Three key watch-points as Bears open preseason against Broncos

Three key watch-points as Bears open preseason against Broncos

Every player is evaluated on every snap of every practice. Consider those as daily quizzes, the little tests that went into your grade but didn’t count as much as bigger tests.

The most significant of those tests to date in 2016 begins 7 p.m. Thursday against the Denver Broncos for most of the Bears roster, from rookie to veteran — at least the ones dressing for the game, which for the Bears this offseason is nothing short of problematic given the spate of injuries that limited practice time as well as the accompanying evaluations.

“We’ve been in pads the whole camp,” head coach John Fox said. “(Tuesday was) our last padded practice in preparation. But’s all about that exam. Those exams are those preseason games, and I can’t think of a better test than the defending world champs Thursday night.”

The usual playing-time template will be in place: “Typically, and it won't be exact, but in the first game, our (No. 1s) will play the first quarter, (No. 2s) will be second and third (quarters), (No. 3s) will be the fourth (quarter),” Fox said.

“We graduate in preseason (Game) 2, with a half (for the No. 1s), seconds get most of the third (quarter). The third preseason game will be the most extensive we get (for the No. 1s), and the fourth preseason game will be the most minimal work we'll get (for the starters).”

But beyond the player rotation, three primary focus points stand out going into Thursday’s game:

1. The franchise rookies

Veterans will play sparingly, meaning Jay Cutler, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan and Willie Young might play a quarter, more like a series or two. The next two preseason games are the spotlights on them, when actual scheming and game-planning begin.

Meanwhile, all rookies, draft choices or not, are critical to the organization’s present and future. They are less expensive, the youth of the roster, and drafting successfully will be axiomatic to the Bears’ success under general manager Ryan Pace.

Some are more pivotal than others. The Bears project to start, from 2015’s draft, No. 1 Kevin White at wide receiver, No. 2 Eddie Goldman at nose tackle, No. 4 Jeremy Langford at tailback and No. 5 Adrian Amos at safety.

From 2016: No. 1 Leonard Floyd at outside linebacker (based on practice reps), No. 2 Cody Whitehair at left guard and No. 3, defensive end Jonathan Bullard will see significant time.

“I’m very excited,” Floyd said. “After the scrimmage (Saturday in Soldier Field), it felt good being out there in front of the fans. I’m looking forward to playing Thursday.”

All but Goldman, who impressed with 4.5 sacks as a rookie, come in with major questions. White didn’t play at all last season because of a stress fracture and is still learning NFL route trees.

“I know it’s a huge difference,” White said, “but just getting more reps, more experience under my belt, I think that will come naturally."

Langford is being tasked with replacing Matt Forte. Amos started 16 games last year but failed to intercept a pass and broke up only four. The Class of ’16 has never lined up opposite anything but teammates.

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2. Thinking in-depth

The season-ending knee injury to center Hroniss Grasu not only took down a projected starter, it also necessarily pushed Ted Larsen from being the ideal swing-interior guy for all three positions into being the starter. The Bears signed former Carolina guard Amini Silatolu before camp — and he has passed his physical and practiced — and former Pittsburgh tackle Mike Adams, who missed all of last season with a back injury.

At wide receiver, neither Alshon Jeffery nor Eddie Royal are expected to play, Jeffery perhaps a little with his recovering hamstring, meaning that the Bears are likely to be where they were in 2015, missing two of their top three receivers. Tight ends Zach Miller and Greg Scruggs are both out with injuries.

All of which places an immediate and heavy load on backups, who normally and ideally would be facing No. 2s on opponents’ depth charts but now are closer to seeing time with starters and against starters. The Bears were found wanting when backups were needed last year. What they show on Thursday will be for more than simple evaluation purposes.

3. Fast start?

While the No. 1 offense and defense will play just briefly, the Bears still need to be about establishing various elements of their identity. They led after one quarter in just one game last season, at Oakland, and won that game. All 10 of their defeats came when they failed to jump on an opponent with a lead after the first quarter.

Fox last year treated preseason games with more than a little push to win them, regardless of who played when, all part of changing a losing culture. To change the identity of the Bears from slow- to fast-starting, Thursday would be a logical place to start.

