It's been a while since we went through the mailbag so we'll knock out more than four questions this morning in Four Down Territory as we take a little break from the position-by-position previews that have been running in our 30-day countdown to Bourbonnais. Here we go.
Q: What about a contract extension for Danieal Manning? He's slated to have an uncanny season at kick returner which means, of course, that the Bears will need the extra money to give him an extension and convert him to wide receiver.
Mike, Parts Unknown
A: Looks like we have a jokester here. Is that Manning switch right after Brian Urlacher is moved to free safety and Chris Zorich is re-signed to play middle linebacker? It's a good question when it comes to Manning. Not sure what he is going to have to do to have an "uncanny" season. Manning would have made the Pro Bowl last season if he had replaced Devin Hester as the kickoff returner about a month prior to the move that was made in Week 11. He averaged 29.7 yards per return, the club's highest total in nearly 35 years, and became only the fifth player in franchise history to top 1,000 yards for a season. Now, consider first that Manning didn't see all of the gimmicks (bloops, squibs, sky kicks, you name it) that Hester did when he was the primary kickoff returner. Opponents will likely pay more attention to Manning this coming season but special teams coordinator Dave Toub is quick to adjust and his schemes have proven the test of time. Defensively, Manning was on the field one-third of the time in 2008, getting 370 snaps out of the 1,111 total. He seemed to make progress as a nickel back, particularly in the second half of the season. Manning was in that role during the spring until a hamstring injury, one of many suffered on the roster, sidelined him and Corey Graham took his place for the last two weeks of OTA's. It looks like Manning will remain in that role entering training camp but if Nathan Vasher nails down the right cornerback job and Craig Steltz winds up being the free safety, the coaching staff might give Graham more of a look at nickel, where he played one game last season. Is there a possibility the club re-signs Manning, who is entering the final year of his contract? Sure. He probably should have been on the list of players we made. But a kickoff returner who does or does not double as a nickel corner isn't going to get a huge contract.
Q: You didn't mention Lance Louis in your preview of the fullbacks. Is there a reason why? Didn't the Bears say he could play tight end as well as fullback when they selected him?
Oscar T., Chicago
A: There is a somewhat popular notion that Lance Louis will reprise the role of William Perry and do some heavy duty work in the backfield. We don't see it happening. We don't see Louis playing any tight end, either. The Bears don't have a spot at tight end for him with Desmond Clark, Greg Olsen, Kellen Davis and Michael Gaines. They don't need a project at the position because they already have one in Davis. Louis, who was issued No. 60, which is an ineligible number, is going to have a hard time making the roster as a seventh-round pick. He'd have an even more difficult time making the 45-man gameday roster, and it's unlikely he'd be active for a possible gimmick play involving him lining up at an eligible position.
Q: What kind of role do you see Jamar Williams having this season? Most accounts had him being one of the best players on the field during OTA's. How can the Bears take advantage of his ability?
Scott C., Des Moines, Iowa
A: Williams did a fine job this spring creating some momentum for himself when it comes to making the 53-man roster this season, but we don't see a direct route for him to get on the field other than on special teams. The heir apparent to Lance Briggs has turned into the guy who can't get a chance and is entering the final year of his contract. Williams was supposed to be the player who would replace the Pro Bowler Briggs when he departed but the Bears surprised even themselves a little when they got Briggs back. It's turned out good for the team and bad for Williams, who has languished on special teams since and got just 12 snaps on defense last season. Where is he going to play? Briggs and Brian Urlacher have proven to be durable performers. Urlacher has not missed a game in the last four seasons and Briggs has missed just two games in six seasons. Pisa Tinoisamoa is the favorite to be the strong-side linebacker. He's got a history with Lovie Smith and Bob Babich and was working with the first team before the offseason program concluded at a time when Williams also got some first-team reps, spelling Urlacher in the middle. Could Williams enter the competition at strong side? Sure. Along with Nick Roach and Hunter Hillenmeyer. You can't rule Williams out there but it looks like Tinoisamoa is the leader. Let's look at play time by linebackers last season:
Brian Urlacher 1,110 of 1,1111 snaps, 99.9 percent
Lance Briggs 1,108 of 1,111, 99.7 percent
Nick Roach 431 of 1,111, 38.8 percent
Hunter Hillenmeyer 269 of 1,111, 24.2 percent
Jamar Williams 12 of 1,111, 1.1 percent
Darrell McClover 1 of 1,111, 0.1 percent
Gilbert Gardner 0
Joey LaRocque 0
Q: I am getting tired of watching time go by waiting for the Bears to add a wide receiver before training camp opens. When is it going to happen? It would give you some actual news to write about.
Marshall F., Indiana
A: Hope you've got extra sand in that clock you're using. Otherwise, might be time to head to the beach and get some more. It looks like the Plaxico Burress issue is dead for the Bears. By pushing off his court case as much as his possible, Burress looks to have really made it more difficult for him to get on the field in 2009. Matt Jones completed a drug court program earlier this month in Arkansas that has reportedly wiped the felony charge off his record. While the Bears are known to have done extensive homework when it comes to Burress, they haven't shown any known interest in Jones. Lovie Smith has stated time and time again that the team is happy with the wide receivers it has. Could a move happen before camp? It's possible and we always appreciate "actual news" to blog and write about. Don't discount the very real possibility (dare we say likelihood) that the Bears go with what they have. General manager Jerry Angelo, no doubt, has an emergency list of receivers but it might take just that--an emergency--before you see a new wide receiver in uniform.
Q: I don't think Devin Hester will ever be a No. 1 wide receiver like the Bears have said. I mean, come on, he's the next Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald? It doesn't take a Darryl Drake to figure out that is not going to happen. But can Hester get better? Are we going to see marked improvement from him in 2009?
Chris H., Schaumburg
A: No one is going to rush to put Hester in a category with those wide receivers that you just mentioned, not if they're smart any way, but we think he can improve in 2009. We're taking Cutler out of this equation for right now, too, and just talking about Hester getting better himself. He's got another full year under his belt as a receiver and then you need to consider what happened during the second half of last season. Hester made 25 of his 51 receptions in the final six games. He was playing better down the stretch at a time when quarterback Kyle Orton, playing on an injured ankle, was playing worse. The receiver was making strides and the passer was regressing. Had Orton not dropped off like he did in the second half of the season, Hester's numbers would have looked even better. He began running better routes and was playing more instinctively. Add Cutler into the equation now, yes, Hester should be better in 2009.
Q: What player could be the biggest surprise in training camp?
Vince D., Parts Unknown
A: Besides Cutler, who will be showing off an arm fans are not used to seeing in Kankakee County? That's a good question but keep in mind it's not always an indication of great things to come during the season. A lot of observers were impressed by rookie tight end Kellen Davis in camp last summer. His opportunity never materialized during the season. There have been other training camp wonders. Cornerback Travis Coleman comes to mind from 2002, although we're quite sure he's not on the minds of many others. What the Bears really need is for one of their unproven wide receivers to step forward and be a surprise in camp and then perform during the season. How about Johnny Knox? The fifth rounder made plays during the spring and the Bears sure could benefit from his electric athletic ability.
Q: Training camp can't arrive soon enough. Thanks for the daily fix. What time is the first practice? Am I going to have to take the day off from work?
Jennifer N., Orland Park
A: Although we don't know your work schedule, we'd recommend making a day of it. The Bears' first practice on Friday, July 31, will be at 3 p.m. It ought to be a great way to start the weekend. You can find the entire training camp schedule right here.
Thank you for all of the questions and participation, and thanks most of all for reading.