Every player is evaluated on every snap of every practice. Consider those as daily quizzes, the little tests that went into your grade but didn’t count as much as bigger tests.
The most significant of those tests to date in 2016 begins 7 p.m. Thursday against the Denver Broncos for most of the Bears roster, from rookie to veteran — at least the ones dressing for the game, which for the Bears this offseason is nothing short of problematic given the spate of injuries that limited practice time as well as the accompanying evaluations.
“We’ve been in pads the whole camp,” head coach John Fox said. “(Tuesday was) our last padded practice in preparation. But’s all about that exam. Those exams are those preseason games, and I can’t think of a better test than the defending world champs Thursday night.”
The usual playing-time template will be in place: “Typically, and it won't be exact, but in the first game, our (No. 1s) will play the first quarter, (No. 2s) will be second and third (quarters), (No. 3s) will be the fourth (quarter),” Fox said.
“We graduate in preseason (Game) 2, with a half (for the No. 1s), seconds get most of the third (quarter). The third preseason game will be the most extensive we get (for the No. 1s), and the fourth preseason game will be the most minimal work we'll get (for the starters).”
But beyond the player rotation, three primary focus points stand out going into Thursday’s game:
1. The franchise rookies
Veterans will play sparingly, meaning Jay Cutler, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan and Willie Young might play a quarter, more like a series or two. The next two preseason games are the spotlights on them, when actual scheming and game-planning begin.
Meanwhile, all rookies, draft choices or not, are critical to the organization’s present and future. They are less expensive, the youth of the roster, and drafting successfully will be axiomatic to the Bears’ success under general manager Ryan Pace.
Some are more pivotal than others. The Bears project to start, from 2015’s draft, No. 1 Kevin White at wide receiver, No. 2 Eddie Goldman at nose tackle, No. 4 Jeremy Langford at tailback and No. 5 Adrian Amos at safety.
From 2016: No. 1 Leonard Floyd at outside linebacker (based on practice reps), No. 2 Cody Whitehair at left guard and No. 3, defensive end Jonathan Bullard will see significant time.
“I’m very excited,” Floyd said. “After the scrimmage (Saturday in Soldier Field), it felt good being out there in front of the fans. I’m looking forward to playing Thursday.”
All but Goldman, who impressed with 4.5 sacks as a rookie, come in with major questions. White didn’t play at all last season because of a stress fracture and is still learning NFL route trees.
“I know it’s a huge difference,” White said, “but just getting more reps, more experience under my belt, I think that will come naturally."
Langford is being tasked with replacing Matt Forte. Amos started 16 games last year but failed to intercept a pass and broke up only four. The Class of ’16 has never lined up opposite anything but teammates.
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2. Thinking in-depth
The season-ending knee injury to center Hroniss Grasu not only took down a projected starter, it also necessarily pushed Ted Larsen from being the ideal swing-interior guy for all three positions into being the starter. The Bears signed former Carolina guard Amini Silatolu before camp — and he has passed his physical and practiced — and former Pittsburgh tackle Mike Adams, who missed all of last season with a back injury.
At wide receiver, neither Alshon Jeffery nor Eddie Royal are expected to play, Jeffery perhaps a little with his recovering hamstring, meaning that the Bears are likely to be where they were in 2015, missing two of their top three receivers. Tight ends Zach Miller and Greg Scruggs are both out with injuries.
All of which places an immediate and heavy load on backups, who normally and ideally would be facing No. 2s on opponents’ depth charts but now are closer to seeing time with starters and against starters. The Bears were found wanting when backups were needed last year. What they show on Thursday will be for more than simple evaluation purposes.
3. Fast start?
While the No. 1 offense and defense will play just briefly, the Bears still need to be about establishing various elements of their identity. They led after one quarter in just one game last season, at Oakland, and won that game. All 10 of their defeats came when they failed to jump on an opponent with a lead after the first quarter.
Fox last year treated preseason games with more than a little push to win them, regardless of who played when, all part of changing a losing culture. To change the identity of the Bears from slow- to fast-starting, Thursday would be a logical place to start.