This is the first in a series of Bears position breakdowns by the Chicago Football staff, leading up to the start of training camp July 25 in Bourbonnais. For more Bears and NFL news, visit ChicagoFootball.com.
Overview: We know Jay Cutler can thrive in coach Marc Trestman’s system, but there are still questions the $126 million man has to answer in 2014 – most importantly, can he stay healthy?
We probably won’t get an answer to that in Bourbonnais, but we can see whether he looks like the quarterback Trestman said is bigger and stronger than last season. Expectations will be higher for Cutler – and the rest of the offense – in Year 2 under Trestman, so the scrutiny that comes with any poor practices in camp won’t be going away.
Outside of Cutler, the training camp focus will be on those behind him – Jordan Palmer, Jimmy Clausen, and David Fales. This will be the first full camp with the Bears for each, and every rep will matter.
Position battle: Who will be this year’s Josh McCown? All winter and into the spring, we assumed (and had been told) it was Palmer’s job to lose, but a pectoral injury and the signing of Clausen turns this into an intriguing camp battle. The fun part about a quarterback competition is the fact that we can measure it easily, charting passes in practice and preseason reps.
Palmer knows the offense best, Clausen may have the better skill set, while Fales needs to make an argument that the Bears should keep three quarterbacks, otherwise he may be a top practice squad candidate (if he clears waivers). If Fales surprises and shows well in Bourbonnais and preseason games, the Bears may not want to let him get to waivers, but it’s unlikely they’d want to enter the season with a rookie as the No. 2 quarterback.
Clausen comes to camp with the hopes of proving he is not a bust – however, the fact that his current goal is to make the team as a backup says a lot about the second-rounder and former Notre Dame star.
The other factor in a quarterback battle is whom each is throwing to, and who is in protection. The second-team QB may look better purely based on the fact that he’ll have better options at wideout (Josh Morgan, Terrence Toliver) and on the line (Brian de la Puente, Eben Britton, James Brown). However, if a third- or fourth-string quarterback elevates his offense with great throws, that will stand out, too, albeit against lower-tier defenses.
Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, and Trestman have their entire offense back from last season, so it could give them a little extra time to make the correct choice at backup quarterback this summer.
Contract situations (information via Spotrac): Cutler is one of the highest-paid players in the league, after his new contract signed in January. His base salary in 2014 will be $17.5 million, so instead of pending free agency being a topic of conversation at camp, making sure Cutler plays up to his contract will be a focal point.
Seeing McCown sign a 2-year, $10 million contract in Tampa Bay has to excite Palmer and Clausen. Granted, McCown only got that opportunity because of Cutler’s injury, and if No. 6 stays healthy, neither will get a chance to show what McCown did last year, but there is that potential.
Both Palmer and Clausen are on 1-year, minimum deals, and the goal is to win the backup job, impress if given any chance to play outside the preseason, and cash in next offseason on a longer deal with some guaranteed money.
Keep an eye on: Clausen. We have an idea of what Palmer can do, and Fales is a rookie without a projected high ceiling. Clausen, on the other hand, is a wild card. He had to have been humbled by his failures in Carolina, and we saw enough in his college career to wonder whether the tools are there to find success in the NFL.
If the new environment and experience with Trestman pays off in Bourbonnais, the Bears could find themselves with another good backup. It’s also certainly possible Clausen never catches on, and flames out again in pursuit of changing his NFL story.