John Franklin III

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. 

Longshot: Bears cornerback John Franklin III, a former 'Last Chance U' star, has a bigger goal in mind

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Longshot: Bears cornerback John Franklin III, a former 'Last Chance U' star, has a bigger goal in mind

You might remember John Franklin III as the star-quarterback-turned-backup whose struggles at East Mississippi Community College played out on the first season of the Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U.” So when Franklin commented recently that he eventually doesn’t want to have to introduce himself to others, there was a natural follow-up question: “Don’t people know you already?”

“Yeah,” Franklin said. “I want them to remember me. Not just know me.”

Three years have passed since the self-described “low point” of Franklin’s life played out on Netflix. Since leaving EMCC, Franklin was a seldom-used quarterback at Auburn, then transferred to Florida Atlantic and played wide receiver for a year. The Bears saw potential in his size and raw speed and gave him a shot at playing cornerback a year ago. He wound up sticking on the practice squad during the second half of the season, and now has a legitimate opportunity to make the Bears’ 53-man roster in 2019. 

“I feel like I have every opportunity to make this 53 and I feel like I should make the 53,” Franklin said. “And that’s my only mindset, is to make the 53.”

In the grand scope of the NFL, Franklin’s ascent has been rapid. It’s rare for a player to make the position switches Franklin has over the last two years and stick in the NFL, even on practice squads and training camp rosters. It’s an unforgiving league, one where teams value all 90 spots on their preseason rosters. Potential is one thing, but players have to prove they can reach that potential to stick on a roster. 

Franklin, though, has a bigger goal in mind, one which goes beyond being one of the Bears’ 53 active players after Labor Day weekend. He had the word “legendary” tattooed on his stomach this year to serve as a constant reminder of what he aspires to be. 

“I’m not trying to just be okay,” Franklin said. “… I want to be the best that ever played.”

Franklin acknowledges he has a ways to go to reach that goal, and knows it won’t happen overnight. He also has plenty to prove to make the Bears’ roster. 

Franklin was beat on a couple of throws during the Bears’ preseason game against the New York Giants on Friday, including a 15-yard touchdown allowed to NFL veteran T.J. Jones. He did display good coverage in forcing an incompletion intended for Jones earlier in the game, though, which was more in line with what he did during an overall-solid training camp. 

“He’s a true athlete,” cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend said. “There’s not many people who can do some of the things he can do. And if he can just continue to get some reps, continue to learn, stay hungry, he’ll be fine.”

Franklin’s athletic profile is one reason why Townsend and the Bears still believe they can mold the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback into a legitimate NFL player. But it’s not the only one: Townsend was keen to note how coachable Franklin is, whether it’s listening to advice, asking the right questions or putting in the work. 

After last season ended, Franklin said he took about a week and a half to decompress before he went back to working on his technique. He did defensive back drills five days a week at Goldfeet Global with Tevin Allen, working to get more comfortable with the position that, if all goes well for him, will be his ticket to the NFL. 

“My breaks now, it’s crazy compared to last year,” Franklin said. “My posture on breaks, I used to sit back, I used to clutch and lean back. And now I’m staying low and coming out. 

“… I really worked on every aspect because even though I’m still new to the position, I’ve had some success, I still feel like I have so much to learn and I still feel like I’m behind the 8-ball.”

Still, Franklin has a much better idea of what he’s doing now than he did a year ago. Getting to practice against wideouts like Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller while on the practice squad taught him a lot about his technique while giving him the satisfaction of playing a role — albeit a small one — for a playoff team. He can self-correct mistakes and expects to make plays in practices and games, rather than needing to prove to himself he could stick in coverage and defend passes. 

Franklin’s shot at making the Bears’ roster, then, comes down to two factors: First, he needs to prove he’s the best option among a field of ex-undrafted players like Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and Clifton Duck. If that fails — in this scenario, the Bears likely carry Toliver as their primary backup outside corner, as they did last year — he’ll need to prove worthy of a roster spot based on special teams contributions and potential. That means beating out, say, a sixth defensive lineman, a seventh wide receiver or a fifth outside and/or inside linebacker. 

So while Franklin aims to be legendary someday, he’s still a long shot to make the Bears’ roster. But the 24-year-old is aware of how far he’s come in a year, and believes he’ll eventually be remembered as one of the best cornerbacks to play in the NFL — not just a guy from that show you watched on Netflix. 

“I want to leave a legacy when it’s all said and done,” Franklin said. “Any time somebody says my name, I want them to know that he’s a hard worker, he did it all. I think this is bigger than me. What I do here is more than me. And that’s what it’s all about, leaving a legacy here on this earth playing this game.” 

Four key position battles to watch in the Bears’ preseason opener

USA Today

Four key position battles to watch in the Bears’ preseason opener

Don’t expect to see much, if any, of the Bears’ first-teamers play in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field. The goal for Matt Nagy is to be ready for Sept. 5, with as clean a bill of health as possible the most important aspect of being ready for the Green Bay Packers. 

But whether or not the starters play won’t diminish the importance of the preseason for Bears coaches and talent evaluators. These four games leading up to the regular season are critical for figuring out the 53-man roster and practice squad. The opportunity to evaluate fringy players and rookies against another team in an actual game setting is massively important. 

