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Hoge’s Bears Offseason Notebook No. 10: Identifying Position Battles

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Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic. (Photos by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic. (Photos by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) — One of the first things Bears general manager Phil Emery said after the 2013 season was that he wanted to create more competition on his football team in 2014.

So far, mission accomplished.

It’s only mid-April — and the NFL Draft hasn’t even happened yet — but we’re already seeing a number of position battles emerging on the Bears’ roster. Here’s a look at the battles we know are coming, as well as others that could still emerge after the draft:

Sam Linebacker

The “move Shea McClellin to linebacker” crowd got their wish as the former defensive end will battle with Jon Bostic for the starting strong-side linebacker position. I firmly believe this is McClellin’s job to lose, as this is already the backup plan for the former first-round draft pick, while Bostic might end up being the successor to Lance Briggs on the weak side.

A potential twist here, however, is if McClellin takes well to the middle, where the Bears said he and Bostic would both receive some reps during the offseason. D.J. Williams is back and will likely be the starting middle linebacker if healthy, but the long-term replacement at the position is unclear. McClellin still seems like a better fit on the outside though, mainly because the Bears will probably still ask him to rush the passer in certain packages.

Chances are, McClellin and Bostic will battle for the Sam linebacker position in training camp, and it will be interesting to see how McClellin adapts to the position switch. He likely is dropping some weight this offseason and will be asking his body to master different techniques. Reading run vs. pass from the second level will be key.

Safeties

While the McClellin-Bostic battle might be the most intriguing competition during the offseason, both safety spots aren’t far behind. Right now we know both positions will be open to competition, but it’s still unclear exactly who’s in the mix. Free agents Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings are certainly front-runners, but the situation was complicated by Chris Conte’s shoulder surgery last month, which will keep him out until at least the start of training camp. If the recovery takes even longer, Conte’s chances of keeping his starting job will be even slimmer than they are already.

The wild card here is the NFL Draft, where the Bears are likely to add at least one safety (if not two), and that addition might even come in the first round. In my opinion, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor would instantly become the best safety on the roster if either one is taken with the 14th overall pick.

No. 3 Wide Receiver

Similar to McClellin at Sam linebacker, I believe the No. 3 wide receiver spot is Marquess Wilson’s to lose. He has been embraced by Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and appears to have a good shot to make a jump like Jeffery did a year ago from Year 1 to Year 2. That said, even if it goes as planned, Wilson’s numbers won’t compare to Jeffery’s because he’s playing a different role within the offense, but he has a chance to be an important addition. Wilson has a good height-speed ratio and is now concentrating on bulking up without losing that speed.

Wilson is 6-foot-4 with better speed than Earl Bennett, so his ceiling is much higher as a No. 3 in Marc Trestman’s offense. However, there’s no guarantee the measurables will translate to production on the field, which is why veteran Domenik Hixon was brought in via free agency. He’ll be pushing Wilson for the No. 3 job and could be joined by another rookie wide receiver through the draft.

Defensive End

When Lamarr Houston and Willie Young were signed, it looked like you could pencil Houston in as the starting right end and Young as the starting left end.

But Jared Allen changed that.

Allen will be the starting right end, which means Houston and Young will be moving around and joined in the rotation by guys like Israel Idonije and David Bass. That’s not a bad thing, however, as both Houston and Young have versatility, which will keep opposing offenses guessing.

In fact, this isn’t so much a competition for playing time as it is figuring out how to properly use talented assets. The defensive line rotations will be interesting to watch throughout the offseason.

No. 2 Tight End

The Bears were fortunate that Martellus Bennett was as healthy as he was last season, and it would be a gamble to go into 2014 without another pass-catching tight end who can stretch the field and take attention away from the Bears’ talented wide receivers. So far, there haven’t been any additions that fit that mold, but that may be because the Bears think Fendi Onobun can take a step forward this season after spending a year “redshirting” within Trestman’s offense. Onobun showed last year that he has all the tools to become a viable pass-catching tight end; he just needs to become more comfortable and natural at the position so he doesn’t drop as many passes.

Dante Rosario and Matthew Mulligan provide depth at the position, but they aren’t the type of players defenses will be worried about if Bennett misses time. An addition through the draft wouldn’t be surprising.

