How five key Bears position battles are playing out during training camp

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How five key Bears position battles are playing out during training camp

It’s easy to put undue importance on one preseason game, let alone a handful of snaps from it. Take it from Bears coach Matt Nagy:

“If somebody comes out and has a poor game it doesn't mean they're getting cut,” Nagy said. “If they come out and have a great game it doesn't mean they made the team.”

That line of thinking certainly applies to guys on the fringe of the Bears’ 53-man roster, but it also applies to players who will be on the team but are competing for a role on it. For most of the latter group, Thursday night’s 30-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was their first live game action of 2018; for most players fighting for a roster spot, it was their second game, coming a week after the Aug. 2 Hall of Fame Game. 

In addition to these two preseason games, the Bears have held 13 training camp practices in Bourbonnais, which are a significant part of a player’s evaluation, too. There still are three games, two joint practices with the Denver Broncos and a few more weeks of work at Halas Hall separating the Bears from Sept. 9's season opener in Green Bay. Nobody's earned a role or a roster spot yet, but some of these competitions have come into focus now that the first true preseason game of 2018 is in the books:

1. Defensive end: Jonathan Bullard vs. Roy Robertson-Harris

While Bullard and Robertson-Harris are treating training camp as a competition, both have performed well enough to earn themselves snaps come Sept. 9. 

Robertson-Harris, in particular, has had a strong few weeks in practices and games, and notched the Bears’ only sack against the Bengals. He added two pressures and a tackle for a loss, too. 

“The games matter,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “You find out who can put it all together when the lights shine. Every day we grade these guys, and every game we grade these guys, and whoever is consistently doing these things will move up and down on the depth chart.”

The 6-foot-5 Robertson-Harris is up to 294 pounds, nearly 40 pounds heavier than he was when he signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent back in 2016. His size, length and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect who, even if Bullard wins the third defensive line starting job in the Bears’ base defense, looks likely to get on the field plenty in 2018. 

2. Offensive line: Eric Kush vs. Earl Watford vs. James Daniels

Daniels logged 44 snaps in his first action in a Bears uniform on Thursday and, on first glance, played well. 

“I got to go back and watch it and see the details of his technique, for the most part I thought he played really well,” Nagy said. “That was really neat to see. I was proud of him.”

That Daniels played center not only Thursday, but in practice this week, was noteworthy given the post-draft insistance of general manager Ryan Pace that the 20-year-old would begin his pro career as a guard. Not having Hroniss Grasu (ankle) available in practice or Thursday’s game likely contributed to Daniels taking reps at center, but whatever the reason, he took advantage of them. 

Meanwhile, Kush was beat by Geno Atkins — who is, to be fair, one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league — for a first-quarter sack, and Cody Whitehair was whistled for a holding penalty drawn by Atkins, too. We’re still a long ways from Daniels unseating a veteran in Kush or Watford from the top of the depth chart, and forcing Whitehair off center to guard, but Thursday’s game was a step in the right direction for the second-round pick. 

3. Wide receiver: Javon Wims vs. Bennie Fowler vs. DeMarcus Ayers vs. Tanner Gentry

Wims wasn’t able to follow up his strong Hall of Fame Game (seven catches, 89 yards) with another productive day Thursday, only catching two of three targets for six yards — and the one target he didn’t catch was a drop. Still, we saw Wims get some work on more special teams units — he played gunner on punt coverage in addition to running down kickoffs — and how he grades on Chris Tabor’s film will be important, too, in addition to what he put on tape on offense. 

Fowler has had some trouble catching the ball in his two preseason games, while Ayers flashed a bit with three catches for 24 yards and a three-yard touchdown run. Still, he faces an uphill climb to the roster, as he’s behind a few other guys as a punt returner (and the poor guy was whistled for lowering his helmet trying to tackle Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem on a fake punt). 

Gentry had the best game of any receiver, catching six of 11 targets for 54 yards — and he should’ve had a touchdown had Tyler Bray not underthrown him when he got a step on cornerback KeiVarae Russell (who picked the pass off). 

In reality, the Bears don’t absolutely have to take a sixth receiver, if we presume five guys are locked into roster spots (Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, Josh Bellamy). Robinson, Miller and Gabriel certainly are safe; while White dropped a pass and was largely invisible for the first half, it would take many more uneven practices and games for the Bears to even consider cutting bait on their 2015 first-round pick. Bellamy is a core special teamer who likely isn’t going anywhere, either. 

So not only is this group of receivers competing against each other, they’re competing with a bunch of other guys at different positions to grab a spot on the Week 1 53-man roster. This is especially true after both of the guys competing to be the Bears’ fourth-string tight end — Daniel Brown (five catches, 90 yards) and Ben Braunecker (one catch, 20 yards) — played well Thursday and have put together solid training camps to date. 