So with that in mind, here are four position battles we’ll be watching on Thursday — and, likely, all throughout the preseason: 

Kicker: Eddy Pineiro vs. Elliott Fry

This list had to start here, right? The Pineiro vs. Fry battle has been a daily storyline during training camp, with every field goal attempted a noteworthy occurrence. So far, the Bears have said they don’t have a favorite in the competition, which has been played out by each kicker’s field goal percentage in practice to date:

Pineiro: 38/45 (84.4 percent)
Fry: 41/49 (83.8 percent)

Pineiro has had the best day (12/12 during Family Fest on Saturday) and the worst day (6/9 during Monday’s practice) so far. A thought here: If Pineiro and Fry continue to be equal, the kicker with the bigger leg — in this case, Pineiro — will “win” the job (with the caveat of the Bears potentially grabbing the actual winner off waivers or via a trade in the next few weeks). 

Both will have a chance to kick Thursday night, with the Bears placing more weight on what transpires in preseason games than practices. These four games will go a long way to determining if Pineiro, Fry or someone else is the Bears' Week 1 kicker. 

Wide receiver: Javon Wims vs. Marvin Hall vs. The Field

Both Wims and Hall have had good training camps so far, keeping the door open for the Bears to have seven receivers on their initial 53-man roster (Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Cordarrelle Patterson and Riley Ridley being the other five). 

Wims has continued to show the go-up-and-get-it skills he flashed last preseason, all while displaying improved route running skills and a budding chemistry with Mitch Trubisky. Hall’s speed stands out, and he’s made a handful of plays downfield during camp. 

While neither may catch a pass from Trubisky during a preseason game, that won’t mean they can’t earn spots on the roster with quality play starting Thursday night. More important, though, will be each’s work on special teams: How much, and how effectively, do they contribute on Chris Tabor’s units? 

The battle may be shaping up to be less about Wims/Hall vs. other receivers, and Wims/Hall vs. other players, hence the importance on special teams. 

The rest of the receiver room will have an opportunity to put some good things on tape in the coming weeks, too. Thomas Ives — the 6-foot-5 Hinsdale Central alum — has flashed in Bourbonnais, while the Bears have liked what they’ve seen from Jordan Williams-Lambert when he’s practiced (he missed a few days with a hamstring injury earlier in camp). 

Emanuel Hall hasn’t participated in the Bears’ last three practices. The talented undrafted free agent from Missouri still has time to make an impression, but he needs to get on the field first. 

Tight end: Bradley Sowell vs. Ian Bunting vs. Dax Raymond vs. Ellis Richardson

The Bears may only have one tight end spot open on their roster, especially if both Wims and Hall make the cut as sixth and seventh receivers. So that leaves a converted offensive lineman to fend off a trio of undrafted rookies in a competition coaches and front office members will be closely watching over the next three weeks. 

Realistically, the Bears need a backup “Y” (in-line) tight end to slot behind Adam Shaheen. Valuable reserve Ben Braunecker has the flexibility to play both the “Y” and the “U” (move) spots, but the Bears need more depth behind Shaheen given the 2017 second-round pick’s injury history. Shaheen has missed 13 games in his two-year career, and recently missed a handful of training camp practices due to a lower back issue. 

So that leaves Sowell, Bunting and Raymond as the primary participants in this battle (Richardson has flashed on occasion during camp, but it’d likely take a lot for a guy who’s primarily a “U” to make the roster). Sowell will start with the inside track given his commitment to learning the position and good standing with the coaching staff, but the Bears aren’t going to keep him just because he lost a bunch of weight to make his position switch. He still has to prove he can run routes and be somewhat of a threat in the passing game to make this roster. 

Bunting has had the best training camp of the undrafted rookies so far, but Raymond has good receiving upside, too. How each of those guys fares in holding the point of attack on running plays during preseason games will be pivotal as the Bears figure out if either is worthy of carving out a spot for on the 53-man roster. 

“It’s good to see when we get the pads on just their level of toughness and their level of finish, and I’m referring to Dax and Ian when they’re playing in-line, because we didn’t necessarily know if they were going to be finishing, tough guys,” tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride said. “But during these practices we’ve seen that they have that in them. And now I just gotta get it out them play in, play out.”

Cornerback: Kevin Toliver II vs. John Franklin III vs. Clifton Duck

The Bears liked Toliver’s length and athleticism enough to keep him over Cre’Von LeBlanc after 2018’s preseason, though the former undrafted free agent will have to earn his place on the roster again under a new defensive coaching staff.

A couple of intriguing challengers: John Franklin III, the former “Last Chance U” star and quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback, and Clifton Duck, the undrafted rookie from Appalachian State. 

Franklin has flashed more during camp than we’ve seen in previous practices. The Bears are starting to see him pair improving knowledge of the cornerback position with his top-level speed and athleticism, but a scattering of interceptions during training camp practices won’t be enough to earn him a roster spot. He’ll have to show his coverage skills have improved to the point where the Bears could trust him to fill in for Kyle Fuller or Prince Amukamara before he can earn a roster spot. 

Duck has had an interception in each of his last three practices, giving him some camp-based momentum heading into Thursday night. While Cam Newton won’t play, the opportunity for Toliver, Franklin and Duck to face some NFL-level talent that doesn’t play for the Bears will be important to follow.