Nickelback

Kelvin Hayden is back from a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the 2013 season, and he wants his job back. Isaiah Frey filled in nicely last year, but he was far from perfect. Those two figure to compete for the No. 3 cornerback job and could be joined by second-year players C.J. Wilson and Demontre Hurst.

A potential curveball could be thrown if the Bears draft a cornerback in the first or second rounds. That player would likely be groomed as Charles Tillman’s replacement and see the field in nickel situations as a rookie.

Punter

Every indication is that the Bears will move forward with Drew Butler and Tress Way competing for the punting job. Way was in the mix last offseason but was beat relatively easily in the competition by Adam Podlesh, who ended up struggling in 2013 before being released. Butler — the son of former Bears kicker Kevin Butler — spent the last two preseasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he has yet to punt a football in a regular-season game.

Kick/Punt Returner

With Devin Hester gone, there’s going to be a wide-open competition to find his replacement. Hixon may contribute here, but former CFL wide receiver Chris Williams is the intriguing newcomer in the mix (more on him below). Michael Ford figures to factor in the kick return game, while Eric Weems could get some punt returns.

Other possible position battles:

Backup Quarterback

The fact that the Bears brought Josh Freeman in for a workout is an indication that they aren’t completely comfortable going with Jordan Palmer as the backup. At the very least, they want some competition at the position and may even address that in the NFL Draft.

Backup Running Back

Do the Bears think Michael Ford can step up and be a viable No. 2? Maybe, but there still needs to be some depth added here. This is another offensive position that could be addressed in the draft.

Defensive Tackle

You can live with Jeremiah Ratliff and a healthy Stephen Paea as your starting defensive tackles, and Nate Collins is an underrated backup. That said, this is a position that needs to be addressed for the future, and a first- or second-round draft pick would likely move this from a “possible” position battle to a certain position battle.

Offensive Line

The Bears added a starting-caliber center to their roster with Brian de la Puente, and it at least raised some questions about potential movement on the offensive line. I consider him a quality backup center/guard right now, but it will be interesting to watch the offensive line rotations during the offseason.

Tweetbag

I haven’t been shy in my support of Jimmy Garoppolo, who has one of the best releases I’ve seen for a quarterback coming out of college. He moves well on his feet and has shown the ability to be a quick learner through the draft process. I think he’ll need at least a year to adjust from the FCS level to the NFL level, but he’s the perfect developmental project for any team. Problem is, I doubt he’s still available for the Bears at No. 51 in the second round.

My colleague Dan Durkin made an astute point in our NFL Draft Podcast last week when he noticed that almost all of the backup quarterbacks the Bears have brought in under Phil Emery are of the big-bodied variety. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger (6-foot-5, 224 pounds), who is coming off a torn ACL, fits that mold. He has a pro-ready arm, but his release is a little slower and he doesn’t move as well as guys like Jay Cutler and Josh McCown. He has a high ceiling but a lower floor.

Two other SEC quarterbacks I like are Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Georgia’s Aaron Murray. McCarron sometimes unfairly gets labeled as a “game manager,” mainly because of his predecessors. McCarron has a better-than-advertised arm (albeit not as strong as many other prospects) and puts the ball in places where his receivers can make plays. He’s a smart, confident leader on the field who has been a winner his entire football life. With weapons and the right system, he’ll be fine at the next level. The Bears would be a good fit.

Murray is smaller at 6-foot-1, but he has a quick release and strong arm. He’s also coming off a torn ACL, and his pro day on Wednesday will be important.

Two other quarterbacks to keep an eye on are Pittsburgh’s Tom Savage (more on him below) and Ball State’s Keith Wenning, who really caught my eye when I was watching film of Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward. He can really sling it and could be a sleeper in the later rounds.

Palmer was on the team for a lot more than just a portion of the preseason. He was re-signed after Cutler got hurt in Week 7 and spent the last nine weeks of the season in that quarterback room on a daily basis. So yes, Cutler knows Palmer well and the Bears really like how he picked up the offense last season and contributed at Halas Hall.

Adding a Darren Sproles/Tavon Austin type player to Trestman’s offense is definitely intriguing. Dri Archer was clocked with a 4.26-second 40-yard dash time, which is rare speed that no one can teach. Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas is another player who fits this mold and could very well end up being one of the NFL’s best return men. The thing is, do the Bears already have this kind of player on their roster? I mentioned Chris Williams before and there’s more on him below in this week’s “Extra Point”.

