Training camp kicks off in Bourbonnais on July 25th and shortly thereafter on August 8th the Bears host the Eagles at Soldier Field in the preseason opener.
Marc Trestman enters his second full off-season as the man in charge, while general manager Phil Emery has once again added solid pieces at positions of need.
The Bears have plenty of talent there’s no doubt in my mind, but who will step up this season? The veteran core is solid and with Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs back and healthy and Jared Allen in the fold on defense things should be better for Mel Tucker and Co.
Jay Cutler has the same crew around him minus his former Vanderbilt buddy Earl Bennett, but he still has tons of weapons around him. Also, Cutler himself has already impressed his position coaches this off-season.
The 2013 Bears had a solid offense which surprised fans and analysts around the league, but due to injuries and lack of depth their defense was a flat out joke.
Here are five under-the-radar players that I believe will make their presence felt this season at some point at Halas Hall.
Quick glance: Bass came over to the Bears last off-season from the Raiders after final cuts. A 2013 seventh-round selection out of Missouri Western State, Bass showed that he could provide a nice spark off the bench for the Bears’ defense. In 12 games last season, he recorded 23 tackles, one sack and one interception, which he returned 24 yards for a touchdown in a Week 11 overtime win over Baltimore. In that game he also recorded four tackles. The following week, in a blowout loss to St. Louis he recorded his first career sack.
Bottom line: Bass is still very raw, but he has an endless motor, something that intrigued Bears brass when they scooped him off waivers from Oakland. He will compete for snaps in the rotation behind veterans Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Off-season additions Trevor Scott, Austen Lane and second-year man Cornelius Washington will battle Bass for a spot or two in that rotation, but Bass should be able to hold his own and serve as a great change-of-pace end off the bench.
Quick glance: The crafty veteran corner is best known for his 56-yard interception return for a touchdown off Rex Grossman in Super Bowl XLI for the Colts. But the soon-to-be 31-year-old is more than just a Super Bowl hero or villain in the eyes of Bears fans. He enjoyed a solid 2012 season in his first year in Chicago, recording 37 tackles, four forced fumbles, an interception and five pass deflections in 16 games. It was only the second time in eight NFL seasons, where he played a full season. But his health took a hit in 2013 when he suffered a torn hamstring in training camp and was placed on injured reserve.
Bottom line: Hayden has to prove his health, but he is a perfect fit for the Bears’ scheme when 100 percent. Behind starters Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and first-round pick Kyle Fuller, Hayden won’t have much pressure to make plays, but he could see plenty of opportunities. Hayden could be what D.J. Moore was for the Bears three seasons ago when he recorded four interceptions. Hayden, a former receiver turned corner at the University of Illinois will have to hold off third-year man Isiaiah Frey and Sherrick McManis. He could be Peanut 2.0 once again with his knack of stripping fumbles at the forefront.
Quick glance: The 22-year-old third-round pick will make his NFL debut this season and could be one of the biggest secrets around the entire league. Sutton was named the Pac-12 player of the year in 2012 and 2013. In 2013, as a senior he recorded 48 tackles and only four sacks, but as a junior he racked up 64 tackles, 23.5 tackles-for-loss and 13 sacks. He played at 320 pounds as a senior and it clearly slowed him down after playing at 285 pounds as a junior. Sutton is back down to 290 this off-season and has plenty of experience (40 starts) in his time at Arizona State.
Bottom line: Jermiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea will likely be the starters on day one with Nate Collins serving as the top reserve off the bench. Sutton is competing with second-round pick Ego Ferguson for playing time in the defensive tackle rotation. The position was a spot that lacked any true depth last season and when Henry Melton and Collins were both lost for the season things went south fast. The athletic Sutton could suprass the often injured Paea at some point this season in snaps.
Quick glance: Bennett isn’t really and under-the-radar player anymore, but prior to his breakout 2012 season with the Giants (55-626-5) he was looking like a waste of a second-round selection (Cowboys-08′). However last season, he provided Cutler with his best tight end option since Greg Olsen, adding 65 receptions for 759 yards and five touchdowns. He exceeded 60 or more receiving yards in six games and snagged a season-high two touchdowns in a Week Two win over Minnesota. The 27-year-old dug out a role early and often in games often reeling in big third-down grabs.
Bottom line: As good as MartysaurusRex was in 2013, he should be even better in 2014. Receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are locks to be stars, but the middle of the field is an important place. Just ask stud tight ends Jimmy Graham or Jordan Cameron. Marquess Wilson should provide a nice option as the No. 3 receiver, but once again Bennett is hugely important to what the Bears do. With Jay Cutler under center for 11 games in 2013, Bennett caught 52 balls for 591 yards and four touchdowns. Cutler and Bennett’s chemistry was nearly as good as Cutler’s and Marshall’s. If Cutler can stay healthy through all 16 games, we could see a tremendous 2014 campaign for Marty.
Quick glance: Since going undrafted in 2011, Toliver has bounced around four different teams. This will be his second stint with the Bears and this time he could carve out a role if he can prove his worth on special teams. At 6-foot-5, he is the tallest receiver among a core that already features Marshall, 6-4, Wilson, 6-4 and Jeffery, 6-3. The 26-year-old LSU product hasn’t done enough yet in his short time in the NFL to make a 53-man roster, but behind the top three Bears receivers things are pretty wide open.
Bottom line: He could be a sneaky red-zone specialist for the Bears in 2014. His biggest competition is veterans Josh Morgan and Eric Weems right now. The Bears tend to keep six receivers on the roster with five active on game days and with Devin Hester out of town the kick returner spot is wide open. Toliver isn’t a candidate for a return spot, but he could be a nice deep threat, who could simply be used to win mismatches in three or four receiver sets. Keep an eye out on Tolive,r he won’t put up big numbers since he is so low on the depth chart, but if he can make the team he could be a game changer.
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