2012, is also being counted on to take pressure off Marshall. After hand and hip injuries forced Jeffery to miss six games during his rookie season, the former South Carolina All-American is playing with a sense of purpose in camp, and has clearly established himself as the No. 2 wide receiver on the roster, with Bennett doing his work primarily in the slot.

3. The leadership void left by Brian Urlacher: Although Urlacher’s performance on the field last season may have suffered, his leadership and influence in the Bears’ locker room was as strong as ever. The future Hall of Famer is now retired, having been replaced in the middle of the Bears’ defense by veteran D.J. Williams and rookie second-rounder Jon Bostic.

Urlacher’s close friend Lance Briggs has assumed the role of calling the defensive plays from his weakside linebacker spot, a duty Urlacher handled with ease in Chicago for over a decade.

If Briggs' comments during the first week of camp are any indication, Urlacher might be gone, but he isn’t forgotten.

"It’s tough [without Urlacher]," Briggs said. "But we’re all grown men. We have to move on."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Four Pro Bowlers (cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Henry Melton) return to a defense that scored nine touchdowns and generated 44 takeaways last season. If the core veteran group -- which includes seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Briggs -- manages to stay healthy, there is no reason the Bears cannot once again boast one of the top defenses in the league, even with the departure of Smith and respected defensive coordinator/defensive-line guru Rod Marinelli.

On offense, the Bears can’t get much worse than they were in 2012 under former offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Trestman is their first offensive-minded head coach since Mike Ditka, and while it’s fair to question how he’ll handle the nuances of running an NFL team, his credentials on offense are legit. With the offseason upgrades made at tight end and on the offensive line, the Bears should have enough talent for Trestman to successfully implement his offense. And if Cutler continues to buy in and respect the new head coach, the Bears should, at the very least, be respectable on offense and not have to lean so heavily on their defense.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Emery fired a head coach coming off a 10-6 season with 84 career wins -- the third-highest total in franchise history -- three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance. Why?

Most veterans are saying all the right things publicly about Trestman and the new regime, but the writing seems to be on the wall. Unless the Bears have a successful season, there figures to be a massive roster turnover heading into 2014, especially since 43 players on the training camp roster have contracts set to expire after the season.

Emery made it clear he does not anticipate awarding contract extensions until after the season, citing salary-cap concerns. But players don’t care about the salary cap; that’s a management issue. So if the Bears get off to a bad start, will the team rally for Trestman like it did so many times for Smith over the years?

With a difficult schedule that opens with home games against 2012 playoff teams Cincinnati and Minnesota, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh, the fear is that players will be looking to jump ship if the waters get rough. That never happened under Smith. But this is the calculated risk Emery took by firing a popular head coach and failing to extend contracts in the offseason.

OBSERVATION DECK

[+] EnlargeKyle Long
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsDespite missing the team's offseason program, Kyle Long, the Bears' top pick in the 2013 draft, is on track to open the season as the starting right guard.
" The fact that guard Kyle Long made just five career starts at Oregon didn’t deter the Bears from selecting him No. 20 overall in April’s NFL draft. Long is raw and is bound to make his share of rookie mistakes, but his strength is undeniable. From a physical standpoint, Long can hang in there against experienced defenders. But it’s the mental aspect of his game that needs work after he was forced to miss the Bears’ entire offseason program due to NCAA rules. Despite Long’s steep learning curve, he is on track to open the regular season as the Bears’ starting right guard.

" The loss of Williams for at least a week due to a right calf injury gives Bostic an opportunity to work extensively with the first unit at middle linebacker. But not being responsible for calling the defensive signals, a task held by Briggs, is an adjustment for Bostic and has led him to commit a handful of mental errors. "I kind of feel like when you’re talking loud and calling the plays it kind of helps you in what you are doing," Bostic said. "At the same time, we have this thing called loud and wrong. If you’re talking loud everyone can hear you. But if you’re wrong, everyone can hear you and tell you you’re wrong." Bostic has been in charge of calling signals for the No. 2 defense since OTAs kicked off in May.

" The Bears already boast two Pro Bowlers on their defensive line in Peppers and Melton, but two other projected starters are turning in some of the best efforts so far in camp: defensive end Corey Wootton and defensive tackle Stephen Paea. Wootton sacked the quarterback seven times last season, and entering the final year of his contract he could be in line for a sizeable bump in salary if he recovers from a hip injury suffered in practice last Thursday. Paea is the heaviest he’s ever been (295 pounds) and the fastest since the Bears moved up in the second round to take him in 2011. “I’m doing something right,” Paea said.

