Three key watch-points as Bears open preseason against Broncos

Three key watch-points as Bears open preseason against Broncos

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.

[SHOP BEARS: Get your Bears gear right here]

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.

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

As the Bears begin to fill out their draft board in earnest, they’ll do so by evaluating the players they like and the players they think will be available when they pick eighth in April. And what players check both those boxes and go into their draft “clouds,” as Ryan Pace calls them, will depend largely on how many quarterbacks are taken ahead of the Bears’ pick. 

With about a month until the draft, it seems clear two teams will take a quarterback with a top-seven pick: the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. The Browns own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks; the Jets traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, and teams rarely invest that kind of draft capital to not draft a quarterback. 

That leaves a few hinge points in how many quarterbacks are picked by the time the Bears are on the clock:

New York Giants (No. 2 overall)

The Giants still have an aging Eli Manning but could move to use the second pick to draft his long-term replacement. Or, alternatively, they could use this deep class of top-end quarterbacks as an avenue to trade down, add some picks and build out a young core that way. Either of these scenarios would be good news for the Bears, as we’ve seen Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson connected to the Giants at No. 2 as well, if they were to stay there. The Buffalo Bills could be motivated to trade up to No. 2 to make sure they get the guy they want with quarterbacks almost assuredly going off the board at Nos. 1 and 3. 

Cleveland Browns (No. 4 overall)

If the Browns get their quarterback with the first pick — Sam Darnold? — they could be sitting in an ideal spot at No. 4. If the Giants draft a quarterback, Cleveland could play hardball and tell teams they’re fine keeping the fourth pick and drafting Barkley with it. That could create a bidding war between the Buffalo Bills (No. 12) and Denver Broncos (No. 5) to trade up and draft the last of the four clear-cut top quarterbacks in this class. In this scenario, Cleveland adds a bunch of picks to an already-sizable stash and accelerates their growth through the draft. 

If the Giants were to trade out of the No. 2 pick, let’s say to the Bills, it may lessen Cleveland’s desire to trade down from No. 4 unless a team in need of a quarterback like the Arizona Cardinals (No. 15) or Miami Dolphins (No. 11) starts lurking around. But as we saw last year with the Bears trading up one spot to draft Mitch Trubisky, teams don’t want to leave things to chance if they have conviction on the quarterback they want. So that brings us to the…

Denver Broncos (No. 5 overall)

The Broncos signed Case Keenum to a two-year deal and still have 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster, though he hasn’t shown much in only five games as a pro. Does Denver absolutely, positively have to draft a quarterback? No. They’re probably in the same boat as the Giants in that regard. But what if they really like Josh Allen and/or Baker Mayfield, both of whom their coaching staff worked with at the Senior Bowl, and one of them is still on the board when the Browns’ pick comes up at No. 4? Or what if Josh Rosen has been their guy all along? 

In that case, John Elway may make an aggressive move to guarantee he gets the quarterback he wants, and not risk losing that guy if a team were to cut the line by trading with the Browns. 

The other scenario is less positive for the Bears: Maybe the Broncos only have one or two quarterbacks out of this group they want, and they either can’t find a trade partner to move out of No. 5 or don’t want to. If three quarterbacks are drafted in the first seven picks, the Bears may not have the opportunity to draft one of Nelson, Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, for example, is a super-talented prospect — but we seem to be moving toward a consensus that Nelson, Fitzpatrick, Chubb and Barkley are the four best non-quarterback prospects in this draft. And in all likelihood, the Bears will only be able to draft one of them four quarterbacks are taken before they pick. 

The wild card here is Nelson, given his position (guard) is rarely seen as worthy of being a top-10 pick. But those who saw him up close in college believe he’s a future perennial Pro Bowler, possibly beginning as soon as his rookie year. The Bears’ fit is obvious, with Harry Hiestand coming to coach the offensive line from Notre Dame and the team — as of right now — still having a fairly clear need for another interior offensive lineman. Perhaps Nelson falls to the Bears even if there are only three quarterbacks off the board before they pick, but having four go off the board would make things a little less stressful at Halas Hall in late April. 

Indianapolis Colts (No. 6 overall) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall)

The Colts already traded down once, and likely did so with the confidence that Chubb would still be on the board at No. 6 to help their limp pass rush. Fitzpatrick seems to be a good fit with Tampa Bay, though a player of his caliber would be a good fit anywhere. Either of these teams still could be persuaded to trade down, especially if the Giants and/or Broncos pass on a quarterback.

Chicago Bears (No. 8 overall)

If four quarterbacks are off the board by the time the Bears pick, that’s ideal for Pace. If three are, he still could get someone from his No. 8 pick “cloud” and be content staying there. If only two are — and this doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario — that means the Bills haven’t found a trade partner and may want to leapfrog the Dolphins at No. 11 to get their guy. More likely, if the Bears are able to trade down from No. 8, it would be because a team like Arizona wants to make sure the quarterback they want isn’t snagged by an opportunistic team ahead of them. 

But Pace's draft history has seen him trade up far more frequently than trade down. If someone who's in his draft cloud is available when the Bears go on the clock, chances are he'll pick that guy and not trade down. 

Plenty can and will change between now and when the draft begins on April 26. But for right now, the landscape ahead of the Bears suggests only positive things setting up for their first-round pick. 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will Cam Meredith return to the Bears?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will Cam Meredith return to the Bears?

Hub Arkush (Pro Football Weekly/670 The Score), Mark Grote (670 The Score) and Mark Carman (WGN Radio) join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel. Quenton Nelson works out at Notre Dame’s pro day. If he’s still on the board at 8, should the Bears take him? Plus the panel talks about the Cubs outfield heading into 2018 and if it’s time to shut down both Jonathan Toews and Lauri Markkanen.