Q: What's up with Jarron Gilbert? I see more news about the North Pole than I do about Mr. Gilbert. What does your crystal ball say about Gilbert for the 2010 season? Will he beat out Tommie Harris (Lovie's pet) or will he beat out someone at defensive end? How do you think he will do in 2010 and at what position? --- Dahlillama
A: Great questions. Unfortunately, it's too early for me to provide solid answers. For him to go from a guy who barely played last season and was ineffective when he was on the field to a starting role would be an amazing feat. As I've written here before, I've talked to scouts who love his potential. I've talked to others who don't project him as an NFL starter. The Bears really need for him and Henry Melton to contribute, it seems like a leap to expect them to be major contributors given their lack of experience.
Q: What did Al Afalava do to fall so far out of favor so quickly with the Bears coaching staff? Everyone acknowledges that he didn't always play well during his rookie season, but almost everybody struggles as a rookie. The Bears always say players should make the most improvement between the first and second year, so why are the Bears so quick to give up on him? --- Mike Stack.
A: I don't think they have given up on him. He played his way into the starting lineup and then played his way out of it. That's not to say he'll remain buried on the depth chart. It won't be as easy to crack the starting lineup with rookie Major Wright and veteran Chris Harris also competing for playing time, but that doesn't mean Afalava won't play a significant role --- perhaps even a starting one.
Q: How do you see the NFC North shaking out this year? --- Lonnie from Pierre, S.D.
A: The Vikings have the best roster in the division. Brett Favre will play a major role in how successful they are --- obviously --- but that team will be formidable even without Favre. I would also give the Packers the edge over the Bears. They have fewer questions marks heading into training camp and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the league while Jay Cutler is trying to establish himself in a new offense. That doesn't mean the Bears couldn't crack the top three, however. The best teams on paper don't always win, and a lot can happen between now and the start of the season, let alone the end of the season.
Q: Is this the year we finally get to see the true talents and abilities of Marcus Harrison? So far, not so good for him, as he was a total non-factor last year after coming to camp out of shape. I believe he could be the key to making the Bears "good" defensive line to a "great" one. --- Mr. Cox
A: I agree that Harrison could be the key to the Bears defensive line this season because I don't think it's realistic to expect Tommie Harris to be the player he was in 2006. Hopefully, Harrison learned his lesson and will report to camp in better condition this season. All indications point to that being the case. I've used this quote in the past when others have asked about Harrison, but here's what defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said about him at minicamp: "He's a big, athletic man who can really move. He did some nice things last year and next year he'll be doing the same thing again. He's going to take a step. We've got some inside players."
Q: With Matt Forte showing more burst and with Mike Martz's offense calling for deeper drops, is it possible we'll see more of my favorite play --- the flea flicker? --- Chris in Utah.
A: I didn't know how to answer a question about Martz's propensity for calling flea flickers, so I e-mailed longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch football writer Jim Thomas, who has covered Martz longer than anyone. Here's his reply: "Martz ran his share of trick plays over the years. But it's not like he ran a ton of flea flickers."
Q: Since Ron Turner coached from on high and above all of the action, I am wondering if Martz will do the same, or if he prefers to coach from the sidelines, where the action is. Which do you believe to be the better approach? Is there any evidence supporting one approach vs. the other? --- Gene Rukavina
A: He hasn't called plays from the press box since he was the Rams offensive coordinator in 1999. I'm not sure of the exact reason, but would guess that he prefers face-to-face communication with his quarterback and is better able to communicate with officials from the sideline. The majority of offensive coordinators prefer to call plays from on high, however, because they can see the defense better. As for which is the better approach, it depends on where he feels most comfortable and effective. His record speaks for itself. This is an interesting question, Gene. I'll be sure to ask Martz more about it during training camp.
Q: What are the chances that Major Wright can crack the starting lineup by the start of the regular season. If so, at what safety position? Does he look as advertised? --- Rod Mooney
A: There's an excellent opportunity for Wright to emerge as a starter. The Bears upgraded their safety position, but it appears as if the job opposite Chris Harris is wide open, which gives Wright as good a chance of emerging as a starter as anyone else. Whether he will have that opportunity at free safety or strong will likely depend on where Smith decides he wants Harris. The veteran has primarily played strong safety but has been working at free this offseason, presumably because the free safety makes most of the reads and calls in Smith's defense and Harris not only knows the defense but is the most experienced safety on the roster. Just because Harris has lined up at free safety during OTAs doesn't mean that's where he'll play when the season starts, however.
Q: I don't mean this as a rhetorical question, but when will Olin Kreutz be replaced as the Bears' center? Seriously, what will it take? He's been on the decline since 2006, but it seems like he will be handed a spot in the starting line-up every year until he takes it upon himself to retire. Meanwhile, Josh Beekman is rotting on the bench. --- Chris B.
A: 2010 will likely be Kreutz's last stand. Everybody from Jerry Angelo to Lovie Smith to new offensive line coach Mike Tice is convinced he still has gas in the tank and will be much more effective after offseason surgery to remove a bone spur near his Achilles tendon. I talked to Kreutz about it during minicamp, and although he acknowledges that his best football is behind him, he thinks he can still be a top-tier NFL center. Also, keep in mind, the best solution for the Bears this season might have a resurgent Kreutz at center and Beekman at left guard. If Kreutz struggles again this season, however, expect him to see the writing on the wall and retire. Remember, also, that Kreutz isn't the only player who has been in decline since 2006.
Q: When people say someone --- like Johnny Knox --- "had a fabulous off season," what does that mean? Great progress in the workout room? --- Philbeart
A: What does it mean? Squat. That's what. It could be considered a promising sign, I guess, but nothing matters until the regular season starts.
Q: (Actually, it's more of a statement than a question): Never fruit your beer --- Anonymous.
A: Who said anything about fruiting beer? I referenced a Corona commercial while talking about how NFL players and coaches are on vacation, but anything from a margarita to a vodka tonic to a gin and tonic can be served on ice with a twist of lime. (Full disclosure: I don't mind an occasional lime in my south-of-the-border malted beverages on a hot day). Either way you choose, until next week, enjoy.