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Durkin’s Training Camp Notebook: Rookie Class Playing Meaningful Reps

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The Bourbonnais water tower. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Bourbonnais water tower. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

photo Dan Durkin
Dan Durkin became CBSChicago.com's lead Bears reporter in August ...
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By Dan Durkin-

(CBS) — The Bears wrapped up their fourth day of training camp on Monday and have an off-day on Tuesday.

Added to the injury list from Sunday’s practice were wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (sore foot) and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff (coach’s decision), which gave the coaches an opportunity to look at some other players and personnel groupings.

Here’s my notebook from Monday’s practice:

Rookie defenders playing meaningful reps

With Ratliff held out of today’s practice, rookie Will Sutton lined up with the first team at the three-technique. That brought the total up to three rookies taking reps with the starting unit, as cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Brock Vereen have been on the field for virtually every rep with the first team throughout camp. Sutton flashed some of the first-step quickness that made him a consensus All-American at Arizona State in 2012.

The injuries suffered on defense last year exposed the lack of quality depth on the roster, so it’s encouraging to see the incoming class has earned the coaching staff’s trust to get meaningful snaps during the offseason program.

Defensive tackle Ego Ferguson has manned the nose on the second-team defensive line throughout camp. Ferguson has nimble feet for a man his size and delivers a very violent punch off the snap; however, he must continue to use his hands to disengage from blockers. Along with current starter Stephen Paea, the Bears will look to Ferguson to anchor the front against the run and ideally force a double-team block with the center and guard.

Similar to last year when the Bears offense saw a boost from their rookie class, it looks like the defense should expect the same in 2014. Mel Tucker has an interesting mix of established veterans, up-and-coming veterans and rookies to work with, but it’s clear that the team speed on defense has been upgraded this offseason.

Offensive line rotation taking shape

Teams dress only seven offensive linemen for game day, so with Kyle Long still sidelined with a viral infection, the Bears offensive staff had an opportunity to try out some different combinations of players at different positions. But the top-seven rotation is starting to crystallize.

Brian De La Puente and Eben Britton are the apparent front-runners for the sixth and seventh spots. On Sunday, Britton ran with the first team at right guard, while De La Puente got snaps with the first team Monday. Rookie Michael Ola also got a few snaps with the first team, while Britton rotated with the second-team line at both right tackle and right guard.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer looks for versatility in all of his offensive linemen but particularly with his backups.

“We always say that anybody that’s not a starter — and some of the starters — has to play both sides because you can only dress seven linemen in the game,” Kromer said.

Wide receiver depth tested

With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the Bears have arguably the most talented wide receiver duo in the NFL. However, people rarely think about what the group would look like should one of those two become unavailable. With Jeffery sidelined with a sore foot, coaches got a glimpse of that exact scenario Monday.

Veteran Eric Weems took the first snaps when the Bears went to their preferred ’11’ personnel grouping on offense. Weems was speculated to be a potential cut this past offseason, but he agreed to restructure his deal in April to keep a place on the roster.

If a scenario like Jeffery being unavailable during a game were to occur, the Bears would have to alter their game plan and approach, as certain formations are designed to get the ball in the hands of specific receivers. However, that’s not the case in camp. Weems was able to step right in and make a few plays on the perimeter, showing good hands and quickness after the catch.

This didn’t come as much of a surprise to Kromer.

“Eric Weems is a steady player,” Kromer said. “The thing about him is he smart, he studies and he understands, so when he gets out there he’s able to make the play when he needs to. We’re lucky to have him.”

Another wide receiver who has turned some heads throughout camp is Chris Williams. Known primarily as a returner, Williams is lightning quick and has great footwork at the top of his route to create separation from defensive backs. Williams made a few catches over the middle of the field and toward the sidelines that went for big gains.

The Bears offense has lacked a receiver who can beat a team over the top since they lost Johnny Knox. Kromer noted Williams’ speed and what it affords the offense.

“His speed shows up on the film and it shows up on the field,” Kromer said. “Sometimes with a guy who is that fast, you can throw the ball with a little less accuracy because you know he’s going to go and get it.”

The Bears are back to work on Wednesday. Their first preseason game is Friday, Aug. 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin

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