NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps. Chad Reuter details his visit with the Chicago Bears. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
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For the 11th straight summer, the Chicago Bears are holding their training camp at Olivet Nazarene University, a small private school located about an hour south of Soldier Field in Bourbonnais, Ill. Thousands of fans filled the bleachers (and any piece of ground surrounding them) on the east and north sides of the practice fields on a sun-drenched Monday afternoon.
1. Brandon Marshall should have a huge season. The decision to ship two third-round draft picks to the Miami Dolphins for the periodically troublesome receiver in March was a no-brainer for new Bears general manager Phil Emery; the move looks even shrewder in August. Throughout practice, Marshall simply overwhelmed any cornerback trying to challenge him at the line of scrimmage, using his powerful extension to push Tim Jennings and D.J. Moore off balance (or to the ground). He also caught a touchdown over the top of rookie Isaiah Frey (who has held his own for most of camp) by using a late arm extension to create space before the ball arrived. Even top linebacker Lance Briggs got a shot at containing Marshall when he noticed the receiver was uncovered on one play, but Marshall simply out-quicked Briggs at the line before crossing into the open area over the middle for a big gain. In 2007 and 2008, when Marshall and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler were with the Denver Broncos, Marshall caught a total of 206 passes for 2,590 yards. Marshall looks primed to match that kind of production in 2012.
2. Jay Cutler looks like himself. The way Cutler threw the ball around the field -- whether he was directing an efficient two-minute offense or drilling passes between defenders in the red zone -- showed that there are no lingering effects from the broken thumb that ended his 2011 season prematurely. Not only did he fire passes from the pocket, but he also ran several bootlegs, utilizing his athleticism and accuracy while throwing on the run.
3. Matt Forte also looks ready to go. It's difficult to get a true feel for running backs in camp, where contact with defenders is limited, but there's no mistaking Forte's quickness and kinetic energy. He showed off his receiving skills in the red zone, making Bears fans think their favorite back's sprained right medial collateral ligament has fully healed. He did fumble once during practice, but for the most part, he looks as though he plans to make good on that huge new contract.
4. Brian Urlacher did not practice -- again. The 34-year-old Pro Bowl linebacker's bothersome left knee didn't require surgery, but he hadn't taken part in any offseason work through Monday's practice, which, head coach Lovie Smith said, he missed for personal reasons. The Bears expected Urlacher to be ready for camp, but he has had five straight scratches. Urlacher played all 16 games in 2011, but the fact that he's heading into his 13th season with injury issues isn't a great sign.
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Alshon Jeffery: Teams rarely bank on rookie receivers being able to make a big impact right away, simply because of the steep learning curve they face. Jeffery has the physical attributes to become a pretty good NFL receiver, but he is obviously still learning the playbook; on one red-zone rep, Cutler had to audibly direct Jeffery outside. The second-round pick's lack of speed is also an issue, and he needs to use his hands more effectively when separating from pro cornerbacks at the top of his routes or downfield. In that way, Jeffery needs to be more like Marshall if he wants to earn Cutler's trust.
Shea McClellin: Fans expect a lot out of first-round draft picks, but as Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Jason Babin might attest, it can take some time for highly touted rookies to find their feet. Babin has recorded 30.5 sacks and made two Pro Bowl appearances over the past two seasons, but the 2004 first-round pick failed to notch more than five quarterback tackles in any of his first six campaigns. McClellin might come into his own sooner than Babin, because he does have a nice spin move, hustles and flashes some power -- but he looked less than dominant against the Bears' starting tackles. In any case, the former Boise State star will be a solid overall player in 2011, even if he doesn't start filling his stat sheet with sacks right away.
Geno Hayes: Smith unsurprisingly grabbed Hayes up this offseason when he became available. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker is the perfect pursuit-hound for the Bears' scheme; he can take away throws to backs in the flat and play tough on the edge versus the run. Hayes was taking some reps with the starters on Monday due to Urlacher's absence, allowing coaches to play Briggs in the middle -- where he was quite effective. The depth that Hayes provides might prove very valuable if Urlacher's knee costs him time during the season.
"NFC North cornerbacks are going to have a hard time checking Brandon Marshall -- he just wants to compete. It's going to be a fight every play."
-- Matt Bowen, former NFL defensive back and current NFL analyst for the Chicago Tribune, Comcast SportsNet Chicago and National Football Post.
- Julius Peppers doesn't have to take a lot of practice reps to assert his dominance. No other defensive end on the Bears' roster comes close to possessing his combination of power and quickness. Entering his 11th season, Peppers looks ready to collect 10 or more sacks for the eighth time in his career.
- After Cutler's injury in 2011, a five-game losing streak cost the Bears a playoff berth. This offseason, Emery grabbed veteran quarterback Jason Campbell as an insurance policy. Campbell has always had the physical gifts to play the position. He didn't look exceptional when running a two-minute drill in Monday's session, nor did he put a lot of pace on every throw. But he is certainly an improvement over former top backup Caleb Hanie.
- Second-year wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher has impressed coaches and fans by running the same crisp routes and showing the same good hands he flashed during his days at Ohio State and as a participant in the 2011 Senior Bowl. But he's still learning lessons. In one instance, Sanzenbacher made the wrong choice on an option route over the middle, leading to an interception by Briggs. Afterward, Cutler had what he termed a "discussion" with the young player about what he had expected on the play.
- Devin Hester was used over the middle, down the sideline and on reverses during practice, and also showed off his punt-return chops in front of appreciative fans. The Bears know, however, that Hester will need to prove he can consistently stay on the same page with Cutler on intermediate and deep routes before he can reach his potential as a big-play threat.
- Charles Tillman is one Bears cornerback who can match up with Marshall at the line of scrimmage. He forced one of the few incompletions between Cutler and Marshall during Monday's practice by sticking on the receiver and winning a 50-50 ball situation on a red-zone play. Tillman might be among the toughest matchups Marshall sees all year -- facing that kind of coverage in practice will only make the veteran receiver better.
- Left tackle J'Marcus Webb's strength, length and athleticism are among the best in the league -- he can be as good as he wants to be. On the other hand, right tackle Gabe Carimi, who looks fully healed from an injury suffered last fall, showed inconsistent lateral agility in one-on-one drills and team work. Both young tackles should be helped by the presence of new offensive coordinator Mike Tice, who is going to regularly run the ball and move the pocket.
- Like Carimi, Stephen Paea is a second-year player trying to make an impression in 2012 after an injury-marred rookie campaign. He looks like a perfect fit as a one-gap nose tackle, where he can use his ability to get leverage on his blocker to cause problems in the run game and get into the vision of opposing quarterbacks when attacking the pocket. Paea probably won't put up big numbers this year, but he'll be a constant irritant for opposing offensive lines.
The Bears have one of the best quarterback-running-back-receiver trios in the league with Cutler, Forte and Marshall. The defense is strong enough to limit opponents to 20 points per game, assuming that combo can stay healthy and help the offense control the ball more effectively than it did last season. Expect the Bears to be in the mix for a playoff spot in 2012, even while playing in the tough NFC North.