Well, the most disappointing defeat is easy, as it’s hard to top the Week 17 loss to the Packers last season. Losing a division title on a busted coverage against your rival is about as disappointing as it gets.

However, I’ll give you two other “honorable mentions,” which came on back-to-back Sundays in 2011. The 10-3 loss to the Chiefs that year was one of the worst NFL games I’ve ever witnessed. That was the game where Tyler Palko got benched in favor of Kyle Orton, who then broke his finger on his first snap, putting Palko back in the game to score the only touchdown of the day — a Hail Mary right before halftime that Brian Urlacher should have been able to knock down. Ugly.

The following week was the infamous Marion Barber game in Denver, where he failed to stay in-bounds, giving Tim Tebow the opportunity to drive down the field, force overtime and then win it in the extra period. Sorry for bringing it up again.

And last year’s OT loss in Minnesota — with the second-down field goal — has to be in the conversation as well.

As for the most memorable victory, this is harder because the Bears haven’t been to the playoffs since I started covering the team in 2011. The 2012 comeback against the Panthers (with Tim Jennings’ pick-six) comes to mind, but that was a generally ugly win, to be honest. The overtime win against the Ravens last year also has to be considered. That was just a crazy day with the weather delay and the field turning into a mud pit, but Josh McCown’s 43-yard completion to Martellus Bennett in overtime is one of the more memorable plays the Bears have had in the last three seasons.

But to give you a specific answer, I’ll go with the Bears’ last victory — in Cleveland last December. The Bears had probably already made up their mind on Jay Cutler before that game, but things certainly got dicey when he started off with two interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown. You might also remember the pregame reports that indicated certain defensive players wanted McCown to keep the starting job going into that game. But under incredible adversity, Cutler rebounded nicely and threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to win the game.

Even though the Bears ended up missing the playoffs, I think the significance of that game was big. It validated Emery’s and Trestman’s support for Cutler and silenced the critics who thought the Bears should re-sign McCown instead of Cutler. There was never a controversy inside Halas Hall regarding the quarterback position, but there may have been one had Cutler’s first quarter in Cleveland carried on the rest of that game.

College Prospect Of The Week

QB Tom Savage – Pittsburgh

Savage has been a hot name the last week or so and MMQB’s Peter King reported that the quarterback ran out of room on his calendar to visit all the teams that wanted to bring him in. Savage’s college career was quite interesting, as he starred as a freshman at Rutgers in 2009, but after two transfers, he fell off the map until resurfacing at Pitt this past season. He has a very strong arm and great size but is inconsistent and doesn’t handle pressure well, partly due to a lack of reps and party due to the lack of a good offensive line at Pitt.

One thing I do like about Savage, however, is that he was coached by Paul Chryst the last two seasons. Chryst is one of the best quarterback mentors at the college level. At Wisconsin, he help Scott Tolzien go from a third-string nobody to an NFL quarterback, and he also played a big role in harnessing Russell Wilson’s talent and getting him pro-ready.

Savage is an interesting developmental project, but he might not be as ready as some of the other prospects when it comes to stepping in right away should Cutler get hurt.

Extra Point

A name I mentioned twice in this notebook is Chris Williams, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound receiver who the Bears snagged off the Saints’ practice squad the last week of the regular season. The Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs wrote a great piece on Williams over the weekend, detailing how the Bears tried multiple times to get Williams and eventually gave him a $100,000 signing bonus, which is rare for players who get signed off of practice squads.

That certainly indicates the Bears view Williams as more than a training camp filler, although that was already evident given the timing of the signing. The Bears were preparing for a de facto NFC North championship game against the Packers, and Phil Emery was busy working on his 2014 roster.

Williams was part of the crew that trained in Florida during the offseason, an indication that his teammates view him as a potential contributor next season, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be. Williams was productive as a receiver in the CFL in 2011, but at 5-foot-8, the Bears will have to be creative finding ways to get him the ball in space at the NFL level. At the very least, Williams looks like a serious candidate to take over the return duties at a bargain price. With him earning close to the league minimum, he’s a low-risk, high-reward signing.

That’s why drafting a guy like Dri Archer or De’Anthony Thomas might not be necessary.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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