Clifton Duck

The Bears’ 2019 preseason All-Stars, from Deon Bush to Thomas Ives

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USA Today

The Bears’ 2019 preseason All-Stars, from Deon Bush to Thomas Ives

The best thing a fringy roster player can do in the month of August is put good things on tape during preseason games. Ask any undrafted free agent and they’ll regurgitate what’s been drilled into their heads: Your tape is your resume. 

Those players, with the Bears, have had four complete games of resume-building over the last month. Most of those guys will never play a down of football for the Bears. A handful will make the initial 53-man roster, though that does not guarantee them a spot on it after Labor Day weekend’s waiver wire frenzy dies down. 

The lucky ones will make a practice squad, giving their NFL careers a lifeline. Others will never play professional football again. 

But over four preseason games, a handful of Bears players put some good things on tape — the kind of things that will keep their NFL careers alive in some way, at least for the next few months. Here are this year’s Bears preseason All-Stars:

Safety Deon Bush

Bush is very much on the Bears and will enter the final year of his rookie contract as the primary backup to Eddie Jackson and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But no Bears player looked better in preseason games — and practices — than Bush, who had two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. The Bears should feel comfortable with his ability to step in for either of their ex-Alabama safeties this season. 

Defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris

It was a little odd that Robertson-Harris played in the Bears’ first three preseason games, given his important role in Jay Rodgers’ defensive line rotation. When he was on the field against mostly backups, he dominated — as you’d expect. 

Offensive lineman Alex Bars

The undrafted rookie from Notre Dame worked his way into football shape over the last month, and all but secured his spot on the Bears’ 53-man roster by not only playing guard well in preseason games, but holding his own while playing tackle for the first time since 2016. Plenty of evaluators considered him to be as high as a mid-round draft pick before he suffered a torn ACL and MCL last September; what he put on tape in the preseason only bolstered the thought that the Bears might’ve unearthed at least a solid backup in Bars. 

Outside linebacker James Vaughters

Vaughters had a strip-sack in consecutive preseason games, and notched another sack in Thursday’s preseason finale. The 26-year-old former CFL player had the most productive preseason of any of the Bears’ edge rushers, giving the Bears’ decision-makers a difficult choice on whether to keep him or not. He’s one of the bigger roster question marks heading into cut-down weekend — which, on the other hand, is a representation of just how few roster spots were actually open for the Bears this year. 

Tight end Jesper Horsted

So we started this list with two guys who are stone-cold locks for the roster, one guy who likely played his way onto it and another who gave the Bears something to think about. Now we get into the guys who played well, but probably won’t wind up on the roster. Horsted, despite missing the Bears’ first preseason game, caught eight passes for 121 yards with two impressive touchdowns. But coach Matt Nagy noted how far Horsted has to come as a blocker in the wake of Thursday’s preseason finale. That’s something the team could try to develop with the Princeton alum on the practice squad. 

Wide receiver Thomas Ives

The Hinsdale Central product ended his preseason in impressive fashion at Soldier Field, and finished August with a team-leading 148 receiving yards. The 6-foot-5 Ives is another prime practice squad candidate.

Tight end Ian Bunting

Another Hinsdale Central alum! Bunting’s 18.2 yards per reception led the Bears in preseason play, and his soft hands and good feel for open space showed up, but he needs work as a blocker. He has an interesting case to make the Bears’ roster, but he might not have done enough to be claimed on waivers — meaning whatever team that claimed him would have to keep him on their 53-man roster. So the Bears could probably sneak Bunting on to the practice squad if they like his upside. 

Cornerback Clifton Duck

While Duck may not have the size or speed of some of the Bears’ other young corners — Kevin Toliver, John Franklin III, Duke Shelley, Michael Joseph — he displayed the best pure football instincts of anyone in that group this preseason. His 62-yard interception against the New York Giants was impressive, and he flashed behind the scenes in practice a few times, too. He could wind up on a practice squad, either in Chicago or somewhere else around the league. 

