Bears

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Twenty-six Bears starters/key players did not play in Friday’s preseason loss to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, ranging from guys established as among the best in the league (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson) to players with more to prove (David Montgomery, Adam Shaheen, Mitch Trubisky). 

Of the eight players who caught a pass, only two have seemingly punched their tickets to the Bears’ 53-man roster (wide receivers Riley Ridley and Javon Wims — more on Wims later). Of the six players who had a rushing attempt, only quarterback Chase Daniel will be comfortable over cut-down weekend. 

And on defense, 25 players recorded at least one tackle but only four look like locks for the Bears’ roster (Nick Kwiatkoski, Sherrick McManis, Deon Bush, Roy Robertson-Harris). 

“My biggest thing is I’m trying to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears, and every team is different, and that’s okay,” coach Matt Nagy said. “… We love where we’re at right now in regards to our starters. We feel really good about it.”

The Bears held a mock game at Halas Hall on Wednesday, one which allowed Nagy to get his starters some situational work in a controlled setting instead of in a less-predictable preseason game. Instead, these preseason games have turned into extended tests for the large group of players fighting to make the Bears’ roster — the Bears’ second-team offense and defense went against the Giants’ first-team defense and offense for a portion of Friday’s game, which’ll be notable as the team evaluates the guys who’ll fill out the back end of their roster. 

Nagy’s preseason approach to his most important players may start catching on around the league, especially as so many teams have hired younger, offensive-minded coaches who haven’t been doing something a certain way for decades. So the next time you'll see Trubisky throw a pass in a game, barring something extremely unexpected, will be Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers. 

Even Nagy’s mentor, Andy Reid — one of most progressive, longest-tenured coaches in the NFL — still plays his starters in preseason games. That’s not to say it’s right or wrong. Nagy just doesn’t think that approach makes sense for his team. 

“Coach (Reid) has his way and I think coach Reid would be the first to tell you that if I’m not being me and if I’m not trying to do what I think is right for our team, then I’m not coach Reid,” Nagy said. “I’ve learned so much from him, but for our team and our situation I need to do what’s best for us and I just feel like that’s where it’s at.

“September 5th is an important day for us.”

The Bears lost reserve tackle Rashaad Coward to an elbow injury during Friday’s game, while longtime practice squad safety Jonathon Mincy was looked at for a concussion. Left guard Cody Whitehair, who injured his finger during Wednesday’s practice, was participating in pregame warmups with only that lone finger taped. 

See Montgomery, burns?

Nagy felt himself getting carried away praising Montgomery after the third-round pick’s impressive preseason debut last week against the Carolina Panthers, to the point he later smirked that Montgomery’s seven-yard touchdown run was just “average.” 

Still, the Bears clearly had seen enough of Montgomery after one game. All the things he put on tape at Iowa State — patience, contact balance, tackle breaking, good hands, etc. — showed up against the Panthers. So in addition to Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis, Montgomery wasn’t put into harm’s way against the Giants. The next snap he takes in a game will be Sept. 5, barring a surprise. 

“I would say he’s done a good job in practice,” Nagy said. “We like what we’ve seen.”

Spot locked up for Wims?

As promised, some thoughts on Wims, who led the Bears having caught five of six targets for 64 yards, including an impressive 29-yard snag just before halftime. It was games like this that led the Bears to feel as if they had to keep the 2018 seventh-round pick on their roster last year instead of risking him to waivers in an attempt to sneak him on to the practice squad. With another strong showing on film for the rest of the league to see, the thought here is Wims’ roster spot is all but secure. 

And it’s not like Wims’ good game came out of nowhere — he’s been progressing to a night like this since the start of training camp. Cornerback Prince Amukamara — who got in a tussle with Wims during Tuesday’s practice — said he’s sensed a different gear in Wims since OTAs in spring, combining improved speed with developing route-running skills and the same go-up-and-get-it ability that was all over his college tape at Georgia. 

Wims’ 29-yard reception — after which the Bears clocked the ball with one second left, leading to Eddy Pineiro hitting a short field goal (one he wished he was longer) — was probably the most impressive offensive play of the game. 

“We practice that stuff,” Nagy said. ‘So what they just did with 16 seconds is hard to do and they did it very effectively, so when you look for positives for us, that’s something that I’m going to come away from this weekend and say you guys just rocked it, you did that the right way and we just got three points off of you guys executing what we teach you,”

Marvin Hall can still make the Bears’ roster, and for the second consecutive week broke free downfield for what could’ve been a big-chunk play only to have third-string quarterback Tyler Bray overthrow him. But he had a rough punt return, running backward from his own 19-yard line and, combined with a penalty assessed to sixth-round pick Duke Shelley, dropped the Bears at their own eight-yard line. 

