Just 60 miles south of Chicago, the Bears will head to training camp on Wednesday and take the field this Friday morning for the opening practice at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais.
Camp will be held until Thursday, August 14th as the Bears prepare for preseason game two against the Jaguars, while hosting the Eagles a week prior in game one.
Quarterback Jay Cutler and Co. are entering their second season under head coach Marc Trestman's scheme, while the defense has been rejuvenated with some veteran pass rushers and healthy bodies.
Many competitions will be held at various positions, while the starters in place will focus on looking to improve with each day of practice. Also, some surprise faces will battle for one of the last spots on the team, while proving their worth on special teams.
Here are five storylines to watch as the Bears look to take the next step this season:
1. Who will be the starting safeties?
As of right now fourth-round pick Brock Vereen and free-agent signee Ryan Mundy are the Bears starting safety tandem. With Chris Conte recovering from right shoulder surgery and likely a candidate for the PUP (physically-unable-to-perform list), Vereen finds himself in the mix. Despite a very inconsistent 2013 campaign, Conte is very confident in his abilities.
"Really, I think I bring a lot of to the table," Conte said on Monday to the Chicago Tribune. "The Bears can do what they want to do with me, but I’m confident that I’ll have a spot on this team.”
Besides the three top guys listed above, the Bears added former Packer M.D. Jennings and 34-year-old Adrian Wilson, who missed last season with what he claims was Haglunds Deformity. Special teamers Danny McCray and Craig Steltz and undrafted rookie Marcus Trice round out the safety group.
The Bears haven't been afraid to throw rookies right into a starting role and if Vereen can turn out a solid showing at camp, he could easily find himself next to Mundy in the season opener. It will be interesting to see if Wilson has anything left in the tank, if he does he could be a solid third safety something the Bears have lacked in the past.
2. Will Shea McClellin earn a starting linebacker spot?
The third-year Boise State first-rounder shed 11 pounds this off-season, while improving his 40-time from 4.74 to 4.50 in the process. He is currently competing for the strongside linebacker spot and earning some snaps at middle linebacker behind veteran D.J. Williams and second-year man Jon Bostic. At 6-foot-3, McClellin moves to a linebacking group, where he is the biggest player rather than the smallest, where he played at defensive end the past two seasons.
General manager Phil Emery is changing the culture a little bit with the move of McClellin to linebacker as well as possibly trying to get the most out of his talent. McClellin should succeed in a new position because of his pure athleticism, but will he earn a starting spot? If he doesn't he should still plenty of snaps at strongside linebacker where he can make the easiest transition in Mel Tucker's new scheme.
3. How will the Bears use Kyle Fuller alongside Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman?
Veterans Tillman and Jennings are locked in as the starters and rightfully so, but the Bears added a fresh new face in Kyle Fuller in the first-round of this year's draft. They know Tillman's career is nearing the end, while Jennings isn't getting any younger, so bringing Fuller in was certainly long overdue. He moves right into the nickelback role that was manned by Isaiah Frey and Zack Bowman last season. Frey and Kelvin Hayden will compete for snaps with Fuller, but the very talented rookie should win the job easily.
The Bears have more depth than they have in a long time at cornerback this season with the addition of Fuller. He should excel alongside the starting veterans. He most likely will be used as the second corner across from Tillman, while Jennings moves over to the nickelback spot in passing downs.
4. Will the right side of the offensive line be even better this season?
Kyle Long and Jordan Mills enter year two in the NFL together. They both excelled at a high level during their rookie campaigns making life easier for everyone on offense. Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson and either Roberto Garza or Brian de la Puente will hold their own on the left side and center, but will Long and Mills improve even more this season?
Mills sat out mandatory minicamp last month, while he recovers from a fractured fifth metatarsal that he suffered in the Week 17 finale against Green Bay. He is expected to be ready for the Week One home opener against Buffalo. In his absence, swing tackle Eben Britton will man the right tackle spot. Long will most certainly improve off his Pro Bowl campaign, but it will be interesting to see how effective Mills will be early on in the season. Either way having the same starting five in front of Cutler for two straight seasons is a huge plus for the Bears.
5. Which new Bear will be the biggest factor?
Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton, Fuller, Ka'Deem Carey...who will prove to be the best new Bear this season? The easy answer would be Allen or Houston, but you never know what Young or the two rookies defensive tackles Sutton or Ferguson could turn into after camp lets out. Fuller has the biggest chance out of all the rookies not named Vereen to prove his worth in year one. But if Forte is lost for any period of time look for Carey to shine just like he did in college.
But, Houston should turn out to the biggest factor among the new faces because of his versatility and the departure of longtime defensive tackle Henry Melton. Houston has all the tools to be successful in this revamped defensive line.
Which storyline will you be watching intently? What excites you most about this 2014 Bears team?
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