" Trestman has been especially high on running back Matt Forte, who besides rushing for 5,327 yards in five NFL seasons is also an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. But for reasons unknown, the Bears failed to utilize Forte much last season in the passing game -- he caught a career-low 44 passes for 340 yards. That is expected to change under Trestman.

" The verdict remains out on 2012 first-round pick Shea McClellin after he posted 2.5 sacks as a rookie in a limited role as a situational pass rusher. However, the offseason departure of veteran defensive end Israel Idonije opens the door for McClellin to receive more playing time in a three-man end rotation with Peppers and Wootton. McClellin gained weight in the offseason but promptly lost it, raising more questions about whether he truly is suited to be a 4-3, hand-on-the-ground defensive end. "My expectation for Shea is simply to get better," Tucker said. "That’s the expectation I have for every player on the defense. He just needs to get better." The likely scenario for McClellin this season is to move around on defense and line up in different spots along the line of scrimmage in both a two-point and three-point stance. McClellin also has the speed and agility to drop back into coverage every now and again.

" Devin Hester seems content in his new role as strictly a return man. Hester has not taken a single rep at wide receiver since Trestman was hired, spending time at practice either with the other specialists or on a side field catching punts from the JUGS machine. "I feel great," Hester said. "I haven’t felt like this in a while. I’m very excited for the season, what’s at stake this year. I do feel like we do have a great chance to make a run for the playoffs as well as the Super Bowl. I’m more excited than a lot of guys this year coming in and hopefully having fun out there on the field." Hester is in the final year of his contract and set to earn a base salary of $1.857 million if he makes the 53-man roster.
It's worth wondering on Wednesday afternoon whether the Chicago Bears' long-term plans at middle linebacker are about to mesh with their immediate ones.

Veteran D.J. Williams was carted off the practice field because of a calf injury, and according to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com, he will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis. That's NFL-speak for a relatively long-term injury, and it means that rookie Jon Bostic will get an extended opportunity to win the job out of training camp.

The Bears made Bostic their second-round pick in April, and since then we all have assumed he would eventually take over the position vacated by Brian Urlacher's retirement. Williams provided the Bears some transition insurance, but as we discussed this spring, he has no guaranteed money in his contract.

Williams could still figure prominently in the Bears' defense this season even if Bostic capitalizes on this opportunity. His career versatility means he could shift outside and handle the strongside role currently manned by James Anderson.

For now, at least, all eyes will be on Bostic. How will he react to extended first-team repetitions? We're about to find out.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC North team?

CHICAGO BEARS

Offense: Kyle Long's readiness
The Bears drafted Long in the first round to help an offensive line that has struggled for years to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Long, however, had a short Division I career and missed almost all of the Bears' offseason work because of the timing of Oregon's final academic quarter. The Bears will find out in camp, and during the preseason, whether Long is ready to be an immediate starter as you would expect based on his draft position.

Defense: Configuring linebackers
After the retirement of Brian Urlacher and the departure of Nick Roach, the Bears gave themselves two tiers of options at linebacker to play alongside Lance Briggs. If all else fails, they can use veteran D.J. Williams in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. But they also drafted two players who one day will get their chance: Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth. The process of determining the best combination will begin in training camp.

Wild card: Coaching transition
This will be the Bears' first training camp in 10 years without Lovie Smith as the coach. Marc Trestman began the transition process during offseason workouts, but training camp is the time for establishing the meat of his program. How does he expect players to practice? How quickly does he expect scheme assimilation? How do players know when he's happy? When he's angry? The first training camp will set the parameters.

DETROIT LIONS

Offense: Line changes
One way or the other, the Lions will enter the season with three new starters on the offensive line. Riley Reiff is at left tackle after the retirement of Jeff Backus, and there will be competition at right guard and right tackle. Pulling off an overhaul of the offensive line in a win-or-else season is an ambitious task. All discussion of improvement for quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the impact of newcomer Reggie Bush, is made on the presumption that the offensive line won't take a step back.

Defense: Ziggy Ansah's development
Usually, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft is ready to step in and play right away. But Ansah was a late arrival to football and was almost an unknown to NFL scouts a year ago at this time. There was a sense during pre-draft evaluations that Ansah would need more development time than the typical No. 5 pick, but the Lions have high hopes of putting him into the starting lineup right away. They gave themselves some flexibility by signing free agent Israel Idonije, but they'll find out in camp if Ansah is going to be ready to play a full-time role in Week 1.

