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As Bears minicamp opens, key questions still abound
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff

Julius Peppers


Associated Press

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Published: 5/20/2010 5:47 PM

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Despite the free-agency windfall that brought Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, or perhaps because of it, the Bears have a lot of questions to answer when their full-team minicamp begins Friday.

For openers, who will start at the opposite end of the D-line with Peppers? Mark Anderson is the better pass rusher, but Israel Idonije is stouter vs. the run. A situational platoon makes the most sense, but someone has to be the starter.

Ditto at tight end, where Manumaleuna is the type of blocker offensive coordinator Mike Martz values in his pass-happy offense, while incumbent Greg Olsen has the pass-catching skills that could provide an additional option Martz hasn't had in the past.

Taylor has been a productive backup to elite running backs Jamal Lewis with the Baltimore Ravens and, most recently, Adrian Peterson with the Minnesota Vikings. At age 30, Taylor has enough left in the tank to make competition with incumbent Matt Forte a hot topic of conversation, even though coach Lovie Smith is on record as saying Forte is the starter.

None of these questions will be answered during the weekend's five practices today through, the first time the Bears have done double sessions in a mini-camp since Smith's second season in 2005. But it will be interesting to note who gets the most snaps with the first team.

There are several other position battles that will last through training camp and into the preseason.

Who will be the starter at strong-side linebacker? Free-agent Pisa Tinoisamoa won the job in training camp a year ago, but he missed almost the entire season with knee injuries and Nick Roach played impressively as his replacement. Tinoisamoa re-signed with the Bears in the off-season, but he'll have to win the job from Roach.

There's also the question of Brian Urlacher's health. The six-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker played just one half of one football game last season before suffering a dislocated wrist. The Bears hope he still has the ability to play at a near-Pro Bowl level, but he'll turn 32 next week.

The safety position is, as per usual with the Bears, in a state of flux. There have been a combined 40 position changes at strong safety and free safety since Smith's rookie season of 2004. There will be more change in the coming season.

Kevin Payne started the 2009 finale at strong safety and has since been traded to the Rams. Former Bear Chris Harris, acquired from the Panthers in the off-season, is expected to start at strong safety this season.

Free safety is up for grabs. Craig Steltz started in Week 17 last season, but Josh Bullocks started the week before that and Al Afalava started there three times and at strong safety 10 times as a rookie in 2009. And Danieal Manning has started 40 games in four years with the Bears, 37 of them at free safety.

That is one area that general manager Jerry Angelo will be watching closely.

"The secondary and the wide receivers are the positions that have the most interest for me, partly because you can see more from them during the off-season workouts," Angelo said recently on the team's web site.

"Until you get the pads on, you really can't evaluate the linemen like you want," Angelo added. "I'm excited about our receivers in our new offense, and I'm optimistic about what our secondary can be as well. I think we've got a good quality group of players. How it will play out, who's playing where, has yet to be determined."

Martz originally speculated that Devin Hester, last year's leader in receiving yardage, might play a reduced role as a slot receiver. But Hester, and especially Earl Bennett, made strides at the position last year. They might have to show even more improvement to prevent Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu from cutting into their playing time.

Protecting quarterback Jay Cutler will always be a priority, and the left guard spot is open since last year's starter, Frank Omiyale, has been moved to right tackle. Josh Beekman is the favorite to start but veteran tackle Kevin Shaffer could get a cursory look.