Bears

Postcard from Camp: The center of attention

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USA Today Sports Images

Postcard from Camp: The center of attention

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — While Matt Nagy said he liked what James Daniels put on tape over 44 snaps at center Thursday night, the Bears’ coach said he’s not considering a path to get the second-round rookie into the starting lineup at that position just yet. 

That path would have to begin with Cody Whitehair taking snaps at left guard, clearing the way for Daniels to work with the first-team offensive line as a center. Perhaps the 20-year-old Daniels could work his way into the mix at left guard, which has been manned primarily by Eric Kush during training camp. But for now, it doesn’t sound as if the Bears are willing to re-work their offensive line based on one game and a handful of practices. 

“We like where Cody is,” Nagy said. “Cody is doing a great job. If you go back to OTAs, this is what we said, we said was we want to make sure we keep him honing in on that position, get those reps. The center is like playing quarterback. So if you start moving guys around to different spots now you’re playing with fire, in my opinion.”

Daniels, then, still has plenty to prove in the coming weeks if he is to force his way into the Week 1 starting lineup. While impressive in Cincinnati, we’re still talking about someone who can’t legally drink and played well against second-stringers (and not Bengals star defensive tackle Geno Atkins). So the Bears are keeping Daniels’ development in perspective, and aren’t yet willing to deviate from the plan they set in place the day Daniels was drafted. It would seem fair to read Nagy's comments as a sort of endorsement of Whitehair being the Week 1 center. 

But while that was and is the plan, if Daniels ends the month of August as one of the Bears’ five best offensive linemen, he’ll play in Green Bay or soon thereafter, even if that means another position change for Whitehair. Then again, the Bears moved Whitehair to center just before the 2016 season and that worked out well. Perhaps a late insertion of a natural center into their starting lineup will work even better. 

Saturday Night Lights

The Bears held their final padded (and open to the public) practice of training camp Saturday night at Olivet Nazarene University’s Ward Field, and it wasn’t much of a turnaround for a first-team offense that looked sloppy Thursday night in Cincinnati. 

Granted, a lot of the same guys were held out Saturday as were Thursday, like wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. Jordan Howard was back, though, while Javon Wims left practice with a quad injury. 

“It's a pretty long day for them mentally with the stretch of meetings that we had and then to have a late practice, coming off a day off, and now knowing that we break camp here after tomorrow,” Nagy said. “I thought the energy was decent. Could've been a little better. But at the same time, we've got some guys who have some tired legs and just like all the other teams that are in this spot.”

The Bears will hold a shorter, lighter practice Sunday afternoon before breaking camp and heading to Denver on Tuesday for two joint practices with the Broncos leading up to playing them in preseason game No. 3 Aug. 18.

Briefly

With third-string running back Benny Cunningham nursing a shoulder injury, the Bears on Saturday waived offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and signed running back Knile Davis. Nagy knows Davis well from their time together in Kansas City (2013-2016), in which Davis scored 13 touchdowns — 10 rushing, two returning and one receiving. 

The 26-year-old Davis did not play in the NFL in 2017 after being waived from the Pittsburgh Steelers on cut-down day. 

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

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USA Today

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

The Bears battle for the 53-man roster doesn’t have many contentious positions entering training camp.

Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy brought back largely the same roster from their breakout 2018 season, finding replacements for the few players gone in free agency.

Outside of kicker, the entire starting lineup is pretty much set for Week 1, and the main competitions to stick with the team are at the bottom of the depth chart.

It leaves the roster with no notable veterans that stand out as candidates to be cut. ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson was asked to name one for an article, and he couldn’t come up with any.

He mentioned Taquan Mizzell, who made the move from running back to wide receiver this offseason, but as Dickerson pointed out “Mizzell is hardly a well-known commodity around the league.”

Former third-round pick Jonathan Bullard hasn’t lived up to his draft status, but the Bears have seemed comfortable keeping him around in a backup role.

The Bears roster has very little fat to trim. The only other player who could potentially qualify is cornerback Sherrick McManis, since the team has so many young players at his position, but he’s been working at safety to increase his value, and he’s one of the team’s best special teams contributors.

The trim down from the 90-man roster shouldn’t have too many significant surprises, which is why so much of the attention this offseason continues to go to the kicker position.

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

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USA Today

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

Alex Bars was cleared to practice last week, allowing him his first chance to put on a helmet since tearing his ACL and MCL Sept. 29 while playing for Notre Dame. The undrafted guard was able to participate in veteran minicamp, allowing him to shake off some rust before his real push for a roster spot begins in training camp next month. 

Many speculated Bars would’ve been as high as a mid-round draft pick if not for that devastating knee injury. It didn’t take the 6-foot-6, 312 pound Bars long, though, to decide where he wanted to go after not being picked in April’s draft. Call it the Harry Hiestand effect. 

Bars played under Hiestand’s tutelage at Notre Dame from 2014-2017, and said he always wanted to wind up with the Bears to work with his former coach — just as 2018 top-10 picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey hoped to as well. 

“I remember talking about that, because they both wanted to play for him,” Bars said. “They understand where he can take you and how phenomenal a coach he is, so they both wanted that. And I’m just the same way.”

While Nelson transformed the Indianapolis Colts’ playoff-bound offensive line and McGlinchey showed plenty of promise with the San Francisco 49ers, the reunion of Bars and Hiestand carries some intriguing possibilities for the Bears. Bars has always had upside — he was a four-star recruit out of Nashville in 2014 — and getting to work with Hiestand may be the best way to tap into that potential. 

“He knows me very well, I understand his technique very well,” Bars said. “So having that connection, that player-coach connection all four years through college is huge.”

Hiestand called Bars after his injury last fall and offered some words of encouragement, which only furthered Bars' wish to play for his former college coach in the NFL. 

"That meant everything," Bars said. "He cares so much off the field as well as on the field. That’s who he is."  

Bars wasn’t able to participate in OTAs or rookie minicamp, but Hiestand doesn’t see that as putting him in a tough spot to make the Bears' 53-man roster. And there will very much be an opportunity for Bars to make a push during training camp, given 10-year veteran Ted Larsen only has $90,000 in guaranteed money on his one-year contract. 

It may not be the more eye-catching roster battle during training camp, but the Bears hope they can find interior offensive line depth through competition in Bourbonnais. And Bars, now cleared to practice, will get his shot. 

“He’ll have the chance because he’s smart, he understands the technique, he knows what to do,” Hiestand said during OTAs, when Bars hadn’t practiced yet. “He’s learning the offense even though he’s not doing it. But when we put the pads on that’s when you make or don’t make the team.” 

It’s often unfair — yet far too easy — to place high expectations on undrafted free agents. For every Cameron Meredith or Bryce Callahan who gets unearthed, there are dozens of anonymous players who struggle to stick on an NFL practice squad. 

But Bars is among the more important undrafted free agents on the Bears given his connection with Hiestand and the position he plays. While Kyle Long is healthy, he hasn’t played a full season since 2015, underscoring the Bears’ need for depth on the interior of their offensive line in the immediate future. 

And the Bears would save a little over $8 million against their 2020 cap if they were to make the difficult decision to cut Long in a year. If Bars develops into the kind of player plenty in the NFL thought he could be before his knee injury, that would make releasing Long a little easier to swallow at Halas Hall. 

For now, though, Bars is just hoping to make the Bears. Anything else is a long ways away.

“I’m excited to be here, thrilled for this opportunity and it’s all about productivity,” Bars said. “Just need to be productive and prove you belong on this team.”

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