Pro Football Focus: Bears have NFL’s best run defense entering 2019

USA Today

Pro Football Focus: Bears have NFL’s best run defense entering 2019

Pro Football Focus doesn’t seem to expect much regression for the Bears defense, at least when it comes to run defense.

PFF analyst Mike Renner ranked every team’s ability to stop the ground game, heading into 2019, and Chicago remains on top.

The team retained its entire front seven, top-to-bottom, with the exception of Sam Acho, who spent most of last season on injured reserve anyway.

One of the biggest keys, in Renner’s analysis, is Akiem Hicks, who was among Pro Football Focus’ top performers in the running game.

“The former Saint is proving himself one of the best free agent additions in recent memory,” Renner wrote. “His 13.3 run-stop percentage was the second-highest figure of any interior defender in the NFL last season.”

The Bears allowed the fewest rushing yards and rushing touchdowns of any defense last season, and the 3.8 yards per attempt they gave up was fourth best.

With the whole gang back together for 2019, the team is in a great spot to run it back under Chuck Pagano.    

Projecting what the Bears' 53-man roster will look like

Projecting what the Bears' 53-man roster will look like

The Bears will begin training camp next week without many significant position battles — outside of kicker, of course — which stands as an indicator of how strong a roster Ryan Pace has built. But that doesn’t mean there won't be some intriguing decisions to be made in a month and a half, especially involving depth at some critical positions. 

So here’s a pre-training camp stab at projecting what the Bear’s 53-man roster will look like on the night of Sept. 5:

QUARTERBACKS (2): Mitch Trubisky, Chase Daniel
Missing the cut: Tyler Bray

These two guys are locked in, leaving Tyler Bray to likely return to the practice squad for another season. 

RUNNING BACKS (4): Tarik Cohen, Mike Davis, David Montgomery, Kerrith Whyte Jr. 
Missing the cut: Ryan Nall

Cohen, Davis and Montgomery are roster locks, leaving Whyte and Nall to compete for, likely, just one spot on the roster. Matt Nagy praised Nall during OTAs, and he could become a versatile option with the ability to play some fullback, but we’ll give the last spot to Whyte given his speed and the Bears’ focus on that trait in the offseason. 

WIDE RECEIVERS (6): Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Cordarrelle Patterson, Riley Ridley, Marvin Hall
Missing the cut: Javon Wims, Emanuel Hall, Taquan Mizzell, Tanner Gentry, Jordan Williams-Lambert, Thomas Ives

Robinson, Gabriel and Miller are locks, while Patterson’s contract structure ($5 million guaranteed, all in 2019) and Ridley’s draft slot (fourth round) easily get them on the team, too. That leaves Javon Wims, Marvin Hall, Emanuel Hall and a handful of others to compete for what probably is only one more spot on the 53-man roster. There’s not much separating those three heading into training camp, though Emanuel Hall’s sports hernia surgery sidelined him during OTAs, putting him a little behind the curve. Wims is the incumbent here but didn’t get on the field much in 2018, while Marvin Hall played a little with the Atlanta Falcons over the last two years. We’ll give the edge to Marvin Hall for now based on his speed and meager experience, but also with the knowledge that the Bears’ sixth receiver likely won’t be active on game days unless of an injury. 

TIGHT ENDS (5): Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Ben Braunecker, Bradley Sowell, Dax Raymond
Missing the cut: Ian Bunting, Jesper Horsted, Ellis Richardson

If Burton has to begin training camp on the PUP list, will he be ready for Week 1? Can Shaheen stay healthy for a full season? Those are perhaps the two biggest questions needing answers not only for this unit, but for the Bears’ offense as a whole. Burton’s 11th-hour injury prior to the Bears’ playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles limited how dynamic Nagy’s offense could be, while Shaheen’s preseason injury meant the Bears were ineffective when using 12 personnel during the regular season. The Bears need better depth behind Burton and Shaheen — Braunecker is a reliable special teamer with flexibility to play both the “U” and the “Y” spots, but can more much-needed depth emerge from a converted offensive lineman (Sowell) and a handful of undrafted free agents (Raymond, Bunting, Horsted, Richardson)? We’ll give Sowell (at the “Y” behind Shaheen) and Raymond (at the “U” behind Burton) the spots for now, but both will have to earn their way onto the roster during training camp. 

