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.