Duke Shelley

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. 

Sixth-round pick Duke Shelley thankful his draft path brought him to Bears

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USA TODAY

Sixth-round pick Duke Shelley thankful his draft path brought him to Bears

Duke Shelley’s senior season at Kansas State didn’t go the way he wanted. He flew under the radar through the whole NFL draft process and wound up falling to the Bears in the sixth round.

Now that he’s been through it all, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Shelley shared his thoughts about his journey on Twitter.

He made the most out of the one opportunity he did have to work out in front of NFL scouts with a 4.46 40-yard dash at the Kansas State Pro Day.

Shelley still recorded three interceptions and nine pass breakups in the seven games he played as a senior, but he couldn’t cap off his college career on the high note he wanted.

He may not have gotten the pre-draft attention he wanted, but now that he’s in Chicago, he doesn’t seem to mind anymore. 

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Bears cornerbacks Duke Shelley and Stephen Denmark are learning new positions in their own way

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USA TODAY

Bears cornerbacks Duke Shelley and Stephen Denmark are learning new positions in their own way

Stephen Denmark was willing to transfer from wide receiver to cornerback for his final collegiate season at Valdosta State for one simple reason.

“I kind of figured there’s a lot of 6-3, 220 wide receivers,” Denmark said. “But there’s not many 6-3, 220 cornerbacks at all, really.”

As it turned out, that transition is what got Denmark drafted, even if it was on a seventh-round flier by the Bears. General manager Ryan Pace alluded to Denmark’s “ridiculous” measurables last weekend and said the Bears see “tremendous upside” in him.

If anyone around Halas Hall is dreaming big, could that upside be Richard Sherman — another lengthy receiver-turned-corner who’s put together an intriguing Hall of Fame case in his eight-year career?

“I look up to him,” Denmark said. “There’s plenty (of WRs-turned-CBs) out there but Richard Sherman, yeah, he’s pretty good.”

Of course, there are hundreds of metaphorical hurdles separating Denmark from one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He would’ve been higher than a seventh round pick had there been certainty he’d be the next Richard Sherman.

So this weekend’s rookie minicamp will begin a long, grueling process for Denmark to make good on his opportunity in the NFL. But he’s someone who, at the least, the Bears are fascinated to see develop.

“This late in the draft, it’s just a very interesting, intriguing prospect for us to take,” Pace said. “I can tell you this: When we go to the rookie minicamp, he’s going to be one of the guys I’m going to be most interested in watching, just because of the traits that he possesses.”

A different kind of learning curve

Duke Shelley has far more experience playing cornerback than Denmark, having played 37 games while picking off eight passes over the last four years for Kansas State.

But Shelley is changing positions, too, at the NFL level — only he’s moving from outside corner, where he played at K-State, into the slot. And that’s not always an easy transition.

“Nickel’s a hard position to play, just because of where you’re at on the field,” Shelley said. “There’s more grass, more field to cover. Guys have opportunities to go two-way go’s on you and things like that.

“But for me personally, my skill set fits it, being my size and how quick I am and the feet I have. Transition, I don’t feel like will be hard for me. Being out there now during walk-throughs I was able to get in there at nickel a little bit and just lining up, it feels a little different. But after you get going and you get a couple of reps, you’ll be fine. So you just put your best foot forward and rely on the things you’ve been doing your whole life, so that’s kind of where I’m at with that.”

While Shelley was a solid, productive corner in the pass-happy Big 12 — opposing quarterbacks had just a 52.0 passer rating when targeting him in 2018 — his undersized 5-foot-9, 180 pound frame and a season-ending toe injury last year led to him not being invited to the NFL Combine. And that led to him being perhaps under-scouted, though the Bears discovered they liked his traits as a projectable special teamer now and slot corner in the future.

“He’s so scrappy,” Pace said. “If it’s completed, it’s earned. He’s very sticky in coverage. He’s highly, highly competitive. He’s just very athletic.”

Still, Shelley will have some learning to do before he can be an NFL-ready slot corner. The good news for the Bears is there are two veterans ahead of him on the depth chart (Buster Skrine and Sherrick McManis), so Shelley should have some time to develop behind the scenes so long as he’s contributing on special teams.

“Nowadays everyone (is) going to nickel personnel, 10 personnel, so it's opportunities — you got to put guys on the field who can run and come up and make tackles,” Shelley said. “I’m loving it, loving the transition. Learning new things about nickel. But I'm definitely loving the transition.”

 

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