Bears' depth to be tested against New Orleans

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Bears' depth to be tested against New Orleans

Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011Posted: 12:24 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
For much of the 2010 season, the Bears were lucky. Once their offensive line got past its early season injuries (five different lines in the first seven games), only a few positions changed hands because of injury.

But after just one week of 2011, the quality of the Bears reserves could well determine whether this team is close is a playoff berth three months from now, when a game or two can be the difference between just 16 games and continuing on into the lightning round.

Starters are starters for a reason. But the Bears lose little if anything with the reserves being plugged into unfortunate openings.

Four positions come sharply into focus heading into New Orleans:

Wide receiver

Roy Williams caught all four of the passes thrown to him in the Atlanta game before straining a groin the fourth quarter. He did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, was limited on Friday and is officially listed as questionable.

Johnny Knox took the starters share of reps all week with the No. 1 offense.

This is the same Johnny Knox whose job was given to Williams. Then again, it is not the same Johnny Knox in the ways that matter. Knoxs mistakes have been cut back. Sometimes tough love is the best kind.

Hes made tremendous improvement each and every day, worked to get better, and thats what you look for in a young guy every time you go out there, said receivers coach Darryl Drake. Hes got to continue to do that. The thing were looking for now is consistency, being where hes supposed to be and doing things right.

Knox led the Bears in receiving yards (960), TDs (five), average yards per catch (18.8 yards) and tied for team high with 51 receptions more production than Williams has had in any season since 2006, the year after his Pro Bowl year.
Safety

Veteran Chris Harris was unable to practice all week on an injured hamstring and is listed as doubtful; he wont play.

But the Bears invested a high draft choice (third round) in Chris Conte and followed that in the days before the first game by signing Brandon Meriweather after his release by New England. Meriweather is a prototypical free safety, is expected start at that spot.

Lovie Smith and his staff routinely describe their safety positions as interchangeable. Not necessarily true, literally.

They teach you both safety spots and I think thats what hes talking about, Meriweather said. If you know one, you have to know the other. Since day one, Ive been trying to learn both.

The 2010 third-round pick, Major Wright, will work at strong safety, where his tackling ability is a plus.

The depth behind the depth Conte has had coaches excited since training camp.

Hes everything youre looking for in a safety, said Smith, a defensive back himself at Tulsa. Theres a reason why we drafted him as high as we did. He has excellent hands, has picked up the defense fairly quick, weve played him on special teams and hes made plays on it. Everything you look for in a guy before he breaks out, he has.

Right guard

Chris Spencer stepped in when Lance Louis went down last Sunday with an ankle injury and has worked with the No. 1 unit this week. His better position is perhaps center, but for loose comparisons sake, the Bears averaged 1.7 yards per carry in the first half vs. Atlanta and 4.7 in the second, which was played entirely with Spencer at guard.

If there is a falloff, it is difficult to see. Edwin Williams is the other alternative at right guard and took reps with the 1s this week. He was deemed good enough to leave there last season when Louis was healthy enough after a minor leg injury.
Running back
The most concerning problem created by injury is at No. 2 running back, where Marion Barber practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, then not at all the rest of the week. Kahlil Bell gave the Bears 10 carries last Sunday to spell Matt Forte and averaged 2.4 yards a carry (Chester Taylors average for 2010), and is an upgrade from Taylor, if a falloff from hard-running Barber and obviously from Forte.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Friday's unit: the offensive line. 

1. Will Kyle Long and Josh Sitton flip spots, and will it be effective?

One of the more intriguing storylines to come out of the Bears’ offseason program was the possibility of a Kyle Long-Josh Sitton guard swap, with Long moving from right to left and Sitton to left to right. The prevailing wisdom is that Long’s athleticism would be better suited for the pulls needed at left guard, while Sitton has made Pro Bowls at both positions. But is it prudent for the Bears to make this switch with Long still recovering from November ankle surgery and some nasty complications that came after it? He’s shown he’s skilled enough to already make one position switch on the offensive line (from right tackle to right guard), so there’s no reason to doubt he couldn’t handle another so long as he’s healthy. We’ll see where he is next week. 

“You want flexibility,” coach John Fox said. “You don’t want as much flexibility as we had to use a year ago because we had to play so many guys due to injury. But we’re messing around with (Sitton) and Kyle both playing opposite sides, whether one’s on the left, one’s on the right. We’ll get those looks in camp, we got plenty of time.”

2. Can Charles Leno Jr. capitalize on a contract year?

Leno has been a pleasant surprise given the low expectations usually set for seventh-round picks. He started every game in 2016, checking off an important box for John Fox — reliability. Whether Leno can be more than a reliable player at left tackle, though, remains to be seen (if the Bears thought he were, wouldn’t they have signed him to an extension by now?). He has one more training camp and 16 games to prove he’s worthy of a deal to be the Bears (or someone else’s) left tackle of the future. Otherwise, the Bears may look to a 2018 draft class rich in tackles led by Texas’ Connor Williams and Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. 

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself,” Leno said. 

3. Will Hroniss Grasu survive the roster crunch?

A year ago, Grasu was coming off a promising rookie season and was in line to be the Bears’ starting center. But the Oregon product tore his ACL in August, and Cody Whitehair thrived after a last-minute move from guard to center. If the Bears keep eight offensive lineman this year, Grasu could be squeezed out: Leno, Long, Whitehair, Sitton and Bobby Massie are the likely starters, with Eric Kush and Tom Compton filling reserve roles. That leaves one spot, either for fifth-round guard Jordan Morgan or Grasu. The Bears could try to stash Morgan, who played his college ball at Division-II Kutztown, on the practice squad and keep Grasu. But Grasu doesn’t have flexibility to play another position besides center, which could hurt his case. 

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season.