We’ve officially entered cut-down week, meaning the Bears have loads of decisions to make to pare their roster down from 90 to 53 on Saturday.
The “position battles” to figure out who will start Week 1 in Green Bay have largely been settled, barring an injury in practice over the next two weeks. Eric Kush looks to be your Week 1 starting left guard with James Daniels on the bench, while Nick Kwiatkoski should start next to Danny Trevathan on Sept. 9, though Roquan Smith could take over for him by the end of September. Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris played to a stalemate (in a good way) in their defensive line battle, though they both were going to rotate in and out of the Bears’ defense anyway.
So instead of looking at specific position battles, let’s take it this way: Who's on the bubble to make the initial 53-man roster? The following players are locks to make it:
QBs (2): Mitch Trubisky, Chase Daniel
RBs (3): Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham
WRs (5): Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, Josh Bellamy
TEs (4): Trey Burton, Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen*, Daniel Brown
OL (6): Charles Leno, Eric Kush, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie, James Daniels
DL (4): Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris
OLBs (2): Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho
ILBs (4): Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski, Roquan Smith, Joel Iyiegbuniwe
CBs (4): Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Bryce Callahan, Sherrick McManis
S (3): Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson, Deon Bush
Specialists (3): Cody Parkey, Pat O'Donnell, Patrick Scales
So that’s 40 players who are definitely on the 53-man roster come Sept. 1, with the only possible exception being Shaheen — specifically, if the Bears need to put him on injured reserve with the designation to return due to his ankle/foot injury.
Then there’s this next group of five that are almost certainly on the roster: OLB Aaron Lynch, OLB Kylie Fitts, OLB Isaiah Irving, DL Bilal Nichols and CB Cre’von LeBlanc. While all of those outside linebackers have faults, the Bears aren't in a position to be releasing any of them on cut-down day, though they could be cut on Sunday if Ryan Pace is able to find someone on the waiver wire.
Swing tackle Bradley Sowell left Saturday’s game with an injury, throwing his roster status into flux, but if healthy he’s likely to be on the roster. The Bears released Earl Watford on Sunday, too, potentially clearing the path to a roster spot for one of the guys we'll talk about below.
So that gets us to 46 of the 53 roster spots filled.
So who fills those last six spots? It’ll be from this group of players: QB Tyler Bray, RBs Taquan Mizzell, Knile Davis and Ryan Nall, FB Michael Burton, WRs Javon Wims, Marlon Brown and Bennie Fowler, TE Ben Braunecker, OLs Rashaad Coward and Jordan Morgan, DL John Jenkins, OLB Kasim Edebali, CBs Doran Grant, Kevin Toliver II, Marcus Cooper and Michael Joseph, and S DeAndre Houston-Carson and Deiondre’ Hall.
A couple thoughts here: It would be a surprise if Wims, who had an awfully impressive game Saturday with four catches (including a 54-yarder) for 114 yards with a touchdown, didn’t make the Week 1 53-man roster. He’s put too many good things on tape this preseason for the Bears to try to sneak him through waivers and onto their practice squad. He’s been a part of some of Chris Tabor’s special teams units, too. So let’s give him a spot, bringing us to 47.
Braunecker has done some good things this preseason and has special teams ability, and coupled with the potential of not having Shaheen at least for the start of the season, he looks like a fit for the 53-man roster. 48.
And the Bears will need to take a fourth safety, too. Houston-Carson would be the guy, but broke his arm against the Broncos, so Hall — even though he’ll be suspended for Week 1 — could earn a spot. The Bears could take both, potentially, but that's largely dependent on Houston-Carson's availability. Until we have an answer on that, we'll say they take one safety. 49.
So that brings us to the big questions with four rosters spot to fill: Do the Bears take A) a third quarterback, B) a fourth running back, C) a fullback, D) an eighth offensive lineman, D) a sixth defensive lineman? E) a sixth outside linebacker or F) a sixth cornerback?
Not carrying a sixth cornerback could be risky given the modern NFL requires the frequent use of nickel packages, and McManis is more of a special teams ace than a cornerback (he’s only played 49 defensive snaps in the last two seasons). But LeBlanc can play both in the slot and outside, making him a valuable backup, so there is some flexibility there. For now, we'll say they carry a sixth cornerback, and that guy is Cooper based on him being on more special teams units during preseason play (though, yes, Cooper did have that special teams gaffe against the Pittsburgh Steelers last year). So that gets us to 51.
At outside linebacker, Edebali has done some decent things this preseason but despite getting an extended run on Saturday didn’t show up in the box score at all — no tackles, pressures, sacks, etc. He does have some past production, with five sacks back in 2015. But he didn't have a sack last year, and didn't show up on the stat sheet at all in Saturday's game against the Chiefs. Jenkins, meanwhile, has had a solid preseason, and the Bears kept six defensive linemen last year. So we'll give a spot to Jenkins, bringing us to 52.
The Bears could try to stash Coward — who has had a generally good preseason but was badly beat by Chiefs’ edge rusher Tanoh Kpassagnon on Saturday for a “sack” that was ruled to be roughing the passer — on the practice squad with the thought the converted defensive lineman could develop there and potentially be their 2019 starting right tackle. That approach does carry the risk that another team sees the same potential in Coward the Bears do and swipes him to stash on their roster. Morgan was a fifth-round pick who took, effectively, a redshirt year in 2017 but could be ticketed for the practice squad, too. The release of Watford could signal one of these two guys is lined up for a roster spot.
Carrying a third quarterback (Bray) or a fourth running back (Mizzell/Davis/Nall) seems like a luxury, but with six players having to be inactive every week, there could be a justifiable reason for the Bears to want to keep one of those guys around if they’ve put enough on tape (or, in the case of Bray, have been a significant enough help to Mitch Trubisky) this preseason. Bray would seem to be the more likely one to not be kept, given the last guys on the roster usually play special teams (and, among the "locks," Kevin White does not play special teams). Nagy doesn't necessarily seem beholden to using a fullback — while Andy Reid used one in every game he coached with Nagy in Kansas City, Doug Pederson — also of the Reid coaching tree — evolved his offense to not use one in Philadelphia.
We'll say, for now, that Mizzell gets the last roster spot based on his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and that he's been part of both kick and punt coverage units this preseason. No Bears player has played more special teams snaps than Hall this preseason, though, so it wouldn't be surprising if he winds up being the 53rd guy. And the same goes for either Coward or Morgan, if the Bears want to carry eight offensive linemen on their active roster. But the final decisions will come after Thursday's preseason finale; and then even after that, the 53 guys the Bears have on Saturday may not be the 53 they take to Green Bay on Sept. 9.