Lance Briggs praises 2012 Bears

CHICAGO -- Lance Briggs envisions big things for the Chicago Bears this coming season.

The Pro Bowl linebacker said it "definitely could be" the best team he's played on after sweeping changes during the offseason that sent expectations soaring.

They believe they are a contender, that they're right there with Green Bay and Detroit in the NFC North. The word "championship" has even been bandied about.

"We've been doing that ever since Lovie (Smith) became the head coach," Briggs said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "It was to never forget the ultimate goal."

He's not quite ready to plan a parade, though.

On Tuesday, Briggs was promoting the New Era caps that players will wear for the first time during games. He's one of the company's two ambassadors, along with Buffalo's Marcell Dareus.

In about a month, he'll report to training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill.

"I'm going to enjoy every practice," he said. "I'm going to enjoy long, boring meetings. You don't get to do this forever."

Briggs believes the Bears can accomplish something special even though they "still have a lot of hard work to do."

It's not hard to see why he's optimistic, given the changes they made after a disappointing 8-8 finish.

They unraveled late last year with Jay Cutler and then Matt Forte suffering season-ending injuries, spoiling what was shaping up as another playoff run for a team that reached the NFC title game the previous season.

The freefall cost general manager Jerry Angelo his job, setting in motion one of the most active offseasons in recent memory. Phil Emery replaced him and quickly went to work reshaping the roster.

The biggest move was acquiring Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall from Miami, giving Cutler a go-to target for the first time since he arrived from Denver. Even better, it's someone he knows well.

He and Marshall put up big numbers when they teamed with the Broncos, particularly in 2008. Marshall earned the first of three Pro Bowl invitations in 2008 after finishing with more than 1,200 yards receiving for the second straight year. Cutler had his most productive season with a career-high 4,526 yards in his final season there, and the offense ranked second that year.

The Bears also filled a need at backup quarterback by bringing in Jason Campbell and added depth at running back with Michael Bush, not to mention insurance if Forte holds out. He still hasn't signed his $7.74 million tender after being slapped with the franchise player tag and has a July 16 deadline to agree to a multi-year contract with more guaranteed money.

A holdout remains a possibility.

"Matt accounts for a lot of what our offense is," said Briggs, who renegotiated his contract in the spring and has been vocal in his support for Forte. "I hope that the deal gets done before training camp. I hope that he gets his long-term deal, gets paid like the elite running back that he is. It's going to help us win. You throw to a player like Brandon Marshall and you have a guy like Matt Forte ... they're both very dangerous."

He called Marshall a "home run hitter" who can go deep or turn shorter passes into big gains. Briggs sees the potential for an explosive offense, and he believes the defense will no longer have to shoulder the burden.

Even so, there are some lingering questions.

Whether the offensive line can hold up remains to be seen, although the Bears believe that unit will be put in more of a position to succeed with Mike Tice replacing the departed Mike Martz as coordinator.

The defensive line also is an issue. The Bears drafted Shea McClellin with the 19th pick, hoping he can cause havoc and help take some of the load off Julius Peppers after Chicago tied for 19th in the league with 33 sacks.

Age could also be a factor on defense, with Briggs, Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Charles Tillman all in their 30s. Then again, Briggs just made his seventh straight Pro Bowl. Urlacher got picked for the eighth time last season, and Tillman made it for the first time.

"We're playing the best football that we've played," Briggs said.