4. Cornerback: Marcus Cooper vs. The Field

With Prince Amukamara held out, Cooper had a chance Thursday to put some good things on tape. He didn’t. The Bengals consistently picked on him, and he didn’t do much to take advantage of getting those opportunities coming his way. 

Amukamara and Kyle Fuller are the unquestioned starters at outside corner, and Bryce Callahan will again be the primary slot corner, with Cre’von LeBlanc likely being his backup. Special teams captain Sherrick McManis has a roster spot, too. So that leaves a fairly wide open competition for one or two reserve cornerback spots, depending on how things shake out come Labor Day weekend. 

The price tag for releasing Cooper — $750,000, per Spotrac — isn’t prohibitive, given the Bears paid double that amount to jettison an ineffective Victor Cruz at the end of last year’s preseason. So throw Cooper into the mix with Doran Grant (who had two pass break-ups, though one of those was a dropped interception), Michael Joseph, Anthony Toliver, Rashard Fant (who didn’t play) and John Franklin III (who struggled to cover Auden Tate in his first game action this preseason). 

There’s an opportunity for any of those guys to make the Week 1 roster, or none of them could perform well enough and the Bears will wind up scouring the waiver wire for a reserve cornerback. The next few weeks of practice and these last three games will be critical for someone from this group of cornerbacks to separate themselves from the pack. 

5. Inside Linebacker: Nick Kwiatkoski vs. Roquan Smith

No, Smith isn’t with the team, and there haven’t been any signs that the stalemate between his camp and the Bears will end. Eventually, though, Smith and the Bears will come to an agreement on a contract and he’ll join the team, even if we don’t know when that will be. 

But when Smith does start practicing, he’s not going to immediately take over as a starting inside linebacker. Kwiatkoski is a dependable guy who, on Thursday, called the defense with Danny Trevathan sitting the game out. Bears coaches know they can trust Kwiatkoski; without seeing Smith in pads yet, that’s still a question mark for the eighth overall pick. 

That being said, as colleague John “Moon” Mullin wrote Thursday, there’s not much correlation in team history between a rookie holding out and not having a successful career. Everything Smith did back in OTAs and minicamp was positive, and the athletic traits, football IQ and work ethic that led the Bears to spend the eighth overall pick on him haven’t gone away while he’s separated from the team. 

The point: Smith will, eventually, re-join the Bears and then will win a starting job. But he’ll have to compete with Kwiatkoski to do so — it’s not like he’s stepping into a gaping hole on this defense. But again, if Smith truly is great, he won’t have a problem displacing Kwiatkoski and winning the starting gig the Bears need him to have in 2018. 

What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

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What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

DENVER — With Roquan Smith finally in tow, the Bears headed to Denver on Tuesday for a pair of joint practices with the Broncos leading up Saturday’s preseason game at Mile High Stadium. 

The Bears last held joint practices with the New England Patriots in 2016, and for coach Matt Nagy, this week will be his first experience with practicing with and against another team. For Bears players, the opportunity to practice against opposition — instead of their teammates, as has been the case for nearly a month — will inject some life into the dog days of the preseason. 

“It’s a great opportunity to compete against other guys and you get to go out there, and you’ve been beating on your guys all year long and all training camp long,” defensive end Akiem Hicks. “It’s an opportunity to have some other type of competition. And then to finish it up and play them at the end of the week, it just works well.”

Nagy said on Sunday he doesn’t anticipate Wednesday and Thursday’s practices will be live, and Broncos coach Vance Joseph said on Tuesday he spoke with Nagy about working to prevent the kind of fights that have popped up in some other joint practices this month. Washington and the Jets, most notably, had an all-out brawl earlier this week in a joint practice. 

“It’s always good the biggest thing when you do these team scrimmages together, you just want to stay away form the fights,” Nagy said. “As long as guys do that it’s definitely a benefit for both teams.”

The main benefit lies in the boost players should get from competing against another team's players instead of their teammates. That competitive jolt is beneficial, especially for a team that’s been practicing longer than anyone else besides the Baltimore Ravens thanks to participating in the Hall of Fame Game Aug. 2. 

“It’s a different defensive scheme all week,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We are lucky to go against a great defense in practice, but it will be nice to go against someone else (with) different styles and different coverages.

“It’s going to be competition all week, so we definitely have to bring it. It will be a great week for us to get better and compete and see who wants to win every single snap — not just a game, not just practice periods, but every single snap, every single rep.”

For Smith, Wednesday and Thursday will be a head-first dive into the Bears’ defense. Even if coaches try to ease him into things — which won’t necessarily be the case — it will come against an offense not controlled by Nagy and Mark Helfrich. These two practices will be a good early test for where Smith is in terms of knowledge and football shape after his four-week holdout. 

And for the rest of the Bears, these two practices represent an opportunity to compete against someone different while breaking up the monotony of preseason practices. That’s generally a good thing — even if you’re, say, a tight end who all of a sudden has to try to block Von Miller. 

