It is perhaps the most unpleasant reality of the NFL, but at some point in seasons, backups are pressed into service because of injuries to starters, or simply because production from the No. 1s isn’t what was expected and required. The Bears were among the NFL’s most blessed teams for good health in 2018, and while the annual hope is for that to continue, they and the rest of the NFL plan for the scenarios when it doesn’t.
Here are three current backups who project to be critical depth at key positions for a team with Super Bowl aspirations in 2019:
Ben Braunecker, TE
The Bears thought enough of Braunecker to resign the former Harvard tight end to a two-year contract ahead of free agency. Braunecker made the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2016, going to the practice squad that season and the next before being moved to the 53-man roster in-season. Braunecker developed into a four-phase player on special teams but his value may extend deep into the offense.
Braunecker filled in extensively while Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen were returning slowly from injuries through training camp. Burton underwent offseason sports-hernia surgery; Shaheen was slowed last season by lower-leg problems and was hampered with back issues through camp, with the result that Braunecker spent much of practices with Mitchell Trubisky and the No. 1 offense.
“The offense, I think, really fits my playing style very well,” Braunecker said, who has worked on his blocking through the offseason against the likes of Khalil Mack. “There’s always room for improvement, and every single snap I’m out there is not going to be a pass play. So I’ve got to be comfortable or at least capable going against anybody in the league, holding my own and trying to get my job done as best as possible.”
Braunecker at 6-foot-4, 252 pounds, is not the in-line blocker that Shaheen or Bradley Sowell represent. But the Matt Nagy edition of the West Coast offense makes heavy use of tight ends, and neither Burton, who did start 16 games last season but missed the playoff game for health reasons, nor Shaheen, who did not come off IR last year until game 11, have established themselves yet as durable going into 2019.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR/RB/KR
The Bears signed Patterson for his versatility and at some point during the year project to need the former Minnesota Vikings No. 1 pick to be more than simply a Swiss Army gimmick of their offense.
The New England Patriots needed Patterson to understudy running back James White when injuries depleted their running-backs depth chart; Patterson led the Patriots in rushing in a win over the Green Bay Packers. With wideout Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of 2018, quarterback Tom Brady targeted Patterson five times each in the Jacksonville and Miami games, with Patterson playing nearly 50% of the snaps in those two games.
A combination of need and by-choice create situations where Patterson’s use escalates. “I love where he's at,” coach Matt Nagy said. “Mentally I think that he's in a real good spot. But what I need to do and we need to do as coaches is make sure the overload thing doesn't happen because it's easy sometimes to find a toy and want to use it all the time. We have a lot of toys we feel like but we've got to make sure that we use them right.”
Roy Robertson-Harris, DL
The Bears have had a fluid defensive line because of both a commitment to a rotation that keeps players fresh and also the switching from 3-4 to 4-3 for nickel/sub packages. The result is a more diversified position group with ostensibly less reliance on any one individual, although losing front-seven foundation pillars Mack, Eddie Goldman or Akiem Hicks for a sustained stretch of time projects to be nothing short of cataclysmic.
(That said, the Bears won both games - Buffalo, NY Jets - that Mack missed last season and were 3-1 in games in which he was limited to less than 75% of the defensive snaps. Not saying that the Bears can prosper if they lose Mack, but...)
The Bears are a combined 17-12 in regular-season games in which Robertson-Harris plays; they lost all three games he missed in 2017, albeit for reasons obviously beyond just his absence. Through this preseason, Robertson-Harris has been dominant against second-stringers, working now in his second season at 295 pounds, up 30 pounds from his old outside-linebacker range.
“Being on the field, I don’t have to drop back like I did my rookie year and run after receivers, so I say I am pretty comfortable with it,” Robertson-Harris said, “and staying within the box and the strength training is helping me with taking on bigger guys.”
More specifically in the area of making plays that matter: Using a very unofficial measure of production, Robertson-Harris generated one “impact” play (tackle-sack-QB hit-forced/recovered fumble-pass defensed) for every 9.2 snaps played. For context purposes, Hicks was one for every 9.0, Mack one every 8.4 snaps. Leading tacklers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan were 1:6.7 and 1:8.5, respectively.
History says the Bears are very durable along the defensive front. Hicks has not missed a game in his three Bears seasons. Goldman has missed just one over the past two years. Mack’s two missed games in ’18 were the first after four straight 16-game seasons.
But NFL history also says that injuries and downtime do happen. With Robertson-Harris, the Bears have depth that clearly would be starting for many other NFL teams.