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Cutler ups the excitement, but Bears still have issues
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff

Which Bears player will become the favorite target of quarterback Jay Cutler? The team may have answer by the end of training camp, which begins Friday.

 

Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Bears tight end Greg Olsen, left, and wide receiver Devin Hester will help Jay Cutler stretch the field, but either one could become the go-to receiver for the news Bears quarterback.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

For Devin Hester to play like a No. 1 receiver, he'll need help from several untested Bears receivers, and another big year from the Bears tight ends and running back Matt Forte.

 

John Starks | Staff Photographer

After two lackluster seasons, cornerback Nathan Vasher will face some stiff competition in training camp.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who has played through injuries the past two seasons, appears to be in great shape as training camp opens Friday in Bourbonnais.

 

Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/25/2009 3:43 PM

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This year's training camp, the eighth at Olivet Nazarene University, could be the most interesting ever, and not just because Jay Cutler may be the best quarterback the Bears have had since they trained at St. Joseph's College in Rensselear, Ind., from 1944-74.

There are many questions that must be answered before the Sept. 13 season opener in Green Bay, and some of the most important will be addressed before the Bears leave Bourbonnais on Aug. 21. Starting with the first practice Friday afternoon at 3 p.m., here are some situations that bear watching:

Who will Cutler throw to?

The question of whether the Bears have enough quality receivers to catch Cutler's passes has been debated throughout the off-season. The company line is that there is plenty of talent on board to maximize Cutler's ability to attack a defense.

Team critics, however, insist the Bears need to add a standout veteran wide receiver. As it stands, the Bears are placing a heavy burden on Devin Hester to become their go-to wide receiver in just his second full season as a starter at the position.

Beyond Hester and journeyman role player Rashied Davis, none of the remaining wide receivers on the roster caught a single pass in the NFL last season. Earl Bennett failed to catch a pass last season as a rookie, but the third-round pick is expected to start opposite Hester.

Davis, who caught 35 passes for 445 yards last season, should be somewhere in the mix. But the Bears need one of two rookies - third-rounder Juaquin Iglesias or fifth-rounder Johnny Knox - to make more of an impact than Bennett did a year ago.

What about Greg Olsen?

Good question. No one who watched the Bears' off-season work at Halas Hall would be surprised if the third-year tight end had a breakout season.

The 2007 first-round pick has been underutilized, even though he caught 54 passes for 574 yards and a team-best 5 touchdowns last season. He could immediately become Cutler's security blanket when the primary target is covered.

Olsen's ability to stretch the field with his speed, and his value in the red zone should be enhanced by Cutler's gifted right arm.

Nowhere is it written that the quarterback's go-to guy has to be a wide receiver. Tight ends Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Chris Cooley and Dallas Clark all had more than 75 catches last season, and Olsen could join that group in 2009.

And don't forget about the Bears' "other" tight end, Desmond Clark, who started all 16 games last year and caught 41 passes for 367 yards. Despite the blocking demands of his position and 11 years in the league, Clark has caught more than 40 passes in each of the past three seasons.

Are Brian Urlacher's Pro Bowl days a distant memory?

His 93 tackles last season were by far his lowest for a full season, and he failed to get a sack for the second time in three years. But the Bears believe Urlacher still has the knack for the game-changing plays that had defined his earlier years.

Urlacher has been dogged by neck and back injuries the past two seasons, but he still started all 32 games, although he has frequently missed practice time to heal nicks and nagging injuries. The 2009 version of Urlacher could be the healthiest model in some time, and general manager Jerry Angelo believes he could be back to his old Pro Bowl self this year.

"Brian spent the whole off-season here, and that's a big thing to have him train with us," Angelo said on the team's Web site. "When he played his best football for us, he was here in the off-season. I feel he can get back to a Pro Bowl level."

Do not underestimate Urlacher's passion to make his critics look foolish with a bounce-back year.

Speaking of guys who have slumped, how about Harris?

There is no question the Bears are a much better defense when Tommie Harris is healthy and disrupting opposing backfield. But that version of Harris appeared only for brief stretches last season.

The addition of Rod Marinelli, a well-respected defensive line coach, may be just what Harris and the Bears' underachieving yet talented front four needs to reach its potential, which remains formidable. If Marinelli can get the various parts to work together as a unit, the Bears will finish a lot higher in sack percentage than they did last year, when they were a disappointing 29th.

Harris was voted to three straight Pro Bowls (2005-07), and even though he has battled nagging leg injuries the past two seasons, especially in 2008, he remains a dominant player when he's close to 100 percent.

"There's no doubt about (his importance to the defense), and I've known that since before I got here," Marinelli said. "His reputation has always been good. I've always watched him on tape. You need an 'under' tackle in this system. He becomes a creator. If he gets a one-on-one, he's going to win. But now you're making things come to him, so it starts creating for the other players. He's one of the key spokes in the whole defense."

What about guys who have disappeared, like Nate Vasher?

Nate who? Oh yeah, "The Interceptor."

Vasher got that handle by picking off 13 passes in his first two seasons. But he has had just 5 interceptions in the past three seasons, and just 1 pick in each of the past two years when he made just nine starts because of injuries.

Vasher was rewarded with a Pro Bowl trip following the 2005 season, when he picked off 8 passes, and he signed a five-year, $28 million contract extension before the 2007 season. Ever since getting the big money, the former fourth-round pick has been a major disappointment.

New defensive backs coach Jon Hoke has been impressed with Vasher's instincts, athleticism and technique. But, if Vasher doesn't continue to impress, he'll have a difficult time holding off challenges from rookie D.J. Moore and second-year player Zackary Bowman.

Got a question for Bears writer Bob LeGere? Log on to his Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com or write to him by e-mail at rlegere@dailyherald.com. He'll try to answer questions of general interest throughout Bears training camp.