LAKE FOREST – After a productive minicamp session Thursday, Bears coach Lovie Smith offered a thank-you gift to his team by ending practice 30 minutes early.
Go home, Smith told his players. Enjoy your break until training camp.
“You don’t really have to encourage them,” Smith said. “Believe me.”
Thus marked a feel-good ending to a three-day minicamp this week at Halas Hall. The non-contact practices served as a final offseason tuneup before the first training camp practice July 26 in Bourbonnais.
Although work remained, Smith said, he saw plenty of reasons for optimism.
“We’re feeling pretty good about our group,” Smith said. “Can’t wait to get down to training camp.”
In the meantime, minicamp provided some ideas of what to look for this season.
Telling the truth
Bears fans might have raised their eyebrows after Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and others heaped praise on Devin Hester for his receiving skills this summer. Haven’t we heard this before? Well, yes, but it’s also true that Hester stood out during drills this week with terrific catches across the middle and down the sidelines. The big question is whether Hester’s great practices will translate to success on Sundays.
Too soon to tell
At this point, it would be a wild guess to project what fans might be able to expect from Bears’ first-round draft pick Shea McClellin. Teammates say he works hard and pays attention, but with no contact allowed during minicamp, it’s impossible to gauge his effectiveness. Israel Idonije is the starter heading into training camp.
Hut, hut, take a hike
The Bears closed the door on one possible training-camp competition when they waived second-year quarterback Nathan Enderle after Thursday’s final practice of minicamp. Enderle faced an uphill battle anyway to win the No. 3 quarterback job, which now belongs to veteran Josh McCown barring any late-summer surprises.
Big arm, big relief
Speaking of quarterbacks, it’s safe to say that eighth-year veteran Jason Campbell is approximately 1 million times better than Caleb Hanie, the Bears’ previous backup. Campbell boasts a big arm that befits his status as a former first-round pick, and he showed it off Thursday by firing a rocket to rookie Evan Rodriguez in the end zone.
Up for grabs
Although contact is forbidden during minicamp, the Bears’ personnel groups during drills typically offer clues about the depth chart going into training camp. However, the battle at left tackle is as foggy as ever. Incumbent J’Marcus Webb and challenger Chris Williams consistently split repetitions as Cutler’s blind-side protector.
Stretch your legs
Now that stubborn Mike Martz has left town, tight end Kellen Davis will be able to prove his worth as a pass-catcher as well as a blocker. Davis might or might not measure up to counterparts such as Jermichael Finley and Brandon Pettigrew, but he’ll at least earn an opportunity. He had a heavy dose of seam routes Thursday.
He’s at it again
Tenth-year cornerback Charles Tillman is one of the Bears’ biggest jokesters off the field, but he’s all business when it comes to forcing fumbles. His big plays on Sundays have their roots at Halas Hall, where he stripped Davis after a reception Thursday and playfully sprinted toward the end zone for a would-be touchdown.
Fun 1, Distractions 0
Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte missed minicamp because of a contract dispute, but his absence did nothing to sour the mood among his coaches and teammates. Few moments passed without someone shouting or laughing from the field, and Smith even offered a warm goodbye to media members: “See you in Bourbannais.”