Training camp goals1. Better protection for quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears have fortified their offense at the skill positions, but they must still decide on their best five linemen, or at least the five who work most cohesively. Offensive line is clearly the biggest concern for a team that believes it was playoff worthy last season (7-3 before Cutler was lost for the season with a thumb injury) and is better in 2012. The return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi is expected to make the line better at right tackle, where the former Wisconsin Badger showed great promise before a knee injury ended his rookie season after two games. But left tackle remains a major concern with last year's disappointing starter, J'Marcus Webb, and 2009 first-round pick Chris Williams expected to battle for the starting job. 2. Continuity in the secondary. The revolving door at both safety positions has rarely paused during coach Lovie Smith's eight-year tenure and there is again uncertainty in the secondary this year. Eight different safety combinations were utilized last season, none of which worked well enough to make the coaches comfortable. Third-round pick Chris Conte started nine games at free safety as a rookie in 2011 before finishing the season on injured reserve with a foot/ankle injury. Major Wright, a third-round pick in 2010, has been unable to lock down a starting spot because of minor injuries and inconsistent play. As usual, the Bears used another third-round pick on a safety this year, this time on big, athletic Brandon Hardin. Veteran Craig Steltz remains in the mix after getting four late-season starts in 2011. Player to watch
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall. He is the big (6-4, 230-pound), dominant wide receiver that the Bears have never had and Cutler hasn't had since the two played together in Denver, where Marshall put up back-to-back 100-catch seasons in 2007 and '08. The Bears spent only a pair of third-round picks to acquire Marshall because of his numerous off-field episodes. The move could pay off big since he's such a difference-maker who is still in his prime. He should be the key to transforming a mundane offense into a state-of-the-art attack, given the success of his past relationships with Cutler. Still, it's assumed that Marshall's next transgression will result in a league suspension, which would disrupt an offense that figures to depend on him to do most of the heavy lifting in the passing game.
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On the hot seatJay Cutler. The Bears traded a good chunk of their future for Cutler prior to the 2009 season (two first-round picks, a third-rounder and quarterback Kyle Orton), and they are paying him as a franchise quarterback. But Cutler has yet to approach the elite level of play the Bears envisioned. His cumulative touchdown-interception ratio of 63-49 and yearly passer ratings of 76.8, 86.3 and 85.7 are good but far from great. Now Cutler has an impressive array of weapons to work with, including receivers Marshall, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and second-round pick Alshon Jeffery; and running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Much more will be expected from the leader.
Strategy and personnelWith more talent and depth at quarterback (Cutler, Jason Campbell and Josh McCown) than at any time in recent memory, coach Smith expects a more productive offense than last year's group, which was 17th in scoring.
"I feel like we're going to be able to put more points on the board, which we will have to do," Smith said. "The team that led the league [the Packers] averaged 35 points a game last year, and we were about at 22. We have to improve on that."
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