You expected me to open this preview with a rip job, didn't you?
After all, the '07 Bears followed up their Super Bowl appearance with a moribund 7-9 performance. The team's offense went from the league's second-best scoring unit in '06 to 18th-best last year, and the defense dropped from third and fifth in points and yards allowed in '06 to 16th and 28th, respectively, last year. And there are so many question marks on this roster entering '08, we should get the ghost of Frank Gorshin to reprise his role as the Riddler just to get a look at that costume.
But I don't think the Bears will be that bad.
First of all, the defense was decimated by injuries last year and still boasts a scary group of players: Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye, Mark Anderson, Alex Brown and a really good pair of corners (when healthy), Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman. And yes, the offense is an utter fantasy wasteland, because there's so much positional indecision entering training camp and because coach Lovie Smith's offensive credo appears to be, "For God's sake, please don't make any mistakes!" But I look at this roster, and I do not see one of the worst teams in football.
The drama in training camp, which opens July 23 in Bourbonnais, Ill., will be about defensive studs proving their health and offensive battles at nearly every skill position. And no, fantasy-wise, there isn't going to be a ton to get excited about. But consider me off the bandwagon that views Chicago as one of the NFC's doormats.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton will wage an underwhelming battle to see who lines up under center. Grossman is more of a swashbuckler prone to the big error, while Orton doesn't have Grossman's arm or potential, but has proven to be a better caretaker. Lovie Smith has pronounced these guys "tied" headed into training camp; it would probably be better news for fantasy players if Grossman wins the job.
Name a wide receiver that isn't in the mix for significant playing time heading into camp. A murderers' row of has-beens and never-weres lines this roster. The Bears have gathered as big a group as they could and are throwing it against a wall to see what sticks. The nominal starters headed to camp are Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd, but ew. Mark Bradley had more knee surgery, but if he's healthy, the team desperately would like him to start. Devin Hester is now a full-time receiver (in addition to his otherworldly return abilities). Rashied Davis was reportedly the most impressive receiver in minicamp. Rookie Earl Bennett is the SEC's all-time leading receiver. Hester has the most fantasy upside of the group, but he needs to prove he belongs on the field most downs.
At tight end, the Bears drafted Greg Olsen in the first round, but re-signed Desmond Clark to a two-year extension, so there's no clear-cut leader for snaps. Olsen is the better pass-catching option here, but Clark will probably play a lot because of his blocking ability. Unfortunately, while this is a position of strength for the Bears, the presence of two good options makes each suspect fantasy-wise. Meanwhile, Kevin Payne and Brandon McGowan are also set to compete for the starting strong safety role.
On the line: The team has two uncertainties on what used to be a great offensive line. One is at left guard, where someone needs to replace nine-time Pro Bowler Ruben Brown (who had, admittedly, seen better days than in '07). Terrence Metcalf and Josh Beekman will battle for this starting spot. The other question mark is at left tackle. Rookie first-rounder Chris Williams was expected to start there, allowing John Tait to move to right tackle, where his good run-blocking skills can supersede his not-so-good pass-blocking abilities. But Williams suffered a major back injury in camp, perhaps leaving Tait back on the left and John St. Clair or the retired Fred Millerto fill in. That's not good.
Center Olin Kreutz, himself a six-time Pro Bowler, had a down year in '07 but is still only 31 and could rebound. And Roberto Garza is an adequate right guard. Overall, a unit that looked old and slow in '07 looked better when training camp, but Williams' injury changed everything. Either way it'll be a below-average group.
Fitting in: When the Bears drafted Matt Forte out of Tulane, it was seen as a shot across Cedric Benson's bow. Benson responded by getting arrested twice for alcohol-related offenses in the same month, and Chicago eventually cut the former No. 4 overall pick. Suddenly Forte, a power back who's not exactly elusive or what you'd call speedy, appears to have the starting gig all to himself. Now, don't get too excited, because his skill set makes him sound like everyone who played running back for the Bears in '07, and the team signed the rehabbing Kevin Jones to supply some competition and perhaps take a bunch of carries in the second half of the season.
On the mend: 2007's carnage was all on defense. Nathan Vasher tore his groin early in the season, and though he was a weekly tease, he wound up playing only four games. Free safety Mike Brown tore an ACL and has now played seven games the past two seasons combined. DT Tommie Harris was hobbled all season and required left knee surgery this winter. LB Brian Urlacher struggled with a neck problem that also required surgery. DT Anthony Adams tore his triceps in Week 13 and missed the remainder of the season. And DT Dusty Dvoracek tore his ACL in Week 1 and has now played in exactly one game in his two NFL seasons. The Bears are counting on all these guys, save Dvoracek, to be in their starting lineup in '08.
The bottom line
Matt Forte and the D/ST figure to be the only sure draftees in all fantasy leagues, which is pretty shocking when you consider there's still a lot of personnel left from the '06 NFC title team. In Forte's case, Adrian Peterson and/or Garrett Wolfe could steal some time, but the real thing to
watch out for is whether Kevin Jones can get into the mix in the backfield. If he does, Forte will likely find himself in a committee, and lose his current status as a fantasy starter. But if, as expected, Jones struggles to get his knee up to speed, Forte will have the season's first half to show he deserves a starter's carries.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.