Wild card: Ryan Broyles' status
Broyles was a value pick in the 2012 draft, but he is very much needed after the release of Titus Young. Nate Burleson has returned to play alongside All-Pro Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' depth would be thin if Broyles isn't ready to play soon after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. The Lions hope Broyles can be full-speed by the start of the season, a pace he must confirm with at least some significant work in training camp.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Offense: Running back rotation
The Packers added two rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that includes holdovers DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Unless the Packers suddenly convert to a run-based offense, an impossibility as long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers will have to thin this herd in training camp. Not everyone from that group will make the team, and a few who do aren't likely to get much action in games. Harris, Lacy and Franklin seem the likeliest candidates -- in that order -- to be feature backs.

Defense: Replacing Woodson
The Packers have openings at safety and cornerback following the release of Charles Woodson. Training camp should provide significant insight, if not an outright answer, into who will start at safety -- M.D. Jennings? Jerron McMillian? -- alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll also get a sense for who is ready to step into the cornerback and nickel job opposite veteran Tramon Williams. Top candidates for that job include Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. The Packers' cornerback group is by far the deepest in the NFC North.

Wild card: Crosby's state of mind
No one expects Giorgio Tavecchio to beat out place-kicker Mason Crosby, who went through a well-publicized extended slump last season. But how will Crosby react to the first competition of any sort he has faced since taking over as the Packers' kicker in 2007? That's what the Packers want to find out, frankly. If he isn't sharp in camp, the Packers might need to consider their options elsewhere.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
The Vikings know they want Patterson to be their kickoff returner, replacing Percy Harvin, but is Patterson ready to take over any part of Harvin's role as a primary offensive playmaker? Patterson's short stay at Tennessee once suggested he will need some development time before contributing regularly on offense. His performance in offseason practices, however, suggested he might be further along than once believed. Training camp will tell us for sure.

Defense: Linebacker alignment
Will newcomer Desmond Bishop play middle linebacker or on the outside? What would that mean for Erin Henderson, who spent the offseason transitioning to the middle position? It seems pretty clear that Bishop, Henderson and Chad Greenway will be the Vikings' three linebackers. Training camp should give us a better idea of where they will line up and, importantly, who will come off the field in nickel situations.

Wild card: Chemistry in passing game
The Vikings are expecting a jump in the efficiency, if not raw numbers, of their passing game this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to accomplish that by developing quick chemistry with his new receivers, including Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings. That task appeared to be a work in progress during offseason practices.

NFC North: Training camp issues

July, 16, 2013
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Bostic, Lacy & Patterson Getty ImagesOpportunities await Jon Bostic, left, Eddie Lacy, center, and Cordarrelle Patterson in training camp.
In 10 days, all four NFC North teams will have stepped onto the practice field for their 2013 training camps. I can't think of a better way to wade through these final days than by identifying 10 key issues we will no doubt be focusing on over the next six weeks or so.

I'm staying away from some of the obvious ones and instead focusing on developments for which we have a reasonable expectation of resolution before the start of the regular season. We won't know by Labor Day, for example, if Jay Cutler is a good fit for the Chicago Bears' new offense under Marc Trestman. It'll be impossible to conclude whether Christian Ponder has taken a step forward as the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback, or whether the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford has fixed his mechanics or if the Green Bay Packers know how to stop the read-option.

Answers to those questions won't be evident until regular-season games start. I think it's reasonable to expect quicker resolution to the questions identified below.

Issue: Jon Bostic and the Bears' middle linebacker job
Analysis: General manager Phil Emery gave the team a safety blanket by signing veteran D.J. Williams, who is expected to open training camp in Brian Urlacher's old spot. But the Bears used a second-round draft pick on Bostic, and one day he almost certainly will have the job. If he can win it in training camp, the Bears can move Williams to the outside or use fellow newcomer James Anderson there.

Issue: A role for Bears defensive end Shea McClellin
Analysis: McClellin was the Bears' first-round draft pick just one year ago, but he'll have to compete hard to establish a role commensurate with that status. Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton finished last season as the Bears' starting defensive ends, and Wootton is in a contract year and thus will be highly motivated. The Bears cleared some space by allowing Israel Idonije to depart via free agency, but McClellin's path to regular playing time is far from certain.

Issue: Starting Kyle Long
Analysis: There has been an assumption that Long will be plugged into the starting lineup at one of the Bears' guard positions, but it's only fair to reiterate his relative lack of experience (four starts) in Division I. Moreover, Long was unable to participate in most of the Bears' offseason program because of NFL rules regarding the timing of college graduation. In other words, Long is as green as it gets for a first-round draft pick. It will be nice to see, finally, what the Bears have in him.

