Bears

Five position battles still needing clarity as Bears head into final preseason game

Five position battles still needing clarity as Bears head into final preseason game

When the clock hits zero of the Bears’ final preseason game Thursday night, Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and the team’s brain trust will have had four full preseason games, as well as over a month of practices, on which to evaluate a host of players competing for roster spots. The Bears will have an especially clear picture of which players earned a spot on their 53-man roster with so many starters and key reserves barely playing, or not playing at all, in August. 

So far, there’s been some clarity at a few spots. Javon Wims appears to be locked in as the team’s sixth wide receiver. It would be a surprise if Bradley Sowell weren’t the fourth tight end. Nick Kwiatkoski will be the primary backup inside linebacker, while Kevin Pierre-Louis looks set behind him. 

And, yes, at the moment Eddy Pineiro looks to have a good chance of not only making the Bears’ roster, but being their Week 1 kicker, barring a disaster Thursday night. 

But with 60 minutes of football left before Saturday’s 3 p.m. cut-down deadline, there still are a handful of roster battles still up in the air:

4th running back: Kerrith Whyte Jr. vs. Ryan Nall

Whyte is the speedy burner who has upside as a kick returner and a change-of-pace guy out of the backfield. Nall, though, has produced in consecutive preseasons (he has 14 carries for 104 yards this year) and is among the team leaders in special teams snaps in August. 

It feels like Whyte has the edge based on his skillset, and that he was a seventh-round pick (while Nall was an undrafted free agent last year). But another strong game from Nall would give the Bears’ brass something to think about this coming weekend. 

“They are very different,” Nagy said. “I like that though. What it does is it challenges us as a coaching staff as to, what are you looking for? And then you have depth. Special teams comes into play with them, they’re both good in special teams, so they’re pushing each other. The people, the human beings who they are too, they compete, they push and they both want to do well and they’ve both done well in the last two games.” 

Prediction: Whyte makes the roster, Nall is signed to the practice squad

Swing tackle: Alex Bars vs. Rashaad Coward vs. The Field

Coward is not expected to play Thursday, and he still has a large brace on the elbow he injured during the Bears’ second preseason game against the New York Giants. With T.J. Clemmings out for the season with a quad injury and fellow veteran Cornelius Lucas struggling in preseason games, Alex Bars — the undrafted lineman from Notre Dame — will get an extended opportunity to play tackle in Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Tenneseee Titans. 

The Bears liked what Bars did Saturday after he slid over to tackle following Clemmings’ injury, and prior to that he had a good preseason playing guard. Bars is in good position to make the cut on Saturday, but whether he survives on Sunday may boil down to how much the Bears trust him to play tackle in a pinch. The team seems to like Coward’s upside enough to carry him even if he’s unavailable to start the season. 

“(Coward) is arrow up, then he gets hurt,” Nagy said. ”Now, we got to get him back so we can keep developing him and see what he can do. But there's competition there. Sometimes, like the other day when Alex Bars goes in there and starts playing tackle, you see some good things. You know you do or you don't have it. That opened us up a little bit to see some flexibility with him.”

Prediction: Bars and Coward make the roster, but the Bears will actively monitor the waiver wire for a potential replacement 

5th outside linebacker: James Vaughters vs. The Roster

Nagy mentioned Vaughters in the same breath as Khalil Mack this week, at least as it relates to Vaughters’ penchant for strip-sacks over the Bears’ last two preseason games. 

“He's around that football, he's quick around the edge,” Nagy said. “A lot of times you see these guys and they sack the quarterback. But what James is doing is he's going after that football and it's just something that our own guy here in 52 does that a lot. He sacks the football.”

The 26-year-old Vaughters played for the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders from 2017-2018, with his trip north of the border following offseason and/or practice squad stints with the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers. He hasn’t played in an NFL game, but has put some good things on tape that could get him a spot on the Bears’ roster. It’s unlikely he’d beat out Isaiah Irving for the 4th outside linebacker spot, so Vaughters’ main competition may be from players at other positions (like defensive lineman Nick Williams and inside linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe). 

