Jonathan Bullard

Five takeaways from the Bears’ 53-man roster, which is good enough to win a Super Bowl

Five takeaways from the Bears’ 53-man roster, which is good enough to win a Super Bowl

The Bears unveiled their initial 53-man roster Saturday evening, which may only be a rough draft of sorts. General manager Ryan Pace and his front office will actively scour the waiver wire and see if one or a few of the 1,000-plus players released in the last 24 hours could improve their roster. 

But with an abbreviated game week looming, the main guys on this roster will be the ones you see suit up Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers. So with that in mind, here’s five thoughts on the 53 players who made the Bears’ roster today: 

1. Eddy Pineiro, as expected, made the cut. 

The thought here is Pineiro will still be on the Bears’ roster tomorrow after the NFL’s waiver wire frenzy settles down. Not only do the Bears have the 24th waiver priority — behind a number of teams, like the New York Jets, that need a kicker — but Pineiro earned his spot on the roster over the last few weeks. Kaare Vedvik, who was waived by the Minnesota Vikings after they traded a fifth-round pick for him, could be an option but also might be claimed before the Bears could get to him. And even if the Bears do: Why would they want a guy who hasn't kicked at Soldier Field over someone who has in Pineiro?

Yes, Pineiro missed a PAT on his first attempt Thursday at Soldier Field. But he rebounded with made field goals of 32, 34 and 37 yards, showing the kind of resilience and confidence the Bears have come to appreciate over the last few months. 

So the first kicker to attempt a field goal in a game that matters at Soldier Field since Cody Parkey’s double-doink will be Pineiro. The Bears’ long, winding, often bizarre search for a kicker is over — for now. 

2. The deepest unit? Defensive line. 

This isn’t anything we didn’t already know, but with the roster settled, let’s highlight Jay Rodgers’ unit as the best on the team. 

That the Bears parted with Jonathan Bullard, a third-round pick in 2016, speaks to how good this group is. Abdullah Anderson, an undrafted free agent from Bucknell who was on the practice squad last year, also earned a spot on the roster. 

Akiem Hicks is one of the very best defensive linemen in the NFL. Eddie Goldman is an unsung hero on this defense, the guy who does the dirty work in absorbing double-teams while others rack up pressures and sacks. Bilal Nichols proved to be an adept run-stuffer who enters his second year in the league with good upside. Roy Robertson-Harris is a versatile, athletic player who presents challenges for opposing defenses on third down. 

Behind those four guys is Nick Williams, who had a solid preseason and earned his way back on to the roster. He could be active on gamedays this year as a reserve lineman and special teamer. 

Every other unit has a star on this defense — Khalil Mack at outside linebacker, Roquan Smith/Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker, Kyle Fuller at cornerback, Eddie Jackson at safety — but no unit has both the star power and depth of the Bears’ defensive line. This is the kind of group that can significantly help the Bears overcome any coordinator-switch-based regression over the next few months. 

3. Questions linger with tight end, tackle and outside linebacker and cornerback depth. 

We covered the Bears’ need for good health at those four positions on Friday — top-end depth is not a problem at any of them. 

But what if something happens to Adam Shaheen, who’s missed 13 games in his two-year NFL career? Can Bradley Sowell, the converted offensive lineman, ably step in? Who plays tackle — Rashaad Coward or Cornelius Lucas, who somewhat surprisingly made the team over Alex Bars — if the Bears need a sub for Charles Leno Jr. or Bobby Massie?

At outside linebacker, Aaron Lynch is back after a few questions were raised by his participation in Thursday's preseason finale, but James Vaughters, who had three sacks and two forced fumbles in presason play, was cut.

At cornerback, Kevin Toliver stuck over John Franklin III and Michael Joseph. Expect the Bears to be active on the waiver wire to try to address these four positions. That activity could continue into the regular season, too, if an upgrade is needed. 

4. There are even more weapons for Mitch Trubisky. 

If you’re trying to come up with a list of the Bears’ top five offensive weapons, who do you take from this group:

-David Montgomery
-Tarik Cohen
-Mike Davis 
-Allen Robinson
-Taylor Gabriel
-Anthony Miller
-Cordarrelle Patterson
-Trey Burton
-Adam Shaheen

We’ll say the team leaders in targets this year will be, in order: Robinson, Cohen, Burton, Gabriel and Miller. Montgomery will lead the team in carries, followed by Davis. Patterson may only play about a third of the Bears’ snaps but will be all over the place when he’s on the field. Shaheen’s level of success — and ability to stay on the field — could be a sneaky key to this offense. 

