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4 concerns as the Bears head into training camp

Julius Peppers (left) Henry Meltshow Falcons’ Matt Ryan no mercy last season. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

Julius Peppers (left) and Henry Melton show the Falcons’ Matt Ryan no mercy last season. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

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Updated: August 25, 2012 6:16AM



Players report to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais today as the Bears enter training camp with harmony and high expectations.

‘‘I’m so pumped,’’ kicker Robbie Gould said. ‘‘If you look at the way our team is built, we have a really good team, probably one of the best we’ve had going into a training camp, so there’s a lot of excitement.

‘‘I think we’re built this year to make a run. We just need to keep everyone healthy.’’

On paper, the Bears are a contender. But they have some serious obstacles if they’re going to reach the Super Bowl run.

Here are four things to watch heading into camp:

1. Can the Bears field a competent and consistent offensive line?

The line’s most notable addition this offseason is Chilo Rachal, a veteran guard with 38 career starts. But what the Bears are counting on is for Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams to fully return from season-ending injuries. Carimi is penciled in as the starting right tackle, while Williams will compete with incumbent J’Marcus Webb for left tackle.

‘‘He looks great,’’ Bears center and captain Roberto Garza said of Williams, with whom he worked out during the offseason. ‘‘He’s getting more explosive. Now he’s in a position to fight for that left tackle position. It’s big for him and J’Marcus.’’

Yet neither Williams nor Webb has a history of producing at that all-important position, which means at least one must take a noticeable leap forward. Lance Louis, Chris Spencer and Edwin Williams will fight for the two starting guard spots, assuming Chris Williams can keep the battle with Webb interesting.

2. Can QB Jay Cutler return to Pro Bowl form?

Cutler was named to the Pro Bowl after the 2008 season with the Denver Broncos and performed at a high level last season before a season-ending thumb injury. He was seventh in passer rating (85.7) in the NFC at the time of his injury, but he had thrown for seven touchdowns against three interceptions during a five-game winning streak.

ESPN analyst Herman Edwards said the re-signing of Matt Forte and the addition of Michael Bush solidify the run offense, but Cutler is still the key.

‘‘They’re still going to run it, but they realize you have to score points and you have to be able to throw,’’ Edwards said. ‘‘Jay Cutler is a good quarterback. If he can stay healthy, they’re going to compete in that division.’’

3. Will the Bears’ pass rush bring enough heat?

Defensive end Julius Peppers continued to live up to expectations in 2011 with 11 sacks and three forced fumbles. But the Bears are counting on defensive tackle Henry Melton (seven sacks) to continue his ascension, and they’ll need others to give the pass rush some teeth. The pass rush is so essential, they saw fit to spend their first-round pick on a defensive end, Shea McClellin out of Boise State. And while others (Israel Idonije, Stephen Paea and Matt Toeaina) have had some success, the Bears need more production from the unit as a whole to rebound from a disappointing 17th overall defensive ranking.

4. Did the Bears close the gap in the NFC North?

The division is among the toughest in the NFL, although the low expectations for the Minnesota Vikings may quell that argument. But the Green Bay Packers went 15-1 last season, and the Detroit Lions reached the playoffs as a wild card, so the Bears are fighting an uphill battle. They again were active in free agency, but were the cumulative moves enough?

‘‘Chicago has the better defense,’’ Edwards said when comparing the Lions, Packers and Bears. ‘‘If [the Bears] can step up a notch offensively, then they’re going to be right in the hunt.

‘‘It’s going to be fabulous to watch.’’



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