Prediction: Vaughters makes the roster, but will still need to survive a potential waiver-wire acquisition taking a spot

5th inside linebacker: Joel Iyiegbuniwe vs. Josh Woods vs. The Roster

It was notable to see Pierre-Louis — the five-year NFL veteran who’s played in four playoff games — start next to Kwiatkoski at inside linebacker during Saturday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts. All signs are pointing to him making the roster, with Iyiegbuniwe — the team’s fourth-round pick in 2018 — having some work to do to survive the cut. 

Woods has had a solid preseason, so Iyiegbuniwe is competing against him as well as players at other positions for what may be one of the last one or two spots on the roster. Still, no Bears player played more special teams snaps than Iyiegbuniwe last year, and his contributions there should help keep him safe even if he’s been passed on the inside linebacking depth chart. 

Prediction: Iyiegbuniwe makes the roster, Woods is signed to the practice squad

Backup cornerback: Kevin Toliver II vs. John Franklin III vs. Michael Joseph; Duke Shelley vs. Clifton Duck

Somewhat concerning is how none of the members of this competition have taken a hold of being Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller’s primary backup. Per Pro Football Focus, this group’s individual passer ratings of opposing quarterbacks when targeted: 122.6 (Franklin), 112.3 (Joseph), 108.3 (Toliver). 

Expanding this to slot corner, no Bears player has allowed a higher passer rating than the 127.5 mark charged to Duke Shelley, while no corner has allowed a lower one than Clifton Duck (31.2). Duck, as an undrafted free agent, has a much higher hurdle to clear to make the roster than the sixth-round-picked Shelley. And Duck has mostly played against third-stringers, while Shelley has faced some first-stringers over the course of the preseason. 

“(Shelley’s) getting used to the speed of the game,” Nagy said. “He's a twitchy kid that can play inside and has good ball skills. Just the more he gets playing-time wise, the slower the game will be, but I like where he's at.”

Prediction: Toliver and Shelley make the roster, Franklin III and Joseph sign to the practice squad. But the Bears could look to add either a sixth corner, or replace Toliver, on the waiver wire. 

Bear PAWS: Overcoming bad mojo in Green Bay

Bear PAWS: Overcoming bad mojo in Green Bay

When we think about or hear the number “13,” it makes us reflect on any number of negative things that could possibly happen in a given situation. We imagine black cats crossing our path and shattered mirrors creating bad luck environments. Even Jason Voorhees, a boogeyman character from the “Friday the 13th” franchise, enters our mindset, unnerving us with portents of doom and unfortunate circumstance.

Thirteen generates an apprehension similar to the feeling most Bears fans get when the team goes to Green Bay and “has” to win important, playoff-qualifying games. Sometimes numbers, the stars and our fates align with the weird and unexplainable, producing outcomes that are inexplicable. Fortunately, we can use P.A.W.S. (Predictive Analysis With Statistics) to explain how No. 13 and Green Bay may disrupt the Bears’ immediate future.

After 13 games this season, the Packers are ranked 13th both in scoring offense (300 points) and defensive points allowed (270). Coincidence? I think not! Mysteriously, this year’s first game — played to kick-start the NFL’s 100th season —  ended with a grand total of 13 points scored collectively between the rivals. Strangely, the Packers produced 13 first downs in a victory, while Chicago generated 16 first downs, yet still lost. During the same game, Packers running back Aaron Jones led all rushers with 39 yards on...13 carries! Conversely, the Bears’ passing attack led to 13 targets for wide receiver Allen Robinson (102 yards, no touchdowns), coupled with an interception in the endzone that cemented the outcome.

Looking further down the rabbit hole, we find Packers’ wide receiver Allen Lazard, who wears jersey No. 13. Sure, he’s only seventh on the team in receptions (24) and fifth in receiving yards (349), but he’s second on the team in yards per reception (14.5) among players with 15 or more passes caught. Eerily, Lazard had his best pro game during Week 13, amassing 103 yards on three receptions (34.3 YPC), and one receiving touchdown. Yes, it's almost time to cue the shrieking violin music followed by inaudible whispered voices.

