Some NFL roster decisions are clear; one NFL coach once remarked that he typically had a pretty good idea of who 50 of his final 53 players would be before training camp ever started.
But by the end of training camps, those assumptions can fall prey to circumstances that make final calls far more difficult than simply knowing who your best 53 football players are. For the Bears this weekend, the difficult moments will extend beyond the unpleasant task of a coach needing to inform a young man that he’s been cut.
Start with the general guideline that most coaches like to give their offensive and defensive coordinators 25 slots, plus three for special teams. The trouble with that equation is that injuries or the threat of them within a position group cannot be dismissed, and one side of the football may lose headcount in the interests of the overall.
By the time you’re reading this, most decisions will have been made and some made public. But consider the complications (and you make the calls):
The Bears’ three top cornerbacks (Bryce Callahan, Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter) all have been on the injury list this preseason. That points toward keeping an extra corner, meaning six. But while Sherrick McManis is listed as and has played corner, he is almost exclusively a special-teams fixture.
Do the Bears have the luxury of keeping a sixth cornerback whose value is only on special teams? Because other needs lurk.
The same problem exists at safety, where starters Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey are in place, backed up by rookies/draft picks Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson. Demontre Hurst can work as a reserve nickel corner. But as with the cornerback situation, can the Bears tie up a roster spot with Chris Prosinski, who like McManis is effectively a special-teamer.
The Bears keeping both McManis and Prosinski starts squeezing things elsewhere.
One “benefit” of a 3-4 scheme is that it necessitates more linebackers than a 4-3 based around a Lance Briggs, Hunter Hillenmeyer and Brian Urlacher. Reserve linebackers are axiomatic to good special teams because of the size-speed combination.
But the Bears face a conundrum with Pernell McPhee and the linebacker’s knee, which is expected to keep him down for at least the first several games. If the Bears decide McPhee can contribute sooner than the first half of the season, which placing him on the PUP list would cost, then he is included in the initial 53.
But his unavailability projects to needing an extra linebacker in the meantime. Sam Acho gives the Bears special-teams impact and leadership and can staff an OLB spot.
Can the Bears hold open a spot at outside linebacker for McPhee, given that Leonard Floyd, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young don’t play special teams other than kick-block?
Risky up front
Because the trickle-down effect of all these situations affect each other. The Bears cannot realistically keep an extra cornerback, safety and linebacker without the risk of exposure on the defensive line.
And “risk” is the operative word. The Bears finished 2015 with only one defensive lineman (Will Sutton) who was with them in training camp. A variety of issues left them short-handed, and if that group struggles, so does everything behind it.
The Bears went light with five defensive linemen last year in Week 1, and roster squeezes elsewhere may force that scenario on them again. But which five?
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Cornelius Washington has had a strong preseason but has injury history that includes going on IR after game last season. Can the Bears gamble on Washington’s health, particularly with no depth behind Eddie Goldman at nose tackle? Will Sutton is a coaches’ favorite, can play nose, but is undersized. Ego Ferguson was largely invisible before Thursday, has played both nose and five-technique, but also is coming off season-ending knee surgery.
Throw in the prospect of intense heat in Houston and the risks multiply.
And that’s just defense/special teams.
Quarterback is a gimme; Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer. Running back, too: Ka’Deem Carey, Jeremy Langford, Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Jordan Howard, who flashed for 107 rushing yards at Cleveland. After that:
Do the Bears stay with both Eddie Royal and Marc Mariani, both solid slot receivers? Cameron Meredith played his way off any bubble, and Josh Bellamy is a special-teamer. With Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White, that’s six wide receivers for an offense that wants to be run-based. And none of them are answers on kickoff return.
A run-based offense uses tight ends and, in the Bears case, a fullback for now. The Bears used three-tight-end packages this preseason, although whether they have three workables among Zach Miller, Tony Moeaki, Greg Scruggs, Khari Lee and Rob Housler won’t be totally clear until the group starts trying to block Texans.
All of which trickles down, as it does on defense, to the line. The Bears have seven linemen active on game days. They have rostered as many as 10 offensive linemen, nine is preferable, but with squeezes elsewhere, one scenario is a reserve contingent of Mike Adams or Garry Williams (tackle), Amini Silatolu (guard) and Cornelius Edison (center). Edison is a young stopgap, and Adams and Silatolu are coming off major injuries.
Now, you make the calls.