There may not be any true star power in that group — Robinson and Cohen are the closest — but that’s nine players the Bears believe could go off any week. 

From a depth perspective, the Bears essentially made the following replacements in the offseason:

Patterson replaced Kevin White
Riley Ridley replaced Josh Bellamy
Montgomery replaced Jordan Howard
Davis replaced Benny Cunningham
Kerrith Whyte Jr. replaced Taquan Mizzell 

Those represent five upgrades, at least on offense (Bellamy and Cunningham, at the least, were core special teamer). So as the Bears’ offense enters 2019, it’d be foolish to say the pieces aren’t in place around Trubisky. 

5. This is a Super Bowl-caliber roster. 

There wasn’t a single battle for a starting gig on offense or defense during training camp and preseason games. Ryan Pace assembled the deepest, best group of roster talent this Bears franchise has seen in a long time, with no glaring weaknesses and All-Pros and Pro Bowlers littering this group. 

This is not a prediction that the Bears will win Super Bowl LIV. But it is an acknowledgement of the talent that’ll report to Halas Hall to begin practicing for Week 1 on Sunday. 

A year ago — after the Bears traded for Khalil Mack — we thought the Bears might have a roster good enough to compete for the NFC North title. Mack’s monstrous impact and Nagy’s deft coaching touch hadn’t materialized yet. 

Now, going into 2019: We know this is a roster not only good enough to win the NFC North, but to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Florida this coming February. Starting Thursday, it’s time for this collective of talented players to make good on that potential. 

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Bears grades and needs: D-line looks set, from Akiem Hicks to Bilal Nichols

Bears grades and needs: D-line looks set, from Akiem Hicks to Bilal Nichols

2018 depth chart

1. Akiem Hicks
Usage: 16 games, 74.1 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $10.1 million cap hit

Hicks is one of the very best interior defensive linemen in the NFL, leading all players at his position with 34 run stops (defined by Pro Football Focus as tackles that constitute a loss for the offense) while contributing eight sacks and 53 pressures. He finally earned the Pro Bowl bid he’s deserved for years and will remain an anchor of the Bears’ defense as it transitions from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano. That he played nearly three-quarters of the Bears' defensive snaps, too, is a testmant to A) how tough is was to take him off the field and B) how well he conditioned himself to be able to play that much. 

2. Eddie Goldman
Usage: 16 games, 52.5 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $7.55 million cap hit

With so much star power highlight reel appearances surrounding him, Goldman perhaps was under-appreciated outside the walls of Halas Hall. But inside the Bears’ facility, Goldman’s impact was celebrated. His ability to absorb interior double teams allowed inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith to shoot gaps and each rack up over 100 tackles, and coupled with Hicks few teams were able to effectively run the ball on the Bears. 

While Goldman indeed only played a little over half of the Bears’ defensive snaps, that was possible because of good depth behind him. Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers — the lone position coach holdover from Fangio’s staff — crafted a plan that allowed Goldman to stay healthy, fresh and effective all season. With Pagano keeping the Bears’ 3-4 base scheme, Goldman will still have a highly important role a year after signing a four-year, $42.04 million contract with $25 million guaranteed. 

3. Roy Robertson-Harris
Usage: 16 games, 33.6 percent of defensive snaps, 27.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Robertson-Harris’ 28 pressures tied for fourth on the team behind the three guys you’d expect to be ahead of him (Khalil Mack, Hicks, Leonard Floyd). He was a disruptive presence able to play just about every defensive line technique, and he used his 6-foot-7 length to bat down two passes, too. 

Robertson-Harris will turn 26 in late July and could still have some untapped potential as a defensive lineman, a position he switched to only a few years ago. 

4. Bilal Nichols
Usage: 14 games, 31.2 percent of defensive snaps, 5.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $644,870 cap hit

Nichols came up with one of the biggest plays in the early part of the Bears’ season when he dropped Cardinals running back for a three-yard loss on third-and-two just after the two-minute warning, with Arizona driving in Bears territory. From there, Nichols was good for a few plays per game, immediately fitting in as an adept rotational player a few months removed from being a fifth-round pick.

Nichols tied with Robertson-Harris for fifth on the team with four sacks, and in Week 17 he thoroughly terrorized Minnesota’s offensive line: Four hurries, two hits and one sack (after the sack, he mimicked the “Viking Clap” to a largely empty U.S. Bank Stadium). Ryan Pace appears to have unearthed a solid contributor in Nichols, someone who will be a key part of the team’s defensive line rotation again in 2019. 