All is not gloom and doom for the Monsters of the Midway, as the Bears can still positively impact their playoff fate by beating the Packers on Sunday. Although Green Bay is 13th in scoring average (23.8 PPG), Chicago averaged 24.7 PPG over their last three games to rank 12th in the league during that span. The Packers are completing passes at 64.5 percent, 13th in the NFL. The Bears completed exactly 70 percent of passes thrown in their last three contests, winning each game.

Green Bay, too, has its struggles with 13 and its negative effects. When it comes to third down conversions, the Packers are 13th-worst, converting only 35.7 percent of their chances. The Bears convert at a higher rate on the road (38.9%) and over the last three games, the Bears’ 43.2 percent conversion rate is top 10 in the NFL. The Packers have noticeably struggled stopping the opposition’s running attack. The Packers rank 25th in stopping the run, allowing 122.8 yards per game and are even worse at home, giving up 139.3 yards per contest at Lambeau Field.

Friday was Dec. 13, and while that may raise the hackles on one’s neck — or increase the number of goosebumps — each team must rise above superstition in order to win. The Bears can either look around for good omens to reveal themselves or they can beat the Packers by:

● Taking advantage of a Packers pass defense ranked 21st in passing yards allowed per game (245.1) - the Bears are ranked 13th, allowing 230.2 yards per game.

● Improve in red zone completion percentage. Last year, Mitch Trubisky was 13th in the league at 64.1 percent, while this season he has a lowly 53.2 percent rate (33rd in the NFL). 

●Stop or at least contain Jones. He’s averaging 13.5 rush attempts per game, and it’s the first time in his career he’s started all 13 games. The Packers are 14-11 when he starts.

Just like Jason Voorhees, Rodgers and the Packers are hard to finish off. The Bears must overcome this constant horror show by playing to their capabilities and not succumbing to indecision and thoughts of past failures. It’s far past time to put this Rasputin-like team to rest.

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Bears LB coach says Leonard Floyd is doing everything team has asked of him

Bears LB coach says Leonard Floyd is doing everything team has asked of him

Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd's success will be defined by how many sacks he records each year. Maybe it's unfair to judge Floyd based on one statistic, but considering Chicago's draft investment in him (ninth overall pick in 2016), sacks -- and a lot of them -- were the expectation.

Floyd's most productive season as a pass rusher came in his rookie year when he totaled 7.5 sacks. He's managed just 8.5, total, over the last two years (26 total games). It's been more of the same from him in 2019, as he has just three sacks entering Week 15's game against the Packers.

The Bears picked up Floyd's fifth-year option last offseason, which means his cap number will jump from just over $5 million this season to more than $13 million in 2020. It's a hefty price to pay for a player who doesn't get to the quarterback, but linebackers coach Ted Monachino said this week that no player on Chicago's roster can do what Floyd does for the defense.

“There’s only one guy in our building that can do the job that Leonard is asked to do, and that’s Leonard Floyd,” Monachino said, via the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s playing at as high a level as I’ve ever had a ‘Sam’ [linebacker] play. I couldn’t ask any more of him.

“He wears a lot of hats throughout the game. He’s in coverage in base. He’s in coverage in sub. He’s a rusher in base. He’s a rusher in sub. He does it all for us. I do wish for him, and I think it would help all of us if he got some sacks, and we didn’t have to answer the same question once a month. But I do believe he’s playing at as high a level as any ‘Sam’ in our league.”

Monachino's assessment of Floyd's game is certainly fair, but it still doesn't change the fact that he hasn't become the kind of player the Bears were envisioning back in 2016. He was supposed to be John Fox and Vic Fangio's 'Von Miller.'

Instead, Floyd's Pro Football Focus pass-rushing grade ranks 89th among edge defenders in 2019. 

The Bears have the option of rescinding Floyd's fifth-year option this offseason, and with Chicago's tight salary-cap situation, it's a choice they may be forced to make. 

But Floyd has a chance to make a strong final impression on GM Ryan Pace over the final three games of this season, and with the Packers up next, there's a chance he'll do just that. Of his 18 career sacks, 7.5 have come against Green Bay.

"I feel great in the position I’m in," Floyd said this week. "I’m playing for a great organization. I got a lot more left in me.”

The Bears need Floyd to be their 'Von Miller' on Sunday, and for the rest of the season, to turn their near-impossible quest for the playoffs into reality.

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