Most of the Chicago Bears organization packed up for summer vacations at the conclusion of last week's organized team activities, leaving little more than a few nibbles of team news along the way as the club prepares for training camp next month in Bourbonnais.
With the dead zone now officially upon us, we take a look at five burning questions the Bears staff and personnel department are likely pondering prior to camp. We purposely left out the team's situation at receiver -- which we'll explore Thursday -- because it deserves its own space:
Are they set on the offensive line?
The Bears are optimistic the pieces are there; they just haven't been set, based on what offensive line coach Mike Tice has said all offseason. The competition at left guard between Johan Asiata, Josh Beekman, and Lance Louis dominated recent headlines, but Tice continues to indicate that other battles are brewing.
It appears center Olin Kreutz and left tackle Chris Williams are the only players whose jobs are secure at this point. Tice's plan is to get the best five linemen on the field at the same time. So realistically, that leaves competition at both guard spots, and possibly right tackle, which is manned by Frank Omiyale.
Roberto Garza and Omiyale are expected to start at right guard and tackle, respectively. But there's a small chance that Louis and/or Kevin Shaffer could break through at one of those spots while rookie J'Marcus Webb and James Marten appear to be on the way to backup roles.
The line seems to be operating smoother, faster and more technically sound -- in shorts. Tice's expertise, coaching style and attention to detail should pay dividends once the group straps on the pads.
General manager Jerry Angelo acknowledged to the Lake County News-Sun recently that the offensive line is "the biggest question mark." Because of the time it takes to develop true continuity up front, it's imperative the Bears start answering such internal questions as quickly as possible.
Is the depth at cornerback sufficient?
Angelo and the staff aren't doing their jobs effectively if they're not concerned about what the club would do if Zack Bowman or Charles Tillman suffered an injury that would force them to miss time. So it's pretty much a given the Bears are keeping a close watch and thoroughly evaluating the roster's depth at the position.
Corey Graham worked at the nickel spot throughout the offseason, and performed well, along with free-agent addition Tim Jennings. But it's one thing to excel against the same familiar players day after day at practice, as opposed to holding your own against unfamiliar foes in game situations. At 6-0 Graham, who started nine games in 2008, possesses a size advantage over Jennings (listed at 5-8) and two-year veteran D.J. Moore (5-9).
Fifth-round pick Joshua Moore and Woodny Turenne -- who spent most of last season on the practice squad -- possess good size, too. One of them could emerge as the top candidate for the No. 3 spot. Two NFL scouts considered Moore to be one of the draft's best in terms of man-to-man coverage, but said their respective teams were scared off by other issues. There's also a chance -- if his current situation at safety doesn't pan out -- that Danieal Manning could find himself back in the nickel cornerback role.
It's likely the Bears also are pondering whether they should bring in a veteran to compete for the job. The only problem with that is, aside from a few veterans clearly on the down side of their careers, there's really not much talent available.
What contingency plans should be implemented at safety?
The Bears paid quite a bit of lip service to revamping the safeties, and even traded to re-acquire veteran Chris Harris, in addition to drafting Major Wright. But those moves don't guarantee the Bears will improve at safety. So it's safe to say the club is exploring every possible combination at the position, because it's clear the Bears aren't entirely set there.
The Bears came out of the offseason with Harris as the starter at free safety, with Manning playing strong. It's too early to make a definitive judgment, but early indications are that Harris might lack the requisite speed and change-of-direction skills (likely due to past knee injuries) to stick as the starting free safety. Wright, meanwhile, clearly lacks the experience to step in immediately as the starter.
Still, it wouldn't be a surprise if Wright emerged as the starter opposite Manning. The Bears could simplify their already uncomplicated Cover 2-heavy scheme for Wright, which would allow the rookie to play fast without overthinking his reads. There also seem to be questions concerning Manning, who is perceived by some to lack instincts in coverage.
The club likes the idea of keeping Manning at strong safety because of his speed, tackling skills, and ability to handle most one-on-one matchups against tight ends. But if Manning falters, it's not unrealistic to think the Bears would flip-flop him and Harris, or maybe even move Harris to strong safety to pair opposite Wright. Craig Steltz, who worked opposite Wright on the second team this offseason, could also find himself in the mix. So could Al Afalava, a third-teamer, who started 13 games last season and tied for second on the team in pass breakups, yet strangely fell out of favor.
At this juncture, the possibilities at safety appear endless. The Bears desperately need to find the perfect fit at the position, but can't afford to waste too much time experimenting.
Which running back or backs have to go?
Matt Forte and Chester Taylor are locks, but the Bears will need to make a decision about who to keep as backups. Fullbacks Will Ta'ufo'ou and Eddie Williams fall into this situation, too, because of offensive coordinator Mike Martz's history of lining up tight ends in the backfield as H-backs, thus making fullbacks expendable (it's also worth mentioning that Bears tight end Richard Angulo often lined up as an H-back during his time in Jacksonville when Tice was on the Jaguars staff).
So it appears the Bears will have some difficult decisions to make; especially concerning which backup to keep between Kahlil Bell and Garrett Wolfe. A third-round pick in 2007, Wolfe lacks size (5-7, 185 pounds), but appears to possesses a skill set that could complement the offense if he's utilized out in space. Wolfe can also contribute on special teams. Bell, meanwhile, averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season. It's likely one of them won't make the team. Wolfe might have the advantage because cutting him would come off as an acknowledgement of failure on Angelo's part. And as we're often told, GMs are never wrong. Yeah, right.
Because of the club's recent tendency to stock up on tight ends (it's likely the Bears will open with four tight ends), you've got to wonder whether Ta'ufo'ou and Williams are safe as well. We'll soon see.
Can Caleb Hanie get it done if
Jay Cutler goes down?
While Cutler hasn't experienced issues with durability, the Bears have definitely kicked around the possibility of him going down several times, given all the talk this offseason about Martz and Lovie Smith being open about adding a veteran to play behind Cutler.
Hanie definitely came on strong at the end of the offseason after some up-and-down performances early on, prompting the Bears to make the decision to go with him as the No. 2. But do the Bears truly believe in Hanie as the backup, or did the two-year veteran fall into the role by default because the club couldn't acquire the veteran it initially sought?
The club's moves prior to training camp will definitively answer that question. But multiple sources have told ESPNChicago.com that the team's belief in the former undrafted free agent is genuine. Hanie served as Cutler's primary backup last season, but has completed just three of seven passes in three career games. Sixth-round pick Dan LeFevour is the only other quarterback on the roster.
So the Bears need to be absolutely sure about Hanie's ability to adequately fill in if Cutler misses time.
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.