Are the Bears too young?

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Are the Bears too young?

Eventually any story about NFL players getting old is bound to be accurate. Just not right now with respect to the Bears, in the mind of the person whose future is most closely aligned with 30-something veterans like Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher.

The calendar is inexorable but looking at just the numbers is missing the far bigger picture, according to coach Lovie Smith.

Briggs, Peppers, Tillman, Urlacher, center Roberto Garza all received some level of Pro Bowl honor this week. None missed a single game in 2011. The four defensive players missed none in 2010; Garza missed two to have in-season knee surgery.

To me you have to first establish, are they breaking down? Smith told CSNChicago.com. And they are not. Julius Peppers I dont care what the Pro Bowl alternate status says is the best defensive end in the league. How many games did Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman miss?

Obviously you need young players to come along at every position at some point, but we are not seeing players breaking down at our core positions.

Young in many places

Smith is under no illusions about the need for a productive talent pipeline.

But the oldest of the Bears four top defensive tackles is 27 (Matt Toeaina), with Amobi Okoye, Stephen Paea and Henry Melton 25 or younger and Melton selected as a Pro Bowl alternate. The Bears have explored re-signing Okoye to a longer-term deal.

Smith got to a Super Bowl with an offensive line of veterans (John Tait-Ruben Brown-Olin Kreutz-Garza-Fred Miller), all of whom except Kreutz were free-agent hires.

Lance Louis is expected to resume a starting guard spot. Gabe Carimi, JMarcus Webb and Chris Williams are all draft picks and 26 or younger. Centerguard Chris Spencer is 29; recently re-signed guard Edwin Williams is 25.

Across the offensive line, and really over the whole offense, the guys in key positions are young, Smith said. You always reach a point where you do have to go through a transition at every position.

We have two first-round, young offensive linemen (Carimi, C. Williams). You look at JMarcus Webb, Lance Louis, theyre all first-contract guys. You like that. We have a young quarterback Jay Cutler is 28 and all our tailbacks Matt Forte, 26; Kahlil Bell, 25; Armando Allen, 23 are all young.

Corey Graham, the NFC Pro Bowl special teams selectee, is 27. Devin Hester turned 29 in November. Pro Bowl alternate kicker Robbie Gould turned 30 on Friday.

Transition process

Time will exact its toll. Urlacher, 33, is signed only through the 2012 season and if he is held out Sunday because of knee soreness, you may be looking at his eventual successor in Nick Roach, 27, whom some in the organization see as the prototypical middle linebacker in the Smith defensive schemes.

Linebacker, along with wide receiver and cornerback, will be the priorities of the offseason along with a pass-rushing defensive end. Receiver and cornerback are search areas for immediate-impact players.

But linebacker is a spot where the Bears hope a transition will work, as it has this year at safety, from veteran Chris Harris to youth in Chris Conte and Major Wright.

We transitioned this year at the safety position, playing a rookie in Conte, Major Wright getting more reps, Smith said. Our backup linebackers were new guys.

As for the longer-tenured veterans, theyve played a little bit, Smith said, but I feel like they have a lot more football left in them.

Bears in dire need of RB Jordan Howard delivering latest rookie first-start impact

Bears in dire need of RB Jordan Howard delivering latest rookie first-start impact

A primary, weight-bearing philosophical pillar of the John Fox Bears – running the football – has been conspicuous by its absence, which of course is everything Fox and the offense precisely did not want. The team is 0-3. The starting quarterback is out. The plan was running-back-by-committee and the intended top two members of the committee are down with injuries.

And now a lead role in changing all of that and becoming the spear point of the offense falls to a rookie who was passed over until the fifth round of the draft and has a total of 12 NFL carries and who was the only player other than the backup quarterback who was dressed but coaches didn’t play in the team’s first game.

Jordan Howard is fine with all of that. He has chips on his shoulder, the kind that players use as motivation, from getting only one scholarship offer coming out of high school to slipping in the draft.

Now, with Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford expected to miss the Detroit game, Howard is positioned to be the featured back of an NFL team. That would be what’s called a “dream.”

“Coming into the league you always want to be the featured guy, but I definitely wasn’t expecting this or expecting it to come this fast,” said Howard. “I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity, but I’m not going to let it slip through my hands, either. I’m going to make the most out of my opportunity.”

Bears rookie running backs have some recent history of being anything but overwhelmed by that first opportunity.

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In his first NFL start last season, Langford put up 182 combined run-receiving yards and scored twice.

Matt Forte rushed for 123 yards and caught passes for 18 more in his 2008 rookie start No. 1.

Anthony Thomas didn’t start til the Bears’ sixth game in 2001 but the rookie tailback responded with 127 yards on 27 carries.

Howard and the Bears would settle for any of those debuts. What Howard has done in recent weeks is focus on pass protection, typically the steepest learning curve for young backs coming from college careers where their running was the coin of the realm.

“He’s getting there,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “He’s getting closer. A lot of work in protections. In the NFL, it’s a little bit different than college football with all the different fronts and with all the different personnel packages. He’s working really hard to get caught up to speed with that, but he’s doing a nice job as a runner.”

Howard was billed as a power back when the Bears announced him as their fifth-round pick this spring. He is listed at 222 pounds but “he’s bigger than he looks,” said coach John Fox He’s a big body and has good feet, good vision, and those are pretty good qualities… .

“Every time he’s touched the ball, he’s been pretty impressive. Playing running back in the National Football League is a little bit more than just running the ball. Some of those things took a little longer to learn and to be able to execute consistently. I think he’s done that pretty well when we’ve called on him in the regular season.”

That will happen in earnest beginning around noon on Sunday.

Bears: Jay Cutler goes from 'limited' in practice to 'DNP' on Thursday

Bears: Jay Cutler goes from 'limited' in practice to 'DNP' on Thursday

The Bears' quarterback situation, expected to resolve with Brian Hoyer starting Sunday against the Detroit Lions, appeared to tilt a little further in that direction as Jay Cutler, limited in practice on Wednesday, did not practice at all on Thursday.

Cutler, clad only in sweats and no helmet, tossed passes to receivers in individual warmups but did not participate as he and the team opted to rest his injured right thumb, which forced him out of the Dallas game.

“I think we just didn’t want to aggravate it more,” head coach John Fox said. “A thumb on a throwing hand of a quarterback is a delicate situation. So we just figured we wouldn’t go out there and have any stress on it.”

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Sitting out entirely should not trigger alarm bells. Cutler has not been expected to start vs. Detroit and he had not done significant work in practice on Wednesday.

“It doesn’t take too much to quantify [as] ‘limited’ [in practice],” Fox said. “It’s kind of what it is. But we just felt it was better to just have him rehab and continue to strengthen it.”

Also out of practice and expected to miss the Lions game: running backs Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford, nose tackle Eddie Goldman and linebacker Danny Trevathan.

Limited: Alshon Jeffery (knee/hamstring), Josh Sitton (shoulder). Jonathan Bullard (toe), Willie Young (knee), Harold Jones-Quartey (concussion), Sherrick McManis (hamstring) and Tracy Porter (knee).