Peaking Duck, and other ups and downs

— Undrafted corner Clifton Duck jumped an Alex Tanney pass at the goal line and dashed 62 yards for the Bears’ most impressive defensive play of the game. Duck is undersized and may not have the speed of Shelley, but his ball skills have consistently shown up during training camp. Those haven’t come out of nowhere, either: No FBS player had more interceptions than Duck from 2016-2018. 

And it’s not just the interceptions that’ve caught Nagy’s eye. His tenacity on the field has been noted, and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets more run with the second-team defense next weekend against the Indianapolis Colts. At the least, he looks like a good practice squad candidate; at best, he could make a push for a roster spot in a crowded group of young reserve corners. 

“He’s done it in practice. I like that,” Nagy said. “I think anybody that has some ball skills, which he does, that is always playing hard, you appreciate that. And I know he makes it difficult for our quarterbacks.”

Read more about Duck here

— It wasn’t as impressive a day for the rest of that aforementioned group of young corners. Shelley missed a tackle on wide receiver Bennie Fowler, allowing the ex-Bears training camp receiver to score a touchdown on the Giants’ opening drive. Shelley also committed that penalty on Hall’s punt return. 

The Bears rotated Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin as their outside corners throughout the game. Franklin had wide receiver T.J. Jones blanketed to force an incompletion in the second quarter, but was then beat by the former Notre Dame receiver for a 15-yard touchdown later in the game. Franklin, the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback, was also beat for a 37-yard gain in the third quarter, though it looked like Giants receiver Da'Mari Scott might’ve pushed off on the play. 

Joseph was beat for a 40-yard gain, though the play was more about the outstanding throw made by sixth overall pick Daniel Jones to wide receiver Cody Latimer. 

— Running back Ryan Nall had a solid 14-yard run to pick up a first down in the first quarter, which undrafted tight end Dax Raymond helped spring with a nice block on the edge. Nall started on offense over seventh-round rookie Kerrith Whyte Jr., though neither were particularly effective on the ground (Nall: seven carries, 23 yards; Whyte: six carries, 10 yards). Nall did catch four passes for 21 yards while. 

— Still, Whyte had the best non-highlight highlight of the game when he housed an Aldrick Rosas’ kickoff for a 103-yard touchdown, only to have it called back due to a holding penalty on Isaiah Irving (if you were watching the TV broadcast — Franklin was initially flagged for the penalty, but it was corrected to be assessed to Irving). While it didn’t count, it put Whyte’s breakaway speed on display. That could be an important point in his favor if the Bears’ roster comes down to keeping four running backs (with Whyte) or seven wide receivers (with Hall). 

— Receiver/running back Taquan Mizzell lost two fumbles in the span of four offensive plays. The most notable part of it: The Metlife Stadium PA system blasting Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" after the first one, and then playing Britney Spears' "Oops...I Did It Again" after the second. Ouch. 

— It didn’t feel like a particularly good game for the Bears’ reserve tight ends. Bradley Sowell was whistled for a false start with the Bears at their own eight-yard line, and he was burned by Giants linebacker Markus Golden for a sack. While Raymond had a good block on Nall’s run, neither he nor fellow undrafted rookie Ian Bunting were noticeable. Neither player was targeted — in fact, not a single Bears tight end received a target on Friday. 

— Two other splash plays on defense: McManis with a perfectly-executed Peanut Punch to force a fumble, and outside linebacker James Vaughters’ strip/sack/recovery, which he returned eight yards to the Giants’ 12-yard line. 

That McManis has been working with the third-team safety pairing shouldn’t be taken as a sign he’s on the roster bubble — he’s a veteran core special teamer who acquitted himself well enough as a slot corner following Bryce Callahan’s season-ending injury last year. 

And Vaughters’ play was notable if only because the Bears’ reserve outside linebackers — him, Irving, Kylie Fitts, Mathieu Betts, Chuck Harris — haven’t flashed much during both practices and games so far this preseason. The Bears may only wind up carrying four outside linebackers (Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, TBD — though Irving has the inside track) if general manager Ryan Pace sticks to the “best 53” approach he’s said he’s taking. 

Are the Bears really the 2020 offseason's biggest loser? Bleacher Report thinks so

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USA Today

Are the Bears really the 2020 offseason's biggest loser? Bleacher Report thinks so

Would you describe the Bears' free agency plan as disastrous? 