OFFENSIVE LINE (8): Charles Leno, James Daniels, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie, Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen, Alex Bars
Missing the cut: Cornelius Lucas, Joe Lowery, T.J. Clemmings, Blake Blackmar, Marquez Tucker, Jordan McCray, Sam Mustipher

The Bears moved Sowell to tight end thanks, in part, to their confidence in the development of Coward — a converted defensive lineman — to take over as their swing tackle in 2019. He’s still under construction as an NFL offensive lineman and will have to beat out a handful of challengers, including a five-year NFL reserve in Lucas, but Coward has the edge for a roster spot. The interior reserves are less clear, though: Larsen was brought back in free agency but only has $90,000 guaranteed on his one-year deal, while Bars played for O-line coach Harry Hiestand in college but is coming off an ACL/MCL injury that led to him going undrafted in April. Any of the other reserves could make a push, or the Bears could look to add interior depth on cut-down weekend. For now, though, Larsen, Bars and Coward make the most sense to slide behind the same starting five the Bears had to end 2018. 

DEFENSIVE LINE (6): Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris, Jonathan Bullard, Nick Williams
Missing the cut: Abdullah Anderson, Jalen Dalton, Daryle Banfield, Jonathan Harris

This is the Bears’ deepest unit, with the only battle to see who will make the roster and wind up inactive on game days, as Williams was for all but two games in 2018. 

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (5): Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, Isaiah Irving, Chuck Harris
Cut: Kylie Fitts, Mathieu Betts, James Vaughters

Irving flashed during 2017’s and 2018’s preseasons, and might need to do so again to secure his spot on the Bears’ 2019 roster. But consider this an open battle for reserve roles behind Mack/Floyd/Lynch: Irving has the inside track to one spot but will have to earn it; while whoever flashes the most from the Harris/Fitts/Betts/Vaughters group should get another. We’ll go with Harris here — maybe Mack can take his fellow Buffalo alum under his wing during training camp. 

INSIDE LINEBACKER (4): Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Nick Kwiatkoski, Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Cut: Josh Woods, Jameer Thurman, Kevin Pierre-Louis

Woods might be as close to the bubble as anyone on defense, and could force his way on to the roster with a strong preseason and a commitment to special teams. But with Kwiatkoski a reliable backup and he and Iyiegbuniwe being core special teamers, it’s hard to see Woods beating out any of those four for a spot right now. 

CORNERBACK (6): Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Buster Skrine, Kevin Toliver II, Duke Shelley, Sherrick McManis
Cut: Stephen Denmark, John Franklin III, Michael Joseph, Josh Simmons, Clifton Duck, Jonathon Mincy

There should be a strong competition among the reserve outside corners on this roster, with Toliver having the best shot but needing to fend off the raw athleticism of Denmark and Franklin as well as the talent of Joseph, who stuck on the practice squad last year after going undrafted out of Division III Dubuque. Shelley flashed during OTAs and minicamp during the spring and looks likely to wind up on the 53-man roster. While McManis worked at safety some during the spring, we’ll include him among the cornerbacks for now. 

SAFETY (4): Eddie Jackson, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson
Cut: Doyin Jibowu

Barring injury and a more permanent move to safety for McManis, there’s little that’ll change in this unit between now and Week 1.

SPECIALISTS (3): Greg Joseph (PK), Pat O’Donnell (P), Patrick Scales (LS)
Cut: Elliott Fry, Eddy Pineiro, John Wirtel

Surprise! While the battle between Fry and Pineiro will dominate the headlines in Bourbonnais, the “winner” isn’t guaranteed to be the Bears’ Week 1 kicker. So not only are those two competing against each other, they’re competing against the field, too. In this scenario, the Cleveland Browns keep fifth-round pick Austin Seibert and cut Joseph, who made 17 of 20 field goals (with a long of 51 yards) for them in 2018. The Bears could try to swing a trade for Baltimore’s Kaare Vedvik here, too. The larger point, though, is this: Pace may have to look outside the organization for his Week 1 kicker, and there will be some talent — like Joseph — available if he does.