Don’t expect to see much, if any, of the Bears’ first-teamers play in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field. The goal for Matt Nagy is to be ready for Sept. 5, with as clean a bill of health as possible the most important aspect of being ready for the Green Bay Packers.
But whether or not the starters play won’t diminish the importance of the preseason for Bears coaches and talent evaluators. These four games leading up to the regular season are critical for figuring out the 53-man roster and practice squad. The opportunity to evaluate fringy players and rookies against another team in an actual game setting is massively important.
So with that in mind, here are four position battles we’ll be watching on Thursday — and, likely, all throughout the preseason:
Kicker: Eddy Pineiro vs. Elliott Fry
This list had to start here, right? The Pineiro vs. Fry battle has been a daily storyline during training camp, with every field goal attempted a noteworthy occurrence. So far, the Bears have said they don’t have a favorite in the competition, which has been played out by each kicker’s field goal percentage in practice to date:
Pineiro: 38/45 (84.4 percent)
Fry: 41/49 (83.8 percent)
Pineiro has had the best day (12/12 during Family Fest on Saturday) and the worst day (6/9 during Monday’s practice) so far. A thought here: If Pineiro and Fry continue to be equal, the kicker with the bigger leg — in this case, Pineiro — will “win” the job (with the caveat of the Bears potentially grabbing the actual winner off waivers or via a trade in the next few weeks).
Both will have a chance to kick Thursday night, with the Bears placing more weight on what transpires in preseason games than practices. These four games will go a long way to determining if Pineiro, Fry or someone else is the Bears' Week 1 kicker.
Wide receiver: Javon Wims vs. Marvin Hall vs. The Field
Both Wims and Hall have had good training camps so far, keeping the door open for the Bears to have seven receivers on their initial 53-man roster (Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Cordarrelle Patterson and Riley Ridley being the other five).
Wims has continued to show the go-up-and-get-it skills he flashed last preseason, all while displaying improved route running skills and a budding chemistry with Mitch Trubisky. Hall’s speed stands out, and he’s made a handful of plays downfield during camp.
While neither may catch a pass from Trubisky during a preseason game, that won’t mean they can’t earn spots on the roster with quality play starting Thursday night. More important, though, will be each’s work on special teams: How much, and how effectively, do they contribute on Chris Tabor’s units?
The battle may be shaping up to be less about Wims/Hall vs. other receivers, and Wims/Hall vs. other players, hence the importance on special teams.
The rest of the receiver room will have an opportunity to put some good things on tape in the coming weeks, too. Thomas Ives — the 6-foot-5 Hinsdale Central alum — has flashed in Bourbonnais, while the Bears have liked what they’ve seen from Jordan Williams-Lambert when he’s practiced (he missed a few days with a hamstring injury earlier in camp).
Emanuel Hall hasn’t participated in the Bears’ last three practices. The talented undrafted free agent from Missouri still has time to make an impression, but he needs to get on the field first.
Tight end: Bradley Sowell vs. Ian Bunting vs. Dax Raymond vs. Ellis Richardson
The Bears may only have one tight end spot open on their roster, especially if both Wims and Hall make the cut as sixth and seventh receivers. So that leaves a converted offensive lineman to fend off a trio of undrafted rookies in a competition coaches and front office members will be closely watching over the next three weeks.
Realistically, the Bears need a backup “Y” (in-line) tight end to slot behind Adam Shaheen. Valuable reserve Ben Braunecker has the flexibility to play both the “Y” and the “U” (move) spots, but the Bears need more depth behind Shaheen given the 2017 second-round pick’s injury history. Shaheen has missed 13 games in his two-year career, and recently missed a handful of training camp practices due to a lower back issue.
So that leaves Sowell, Bunting and Raymond as the primary participants in this battle (Richardson has flashed on occasion during camp, but it’d likely take a lot for a guy who’s primarily a “U” to make the roster). Sowell will start with the inside track given his commitment to learning the position and good standing with the coaching staff, but the Bears aren’t going to keep him just because he lost a bunch of weight to make his position switch. He still has to prove he can run routes and be somewhat of a threat in the passing game to make this roster.
Bunting has had the best training camp of the undrafted rookies so far, but Raymond has good receiving upside, too. How each of those guys fares in holding the point of attack on running plays during preseason games will be pivotal as the Bears figure out if either is worthy of carving out a spot for on the 53-man roster.
“It’s good to see when we get the pads on just their level of toughness and their level of finish, and I’m referring to Dax and Ian when they’re playing in-line, because we didn’t necessarily know if they were going to be finishing, tough guys,” tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride said. “But during these practices we’ve seen that they have that in them. And now I just gotta get it out them play in, play out.”
Cornerback: Kevin Toliver II vs. John Franklin III vs. Clifton Duck
The Bears liked Toliver’s length and athleticism enough to keep him over Cre’Von LeBlanc after 2018’s preseason, though the former undrafted free agent will have to earn his place on the roster again under a new defensive coaching staff.
A couple of intriguing challengers: John Franklin III, the former “Last Chance U” star and quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback, and Clifton Duck, the undrafted rookie from Appalachian State.
Franklin has flashed more during camp than we’ve seen in previous practices. The Bears are starting to see him pair improving knowledge of the cornerback position with his top-level speed and athleticism, but a scattering of interceptions during training camp practices won’t be enough to earn him a roster spot. He’ll have to show his coverage skills have improved to the point where the Bears could trust him to fill in for Kyle Fuller or Prince Amukamara before he can earn a roster spot.
Duck has had an interception in each of his last three practices, giving him some camp-based momentum heading into Thursday night. While Cam Newton won’t play, the opportunity for Toliver, Franklin and Duck to face some NFL-level talent that doesn’t play for the Bears will be important to follow.