Running back Ryan Nall

It was notable that seventh-round pick Kerrith Whyte Jr. did not play Thursday, which could indicate his place on the roster is secure. That would mean Nall, for the second consecutive year, would be cut after a productive preseason. Nall caught a team-high 10 passes and rushed for a team-high 135 yards (including an average of 5.6 yards per carry), but he’s sort of like the Duck of this offense in that he has good instincts but looks likely to be passed over by someone with more ideal traits. He’s another practice squad candidate, though if the Bears need a running back in a pinch they could do worse than Nall. 

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Five position battles still needing clarity as Bears head into final preseason game

Five position battles still needing clarity as Bears head into final preseason game

When the clock hits zero of the Bears’ final preseason game Thursday night, Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and the team’s brain trust will have had four full preseason games, as well as over a month of practices, on which to evaluate a host of players competing for roster spots. The Bears will have an especially clear picture of which players earned a spot on their 53-man roster with so many starters and key reserves barely playing, or not playing at all, in August. 

So far, there’s been some clarity at a few spots. Javon Wims appears to be locked in as the team’s sixth wide receiver. It would be a surprise if Bradley Sowell weren’t the fourth tight end. Nick Kwiatkoski will be the primary backup inside linebacker, while Kevin Pierre-Louis looks set behind him. 

And, yes, at the moment Eddy Pineiro looks to have a good chance of not only making the Bears’ roster, but being their Week 1 kicker, barring a disaster Thursday night. 

But with 60 minutes of football left before Saturday’s 3 p.m. cut-down deadline, there still are a handful of roster battles still up in the air:

4th running back: Kerrith Whyte Jr. vs. Ryan Nall

Whyte is the speedy burner who has upside as a kick returner and a change-of-pace guy out of the backfield. Nall, though, has produced in consecutive preseasons (he has 14 carries for 104 yards this year) and is among the team leaders in special teams snaps in August. 

It feels like Whyte has the edge based on his skillset, and that he was a seventh-round pick (while Nall was an undrafted free agent last year). But another strong game from Nall would give the Bears’ brass something to think about this coming weekend. 

“They are very different,” Nagy said. “I like that though. What it does is it challenges us as a coaching staff as to, what are you looking for? And then you have depth. Special teams comes into play with them, they’re both good in special teams, so they’re pushing each other. The people, the human beings who they are too, they compete, they push and they both want to do well and they’ve both done well in the last two games.” 

Prediction: Whyte makes the roster, Nall is signed to the practice squad

Swing tackle: Alex Bars vs. Rashaad Coward vs. The Field

Coward is not expected to play Thursday, and he still has a large brace on the elbow he injured during the Bears’ second preseason game against the New York Giants. With T.J. Clemmings out for the season with a quad injury and fellow veteran Cornelius Lucas struggling in preseason games, Alex Bars — the undrafted lineman from Notre Dame — will get an extended opportunity to play tackle in Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Tenneseee Titans. 

The Bears liked what Bars did Saturday after he slid over to tackle following Clemmings’ injury, and prior to that he had a good preseason playing guard. Bars is in good position to make the cut on Saturday, but whether he survives on Sunday may boil down to how much the Bears trust him to play tackle in a pinch. The team seems to like Coward’s upside enough to carry him even if he’s unavailable to start the season. 

“(Coward) is arrow up, then he gets hurt,” Nagy said. ”Now, we got to get him back so we can keep developing him and see what he can do. But there's competition there. Sometimes, like the other day when Alex Bars goes in there and starts playing tackle, you see some good things. You know you do or you don't have it. That opened us up a little bit to see some flexibility with him.”

Prediction: Bars and Coward make the roster, but the Bears will actively monitor the waiver wire for a potential replacement 

5th outside linebacker: James Vaughters vs. The Roster

Nagy mentioned Vaughters in the same breath as Khalil Mack this week, at least as it relates to Vaughters’ penchant for strip-sacks over the Bears’ last two preseason games. 