“I know they have some good edge guys,” tight end Adam Shaheen said with a bit of a grin. “… I think once we saw the schedule, all the tight ends were looking at those guys. it’ll be a good challenge and a good chance to get better.”

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

Roquan Smith signed his rookie contract Tuesday morning and took part in a light walkthrough practice shortly thereafter at Halas Hall, but his coaches are still a ways away from anointing him as a contributor, let alone a starter, for Week 1 of the regular season.

In a more narrow scope, coach Matt Nagy said he wasn’t sure if Smith would be available for Saturday’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos, but did say that the eighth overall pick would be in uniform for Wednesday and Thursday’s joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado. The first step for Nagy, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires and the Bears’ training staff will be to determine what kind of football shape Smith is in, which will become apparent in the coming days. 

Nagy said he might have an idea in a week or 10 days whether or not Smith will be able to contribute in Week 1, but not only does he have to prove that he’s in the right physical and mental shape to do so, he’ll have to prove he’s a better option than Nick Kwiatkoski. Chances are, the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will be able to prove he’s better than Kwiatkoski, who is a solid player in his own right. But if Smith can't, that would say more about him than it would about Kwiatkoski (who, again, Bears coaches already trust). 

“I’ve seen him out here with no pads on for an hour and a half,” Nagy said. “I’ll be able to stay in touch with Vic and we’ll ask, we’ll see how that goes and obviously you hope (he’ll contribute Week 1), right? That’s one of the benefits of him being here now but we just have to see. And I don’t think it’s fair to the other guys as well that have been out here battling each and every day, so again, go back to you have to earn it, and come out here and show it.”

Pro Football Talk reported the Bears and Smith’s camp reached a compromise to end the 29-day holdout. You can read the specifics here, but it boils down to this: Smith received ample protection for on-field disciplinary incidents, while the Bears retained their ability to void the guarantee on Smith’s money in an extreme case (think like if Smith becomes the next Vontaze Burfict). 

Smith declined to get into the specifics of his holdout, frequently deferring to “my agent and Mr. Pace” when asked for specifics. Nagy said he didn’t want to dwell on the past, now that the “past” of Smith’s holdout is over. 

But Nagy did say Smith was getting close to the point in his holdout where his availability for Week 1 would’ve been in doubt. So while the timing of Smith’s deal wasn’t ideal — ideal would’ve been mid-July — the opportunity is there for him to prove to his coaches and teammates that he’ll be ready for that curtain-lifting trip to Green Bay. 

“That’s up to the coaches, to decide on, you know, when they feel that I’m ready,” Smith said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can do to prepare myself to get ready. I’ve got confidence in my coaches in there to catch me back up to speed.”

Smith’s level of participation will be closely watched in the coming weeks, starting with these two joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday. Will he already be swiping first-team reps from Kwiatkoski, who had a solid camp while Smith was away? Will all the positive things he put on tape (without pads on) during OTAs and minicamp show back up? Or will he look a little lost early on and need some more time to get up to speed?

These joint practices will be an interesting introduction for Smith into the preseason, though, given the practices he has participated in — OTAs, minicamps and Tuesday’s walkthrough — have consisted of controllable, relatively low-intensity reps. 

“What’s going to happen is in practice that we go against each other there’s a normal consistent pace every day, and now it’s going to naturally pick up when you go against another team,” Nagy said. “But I’m not worried about it with Roquan. I know that he’ll be ready for that, as the rest of our guys will.”

While the Bears will want to give Kwiatkoski a fair chance to keep his job, come Sept. 9, the two best inside linebackers the Bears have will be on the field together against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Danny Trevathan and Smith could be those guys — and, realistically, they should be those guys. The Bears didn’t draft Smith to sit on the bench against Rodgers in a game against a historic rival they’ve only beat three times in their last 19 meetings. 

The process of getting on the field began Tuesday for Smith. It will continue this week — even if he doesn’t play Saturday in Denver — and then next week leading up to Aug. 25’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. When Nagy said he’ll have a good idea in a week or a week and a half if Smith will be ready for Green Bay, that hints at Smith’s role in the Chiefs game being telling for what he’ll do at Lambeau Field 15 days later. 

To figure that out, the Bears are going to put a lot on Smith’s plate. There’s no time for a slow introduction into things. 

And if the team’s evaluation of his skillset, football intelligence and work ethic is correct, he’ll handle that accelerated workload well and, ultimately, earn the starting gig for which he’s been destined since late April. 

“If you take too many baby steps  and you don’t test him enough then you don’t know what his limit is,” Nagy said. “So I think you go ahead  and you throw stuff at him. I think right now we have to make sure physically you don’t overdo it. Mentally he’s fine. We can pull back on that but physically don’t over do it.”