Issue: Ryan Broyles' status in Detroit
Analysis: Broyles tore his ACL in Week 13 last season and will push to be ready for camp. If Broyles is healthy and available, he will join Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson to form a really good trio. If he needs more time, the Lions will be thin at the position to start the season. Mike Thomas, a slot receiver acquired last season from the Jacksonville Jaguars, would be next up.

Issue: Ziggy Ansah's development
Analysis: Generally speaking, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft should be ready to step into the lineup and make an immediate contribution. Ansah, as has been well-documented, was a late arrival to football and might need more development time than most No. 5 overall picks. Idonije gives the Lions an option if Ansah isn't ready to start, and in truth snaps are more important than the starting lineup. But when you draft a defensive end at No. 5 overall, you expect him to be ready to handle a full-time load almost immediately.

Issue: Packers' running back rotation
Analysis: The Packers gave themselves a good problem this offseason by adding two draft choices, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that also included DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green. It seems unlikely that all of them will make the roster, but the more pressing matter is how they will be used and how often. Harris would have been the favorite to start entering training camp, but he missed the offseason because of injuries, and the position should now be considered wide open.

Issue: Mason Crosby's reaction to competition
Analysis: Crosby's extended slump last season prompted the Packers to bring a second place-kicker to camp for the first time since he established himself as the Packers' full-time kicker. There is every reason to consider Crosby the heavy favorite over Giorgio Tavecchio, but that's assuming Crosby handles the competition well. It has been a while since Crosby had to secure his job.

Issue: Replacing Charles Woodson in Green Bay
Analysis: Woodson played safety and cornerback for the Packers last season. Now, they have a competitive situation at both spots. Training camp should tell us whether M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian is ready to grab a safety spot next to Morgan Burnett. We'll also get to see a spirited competition at cornerback between Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Davon House and others for the chance to play alongside Tramon Williams.

Issue: Vikings linebacker alignment
Analysis: It is reasonable to expect Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop to start in the Vikings' 4-3 base. But what positions will they play? Training camp should make that clear. Bishop would seem best suited for the inside, with Henderson returning to his former role outside, but it's not out of the question that the Vikings could experiment in the reverse during camp to find the best combination.

Issue: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
Analysis: Shortly after the draft, we were led to believe that the Vikings rookie would fit in as a kickoff returner this season while he learned how to play receiver at the professional level. But if offseason practices were any indication, Patterson might be ready for a bigger role on offense right away. Can he emerge from training camp as a starter opposite Greg Jennings? That's the Vikings' best-case scenario, one that didn't seem possible in April but can't be ruled out on the eve of camp.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A first-year player who has turned heads in OTAs/minicamps:

Chicago Bears: Linebacker Jon Bostic, a second-round draft pick from Florida, has proved far enough along that he has been calling defensive signals at middle linebacker with the second team during spring practices. That's a key component for young linebackers. A lot can change once the pads come on for training camp, but at the very least, Bostic is positioning himself to be the next linebacker on the field if anything happens to starters Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams or James Anderson.

Detroit Lions: Tight end Joseph Fauria, a college free agent, is naturally the kind of player who stands out in spring practice drills, which are in jerseys and shorts. He is 6-foot-7 with long arms and thus a huge catching radius, combined with soft enough hands that he can catch the ball in a crowd. Blocking will be another story for a player that tall, but the Lions have plenty of uses for a pass-catching tight end. They also need to consider building up their depth as Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler both approach free agency.

Green Bay Packers: Micah Hyde is a cornerback drafted in the fifth round, one who is competing against a deep group just to make the roster. I have no idea how things will turn out once the team gets to full pads in training camp, but he caught my eye this week with tight coverage on several passes. On one in particular, Hyde stayed close with receiver James Jones on a red zone pass into the corner of the end zone. Jones led NFL receivers with 14 touchdown receptions last season, but Hyde managed to strip the ball from his hands before he got both feet down. Putting a play like that on tape is important.

Minnesota Vikings: This much counts in OTAs: Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson certainly looks the part. He is a solid 6-3 and approaching 210 pounds, much thicker than anticipated but still with the speed that made him such a dangerous open-field runner last year at Tennessee. Patterson no doubt has much to learn, but Vikings coaches are quietly optimistic that he can quickly develop into a significant playmaker.

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