“He's around that football, he's quick around the edge,” Nagy said. “A lot of times you see these guys and they sack the quarterback. But what James is doing is he's going after that football and it's just something that our own guy here in 52 does that a lot. He sacks the football.”

The 26-year-old Vaughters played for the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders from 2017-2018, with his trip north of the border following offseason and/or practice squad stints with the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers. He hasn’t played in an NFL game, but has put some good things on tape that could get him a spot on the Bears’ roster. It’s unlikely he’d beat out Isaiah Irving for the 4th outside linebacker spot, so Vaughters’ main competition may be from players at other positions (like defensive lineman Nick Williams and inside linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe). 

Prediction: Vaughters makes the roster, but will still need to survive a potential waiver-wire acquisition taking a spot

5th inside linebacker: Joel Iyiegbuniwe vs. Josh Woods vs. The Roster

It was notable to see Pierre-Louis — the five-year NFL veteran who’s played in four playoff games — start next to Kwiatkoski at inside linebacker during Saturday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts. All signs are pointing to him making the roster, with Iyiegbuniwe — the team’s fourth-round pick in 2018 — having some work to do to survive the cut. 

Woods has had a solid preseason, so Iyiegbuniwe is competing against him as well as players at other positions for what may be one of the last one or two spots on the roster. Still, no Bears player played more special teams snaps than Iyiegbuniwe last year, and his contributions there should help keep him safe even if he’s been passed on the inside linebacking depth chart. 

Prediction: Iyiegbuniwe makes the roster, Woods is signed to the practice squad

Backup cornerback: Kevin Toliver II vs. John Franklin III vs. Michael Joseph; Duke Shelley vs. Clifton Duck

Somewhat concerning is how none of the members of this competition have taken a hold of being Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller’s primary backup. Per Pro Football Focus, this group’s individual passer ratings of opposing quarterbacks when targeted: 122.6 (Franklin), 112.3 (Joseph), 108.3 (Toliver). 

Expanding this to slot corner, no Bears player has allowed a higher passer rating than the 127.5 mark charged to Duke Shelley, while no corner has allowed a lower one than Clifton Duck (31.2). Duck, as an undrafted free agent, has a much higher hurdle to clear to make the roster than the sixth-round-picked Shelley. And Duck has mostly played against third-stringers, while Shelley has faced some first-stringers over the course of the preseason. 

“(Shelley’s) getting used to the speed of the game,” Nagy said. “He's a twitchy kid that can play inside and has good ball skills. Just the more he gets playing-time wise, the slower the game will be, but I like where he's at.”

Prediction: Toliver and Shelley make the roster, Franklin III and Joseph sign to the practice squad. But the Bears could look to add either a sixth corner, or replace Toliver, on the waiver wire. 

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Twenty-six Bears starters/key players did not play in Friday’s preseason loss to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, ranging from guys established as among the best in the league (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson) to players with more to prove (David Montgomery, Adam Shaheen, Mitch Trubisky). 

Of the eight players who caught a pass, only two have seemingly punched their tickets to the Bears’ 53-man roster (wide receivers Riley Ridley and Javon Wims — more on Wims later). Of the six players who had a rushing attempt, only quarterback Chase Daniel will be comfortable over cut-down weekend. 

And on defense, 25 players recorded at least one tackle but only four look like locks for the Bears’ roster (Nick Kwiatkoski, Sherrick McManis, Deon Bush, Roy Robertson-Harris). 

“My biggest thing is I’m trying to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears, and every team is different, and that’s okay,” coach Matt Nagy said. “… We love where we’re at right now in regards to our starters. We feel really good about it.”