Bleacher Report would, apparently. In a lengthy piece titled 'Chicago Bears Are NFL Offseason's Biggest Losers So Far,' B/R's Brent Sobleski lays out his case for why the Bears have bungled every move they've made since the season ended in December. Sobleski's take boils down to the idea that "the Bears simply failed at the start of the new league year and had the offseason's worst overall effort." He starts off with, if you can believe it, some Mitch Trubisky commentary: 

The organization dug its proverbial heels in when it came to Mitchell Trubisky ... So, the Bears GM left the door slightly open, and less than a month later, Chicago flipped the 140th overall pick in April's NFL draft to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Nick Foles. 

Sobleski then goes on to say that the move makes sense on the surface, which is sort of a weird place to start, but OK. It's pointed out that Foles couldn't beat out Garner Minshew in Jacksonville after returning from a broken collarbone, and that either way, Cam Newton – health concerns aside – would have been the better choice. Huh! It was, according to Sobleski, a market misjudgment. 

He then runs back the same argument with Jimmy Graham, which, well, yeah. 

The kicker is a wary warning about Robert Quinn, who reached double-digit sacks for the first time since 2014 prior to signing a five-year, $70 million contract with the Bears. Sobleski argues in favor of younger options like Shaq Lawson or Dante Fowler – neither of which have had better sack numbers than Quinn in any season they've played, but whatever. 

So is it possible the Bears' offseason plan ends up being a disaster? Sure! But also, look around the league: the Patriots just lost the greatest quarterback of all-time to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Texans' one-man front office traded a Hall-of-Fame wide receiver – and good friend of their franchise quarterback – to the Cardinals for a running back who's past his prime and attached to an cripplingly large contract. The Titans gave Ryan Tannehill 62 million guaranteed dollars! Are some of Pace's decisions curious-if-not-questionable? Probably, yeah. That's free agency. But given how bonkers the NFL has been the last month or so, rolling the dice on a few depth moves doesn't quite feel like a disaster. 

Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields offer Bears quarterback options in 2021 NFL Draft

Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields offer Bears quarterback options in 2021 NFL Draft

The Chicago Bears don't have a first-round pick in 2021. And even if they did, they wouldn't spend it on a quarterback. It's too soon to re-invest in a first-round quarterback just four seasons after selecting Mitch Trubisky with the second overall pick in 2017.

That won't be the case next year, however.

The Bears played the right strategy this offseason. They invested a fourth-round pick in a veteran quarterback, Nick Foles, who has enough league-wide credibility to challenge Trubisky for the starting job, and has the confidence from his teammates to win games if he ends up QB1. 

But Foles isn't the long-term answer if he becomes the starter this fall. The Bears will be back in the quarterback market in next year's draft if Trubisky fails, and, fortunately, there will be two high-end prospects expected to turn pro in 2021: Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State's Justin Fields.

While it's way too early to go through each player's strengths and weaknesses, it's fair to say that both of them possess exciting traits in line with the league's top quarterbacks.

Lawrence, in particular, will be one of the highest (if not the highest) graded players to enter the league in quite some time. Even on the heels of Joe Burrow-mania, Lawrence will be the quarterback front offices view as a can't-miss, generational prospect.

RELATED: How much does Jimmy Graham have left in the tank?

With that in mind, and if the Bears' 2020 season goes sideways early on, would it be better for Chicago to keep an eye on the 2021 draft order instead of push for meaningless November and December wins?

It's a debate that tears fanbases apart. Bears fans are no exception. Traditionalists will argue that every win builds a positive culture, and losses (even if they result in a better draft pick) should never be the goal. 

Draft purists may beg to differ. Why field a roster that continues to finish at or just above .500 when one really bad season could turn into a decade or longer with a franchise quarterback under center?

There's no right answer. And the scars from the Trubisky era, if it ends in 2020, will run deep. Fans will recall the high grades and praise Trubisky received as a prospect and will fear more of the same if Chicago ends up in striking distance for Lawrence or Fields next April.

The responses to this tweet that I fired out on March 28 gives a sense of the split among Bears fans when it comes to tanking for Lawrence heading into 2020:

Even if you aren't the biggest Trubisky fan, and even if you've been loyal to him but fear the floor is about to drop out from under him this season, the best-case scenario for Chicago is for Trubisky to take a big and significant step in his development in 2020.

A winning season, even if it's just nine or 10 wins, led by Trubisky having the kind of year everyone expected from him last season is the ultimate goal. It will give the Bears confidence that they have their young franchise quarterback already in place and will allow the franchise to focus on stacking winning seasons together.

Otherwise, another reboot led by another highly drafted quarterback will be right around the corner.

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