By Chris Emma-
BOURBONNAIS (CBS) — Bears second-year coach Marc Trestman was in the process of detailing position battles and depth chart projections with the media on Wednesday afternoon. It was the usual, run-of-the-mill training camp stuff.
“We’re in the process of building a football team that will be the 2014 Bears,” Trestman explained, less than 48 hours from the Bears’ first practice. “We have a lot of work to do.”
But then, general manager Phil Emery interjected with a piece of proof that serves as common theme for camp.
“Who among ourselves and who among our fans thought that Jordan Mills would emerge as a 16-game starter?” Emery asked.
“That came from an openness and willingness to look through the players and find out, ‘Who’s the best fit for the Chicago Bears?’”
So now begins that process, three weeks at Olivet Nazarene University, 60 miles south of Chicago. A team in continued transition must take each rep in training camp as a chance to evaluate, an opportunity to improve. For a scouting mind like Emery who puts as much thought into the 53rd man on the roster as he does the starting quarterback, each evaluation is critical.
The man Emery pointed to, Mills, was a seventh-rounder in the 2013 draft who turned into a season-long starter. It all came to fruition in Bourbonnais one year ago. Who will be the next success story?
Emery has loaded his Bears team with depth, securing a stronger overall roster after injuries depleted Chicago’s playoff hopes in 2013. There will be position battles aplenty when the Bears take the field for the first time Friday.
“All this competitiveness in terms of positions will make our team stronger and bring us closer to winning championships,” Emery said.
The Bears have openings in several key starting spots, namely on the defense, and a slew of vacancies in backup roles. Forty-three new players have been added to the roster in hopes of pushing the team further than last year, when a late-season swoon dashed any postseason dreams.
“We have high expectations,” Trestman said. “Our players expect it. Our players feel it.”
However, the team also features many of the same faces from last year’s first phase of the Trestman transition. More importantly, it’s year two of a new regime — a vastly different feel from year one — making it a more comfortable feel on campus in Bourbonnais.
“It should be fun,” Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. “We have a lot of guys back, a lot of consistency and rollover from last year. It’s going to make things easier. The adjustments should take less time getting into camp.”
With training camp kicking off an hour south of Chicago, there’s a feeling of confidence in the air. The Bears are a much better team on paper than before.
Yet, much of the team’s collective mindset is driven by last year’s failures.
The fine-tuning of a revamped roster is about to begin in Bourbonnais, where the Bears hope a remarkable run is about to start.
“We want to be the best in all three phases,” Trestman said. “We want to be the best team we can be. That starts tomorrow.”
Battle looms at backup quarterback
Jay Cutler arrived on Olivet Nazarene’s campus with a different look from last year. He pulled in with a family-fitting large conversion van rather than his Escalade.
“It’s not a minivan,” Cutler clarified.
The other difference for the Bears’ 31-year-old starting quarterback is security, as he’s set with a seven-year contract that was signed in January. Cutler will be under center in Chicago for years to come, something that was in doubt last year. But as the past proves, there’s no certainty at the quarterback position.
Should Cutler go down with another injury, who would assume the role? The arms race is about to begin.
“Right now, Jordan Palmer has the first shot at being the No. 2,” Trestman said. “It’s a competition for the No. 2 job.”
The breakout performer of 2013, former backup Josh McCown, has moved on from the Bears, joining Lovie Smith’s new-look Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Chicago must move on, too.
Palmer, added in 2013 after Cutler’s groin injury, has a fight for the backup spot. The Bears made an unexpected move by drafting David Fales out of San Jose State in the sixth round. To top that surprise, Emery signed former Notre Dame star Jimmy Clausen in June.
It’s Palmer’s job to lose, but Clausen may have what it takes to steal it.
“I really like how he came in here,” Emery said of Clausen. “He has a little chip on his shoulder to prove himself. He squared his jaw and got to work.”
During training camp, Cutler will receive the majority of snaps at quarterback, meaning the three candidates for the second-team will be under the microscope in preseason games.
The rookie Fales remains a longshot to beat out Palmer and Clausen, though he’s unlikely to be cut during camp after the Bears invested a pick in him; a scout team spot could be a potential landing spot.
The Bears’ backup battle looks to be between the two veterans looking to land security on an NFL roster.
“They’re both very hungry, have worked extremely hard this offseason,” Cutler said.
Every little bit will be needed to win this closely contested fight. The Bears know how important a reliable backup quarterback can be.
Conte starting in a hole
The hard truth is Chris Conte was already behind in the race to retain his spot as the Bears’ starting safety. A tumultuous end to 2013 led the way to new offseason acquisitions in the secondary. But now, it’s gotten harder for Conte.
Conte opted for shoulder surgery in the offseason, and his recovery is taking longer than expected. He won’t be ready for action until at least after the second preseason game. For now, he was placed on the active physically-unable-to-perform list.
“He’s not all the way back,” Emery said of Conte. “We anticipate he’ll be back during the course of the preseason.”
Essentially, Conte will have just a few weeks to prove himself against three new safeties added to the mix. The Bears added free-agent signees Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, plus traded up to draft Minnesota’s Brock Vereen in the fourth round.
Trestman clarified the two safety positions are interchangeable, meaning the Bears will choose the two best players. The competition will begin in training camp and move steadily through the preseason.
“A wide-open battle,” Emery said. “A number of players have been here, a number of players have been brought in. There are no declared winners.”
Conte will have to make a distinguished impression to become one of the Bears’ starters at safety.
— The Bears will be without one of their key cogs on offense to start training camp. Starting guard Kyle Long was hit with a viral infection this past weekend and will be sidelined through the opening weekend in Bourbonnais. It’s not a serious illness; Long is “getting better” and isn’t contagious, Emery said. Long will join the team on Thursday. “Were it up to Kyle, he’d be out there,” Emery said.
— In Trestman’s opening statements to the assembled media, he touched on the lofty expectations put on his Bears. “We recognize, as a football team, the excitement around our team,” he said.
“For us here in Bourbonnais, we have to stay focused on the process. We have to keep our feet on the ground.”
— Walking off the rookie bus, defensive tackle Will Sutton appeared to be in great physical shape. His conditioning was cited as a concern when the Bears picked him in the third round. The true test will come in the team’s conditioning drills Thursday.
— Bears guard Matt Slauson (shoulder) and tackle Jordan Mills (foot) have been cleared to play after injuries that kept them out of minicamp. Safety Craig Steltz is ready, too, after offseason groin surgery.
— The Bears take the field for the first time on Friday at 9 a.m.., beginning training camp for year two under Trestman.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.