The Bears held a mock game at Halas Hall on Wednesday, one which allowed Nagy to get his starters some situational work in a controlled setting instead of in a less-predictable preseason game. Instead, these preseason games have turned into extended tests for the large group of players fighting to make the Bears’ roster — the Bears’ second-team offense and defense went against the Giants’ first-team defense and offense for a portion of Friday’s game, which’ll be notable as the team evaluates the guys who’ll fill out the back end of their roster. 

Nagy’s preseason approach to his most important players may start catching on around the league, especially as so many teams have hired younger, offensive-minded coaches who haven’t been doing something a certain way for decades. So the next time you'll see Trubisky throw a pass in a game, barring something extremely unexpected, will be Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers. 

Even Nagy’s mentor, Andy Reid — one of most progressive, longest-tenured coaches in the NFL — still plays his starters in preseason games. That’s not to say it’s right or wrong. Nagy just doesn’t think that approach makes sense for his team. 

“Coach (Reid) has his way and I think coach Reid would be the first to tell you that if I’m not being me and if I’m not trying to do what I think is right for our team, then I’m not coach Reid,” Nagy said. “I’ve learned so much from him, but for our team and our situation I need to do what’s best for us and I just feel like that’s where it’s at.

“September 5th is an important day for us.”

The Bears lost reserve tackle Rashaad Coward to an elbow injury during Friday’s game, while longtime practice squad safety Jonathon Mincy was looked at for a concussion. Left guard Cody Whitehair, who injured his finger during Wednesday’s practice, was participating in pregame warmups with only that lone finger taped. 

See Montgomery, burns?

Nagy felt himself getting carried away praising Montgomery after the third-round pick’s impressive preseason debut last week against the Carolina Panthers, to the point he later smirked that Montgomery’s seven-yard touchdown run was just “average.” 

Still, the Bears clearly had seen enough of Montgomery after one game. All the things he put on tape at Iowa State — patience, contact balance, tackle breaking, good hands, etc. — showed up against the Panthers. So in addition to Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis, Montgomery wasn’t put into harm’s way against the Giants. The next snap he takes in a game will be Sept. 5, barring a surprise. 

“I would say he’s done a good job in practice,” Nagy said. “We like what we’ve seen.”

Spot locked up for Wims?

As promised, some thoughts on Wims, who led the Bears having caught five of six targets for 64 yards, including an impressive 29-yard snag just before halftime. It was games like this that led the Bears to feel as if they had to keep the 2018 seventh-round pick on their roster last year instead of risking him to waivers in an attempt to sneak him on to the practice squad. With another strong showing on film for the rest of the league to see, the thought here is Wims’ roster spot is all but secure. 

And it’s not like Wims’ good game came out of nowhere — he’s been progressing to a night like this since the start of training camp. Cornerback Prince Amukamara — who got in a tussle with Wims during Tuesday’s practice — said he’s sensed a different gear in Wims since OTAs in spring, combining improved speed with developing route-running skills and the same go-up-and-get-it ability that was all over his college tape at Georgia. 

Wims’ 29-yard reception — after which the Bears clocked the ball with one second left, leading to Eddy Pineiro hitting a short field goal (one he wished he was longer) — was probably the most impressive offensive play of the game. 

“We practice that stuff,” Nagy said. ‘So what they just did with 16 seconds is hard to do and they did it very effectively, so when you look for positives for us, that’s something that I’m going to come away from this weekend and say you guys just rocked it, you did that the right way and we just got three points off of you guys executing what we teach you,”

Marvin Hall can still make the Bears’ roster, and for the second consecutive week broke free downfield for what could’ve been a big-chunk play only to have third-string quarterback Tyler Bray overthrow him. But he had a rough punt return, running backward from his own 19-yard line and, combined with a penalty assessed to sixth-round pick Duke Shelley, dropped the Bears at their own eight-yard line. 

Peaking Duck, and other ups and downs

— Undrafted corner Clifton Duck jumped an Alex Tanney pass at the goal line and dashed 62 yards for the Bears’ most impressive defensive play of the game. Duck is undersized and may not have the speed of Shelley, but his ball skills have consistently shown up during training camp. Those haven’t come out of nowhere, either: No FBS player had more interceptions than Duck from 2016-2018. 

