After eight long months, the Bears return to game action Thursday night when they open the preseason by hosting the Denver Broncos at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch:
(1) The debut of an improved front seven on defense.
General manager Ryan Pace's top priority during the offseason was bolstering the defensive line and linebacking corps, and he did just that by signing inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman and end Akiem Hicks in free agency and selecting outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and end Jonathan Bullard in the first and third rounds of the draft, respectively.
Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks during training camp practice.
Pace wanted to add speed, athleticism and size to the front seven after the defense generated just 15 takeaways last season. The newcomers have joined key returning players in outside linebackers Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston, tackle Eddie Goldman and end Mitch Unrein.
During training camp, quarterback Jay Cutler described the difference in the front seven from last year to this year as "night and day." On Thursday night, the unit will have its first opportunity to show that progress in game action against the defending Super Bowl champions.
(2) The competition at wide receiver.
The Bears appear to be deep at receiver, which is a good thing given that veterans Alshon Jeffery (hamstring) and Eddie Royal (concussion) have missed some training camp practices and Marquess Wilson remains out indefinitely after breaking his foot in June.
All eyes Thursday night likely will be on 2015 first-round draft pick Kevin White, who plays his first NFL game after sitting out his entire rookie season with a leg injury. But the preseason opener is also the first chance to impress this year for wideouts such as Marc Mariani, Joshua Bellamy, Deonte Thompson and rookie Daniel Braverman who are jockeying for playing time.
Mariani, Bellamy and Thompson all made the most of opportunities to play last season when injuries decimated the Bears' receiving corps, and Braverman has excelled in training camp, displaying excellent speed, quickness and hands.
(3) The development of a young secondary.
Other than veteran cornerback Tracy Porter, the Bears are generally young and inexperienced in the secondary. Thursday night's preseason opener will provide a chance for several prospects to gain valuable reps and earn more playing time moving forward.
Second-year pros Harold Jones-Quartey and Adrian Amos have shown promise while working as the starting safeties in training camp but must help the secondary produce more takeaways than last year when Bears defensive backs combined for just four interceptions.
Other key players to watch on defense and special teams Thursday night include the three defensive backs the Bears selected in the draft: fourth-round safety Deon Bush, fourth-round cornerback Deiondre Hall and sixth-round safety DeAndre Houston-Carson.
(4) The evolution of the backfield.
The Bears have drafted running backs each of the last three years and will count on Ka'Deem Carey (2014 fourth round), Jeremy Langford (2015 fourth round) and Jordan Howard (2016 fifth round) to work in unison to help replace departed veteran Matt Forte.
Coach John Fox believes in a backfield-by-committee, but that doesn't mean that all three backs will get an equal number of carries. It appears that Langford will be the starter this year, but the competition between Carey and Howard for the No. 2 spot will be interesting to monitor during the preseason. While Langford is fast and elusive, the more physical Carey and Howard seemingly provide the perfect compliment.
And don't forget about Jacquizz Rodgers, a small but quick and strong veteran who returns from a broken arm that forced him to miss the final 11 games last season. Rodgers possesses big-play ability and is well-respected by his younger teammates.