And it’s not just the interceptions that’ve caught Nagy’s eye. His tenacity on the field has been noted, and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets more run with the second-team defense next weekend against the Indianapolis Colts. At the least, he looks like a good practice squad candidate; at best, he could make a push for a roster spot in a crowded group of young reserve corners. 

“He’s done it in practice. I like that,” Nagy said. “I think anybody that has some ball skills, which he does, that is always playing hard, you appreciate that. And I know he makes it difficult for our quarterbacks.”

Read more about Duck here

— It wasn’t as impressive a day for the rest of that aforementioned group of young corners. Shelley missed a tackle on wide receiver Bennie Fowler, allowing the ex-Bears training camp receiver to score a touchdown on the Giants’ opening drive. Shelley also committed that penalty on Hall’s punt return. 

The Bears rotated Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin as their outside corners throughout the game. Franklin had wide receiver T.J. Jones blanketed to force an incompletion in the second quarter, but was then beat by the former Notre Dame receiver for a 15-yard touchdown later in the game. Franklin, the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback, was also beat for a 37-yard gain in the third quarter, though it looked like Giants receiver Da'Mari Scott might’ve pushed off on the play. 

Joseph was beat for a 40-yard gain, though the play was more about the outstanding throw made by sixth overall pick Daniel Jones to wide receiver Cody Latimer. 

— Running back Ryan Nall had a solid 14-yard run to pick up a first down in the first quarter, which undrafted tight end Dax Raymond helped spring with a nice block on the edge. Nall started on offense over seventh-round rookie Kerrith Whyte Jr., though neither were particularly effective on the ground (Nall: seven carries, 23 yards; Whyte: six carries, 10 yards). Nall did catch four passes for 21 yards while. 

— Still, Whyte had the best non-highlight highlight of the game when he housed an Aldrick Rosas’ kickoff for a 103-yard touchdown, only to have it called back due to a holding penalty on Isaiah Irving (if you were watching the TV broadcast — Franklin was initially flagged for the penalty, but it was corrected to be assessed to Irving). While it didn’t count, it put Whyte’s breakaway speed on display. That could be an important point in his favor if the Bears’ roster comes down to keeping four running backs (with Whyte) or seven wide receivers (with Hall). 

— Receiver/running back Taquan Mizzell lost two fumbles in the span of four offensive plays. The most notable part of it: The Metlife Stadium PA system blasting Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" after the first one, and then playing Britney Spears' "Oops...I Did It Again" after the second. Ouch. 

— It didn’t feel like a particularly good game for the Bears’ reserve tight ends. Bradley Sowell was whistled for a false start with the Bears at their own eight-yard line, and he was burned by Giants linebacker Markus Golden for a sack. While Raymond had a good block on Nall’s run, neither he nor fellow undrafted rookie Ian Bunting were noticeable. Neither player was targeted — in fact, not a single Bears tight end received a target on Friday. 

— Two other splash plays on defense: McManis with a perfectly-executed Peanut Punch to force a fumble, and outside linebacker James Vaughters’ strip/sack/recovery, which he returned eight yards to the Giants’ 12-yard line. 

That McManis has been working with the third-team safety pairing shouldn’t be taken as a sign he’s on the roster bubble — he’s a veteran core special teamer who acquitted himself well enough as a slot corner following Bryce Callahan’s season-ending injury last year. 

And Vaughters’ play was notable if only because the Bears’ reserve outside linebackers — him, Irving, Kylie Fitts, Mathieu Betts, Chuck Harris — haven’t flashed much during both practices and games so far this preseason. The Bears may only wind up carrying four outside linebackers (Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, TBD — though Irving has the inside track) if general manager Ryan Pace sticks to the “best 53” approach he’s said he’s taking.