5. Jonathan Bullard
Usage: 16 games, 28.3 percent of defensive snaps, 15.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1,026,630 cap hit

Bullard hasn’t quite capitalized on the potential that led Pace to draft him in the third round back in 2016, and was passed on the depth chart by Robertson-Harris and Nichols last season. He’s adequate against the run and his cap hit is low enough for him to stick on the roster in 2019. 

6. Nick Williams 
Usage: 2 games, 4.2 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Williams won a camp battle to secure a roster spot, but only appeared in two games (Week 1 and Week 9). 

7. Abdullah Anderson
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

The Bucknell alum and 2017 Patriot League defensive player of the year hung around the practice squad in 2018, and will get a shot at sticking in that role in 2019. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 3

Between Hicks, Goldman, Robertson-Harris and Nichols, the Bears have four strong contributors to their defensive line rotation. Add Bullard in there and the “need” lessens, though defensive line is one of those positions where you can never have too many bodies. 

Previous grades and needs: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | OL

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How five key Bears position battles are playing out during training camp

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USA Today Sports Images

How five key Bears position battles are playing out during training camp

It’s easy to put undue importance on one preseason game, let alone a handful of snaps from it. Take it from Bears coach Matt Nagy:

“If somebody comes out and has a poor game it doesn't mean they're getting cut,” Nagy said. “If they come out and have a great game it doesn't mean they made the team.”

That line of thinking certainly applies to guys on the fringe of the Bears’ 53-man roster, but it also applies to players who will be on the team but are competing for a role on it. For most of the latter group, Thursday night’s 30-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was their first live game action of 2018; for most players fighting for a roster spot, it was their second game, coming a week after the Aug. 2 Hall of Fame Game. 

In addition to these two preseason games, the Bears have held 13 training camp practices in Bourbonnais, which are a significant part of a player’s evaluation, too. There still are three games, two joint practices with the Denver Broncos and a few more weeks of work at Halas Hall separating the Bears from Sept. 9's season opener in Green Bay. Nobody's earned a role or a roster spot yet, but some of these competitions have come into focus now that the first true preseason game of 2018 is in the books:

1. Defensive end: Jonathan Bullard vs. Roy Robertson-Harris

While Bullard and Robertson-Harris are treating training camp as a competition, both have performed well enough to earn themselves snaps come Sept. 9. 

Robertson-Harris, in particular, has had a strong few weeks in practices and games, and notched the Bears’ only sack against the Bengals. He added two pressures and a tackle for a loss, too. 

“The games matter,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “You find out who can put it all together when the lights shine. Every day we grade these guys, and every game we grade these guys, and whoever is consistently doing these things will move up and down on the depth chart.”

The 6-foot-5 Robertson-Harris is up to 294 pounds, nearly 40 pounds heavier than he was when he signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent back in 2016. His size, length and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect who, even if Bullard wins the third defensive line starting job in the Bears’ base defense, looks likely to get on the field plenty in 2018. 

2. Offensive line: Eric Kush vs. Earl Watford vs. James Daniels

Daniels logged 44 snaps in his first action in a Bears uniform on Thursday and, on first glance, played well. 

“I got to go back and watch it and see the details of his technique, for the most part I thought he played really well,” Nagy said. “That was really neat to see. I was proud of him.”

That Daniels played center not only Thursday, but in practice this week, was noteworthy given the post-draft insistance of general manager Ryan Pace that the 20-year-old would begin his pro career as a guard. Not having Hroniss Grasu (ankle) available in practice or Thursday’s game likely contributed to Daniels taking reps at center, but whatever the reason, he took advantage of them. 

Meanwhile, Kush was beat by Geno Atkins — who is, to be fair, one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league — for a first-quarter sack, and Cody Whitehair was whistled for a holding penalty drawn by Atkins, too. We’re still a long ways from Daniels unseating a veteran in Kush or Watford from the top of the depth chart, and forcing Whitehair off center to guard, but Thursday’s game was a step in the right direction for the second-round pick. 

3. Wide receiver: Javon Wims vs. Bennie Fowler vs. DeMarcus Ayers vs. Tanner Gentry

Wims wasn’t able to follow up his strong Hall of Fame Game (seven catches, 89 yards) with another productive day Thursday, only catching two of three targets for six yards — and the one target he didn’t catch was a drop. Still, we saw Wims get some work on more special teams units — he played gunner on punt coverage in addition to running down kickoffs — and how he grades on Chris Tabor’s film will be important, too, in addition to what he put on tape on offense. 

Fowler has had some trouble catching the ball in his two preseason games, while Ayers flashed a bit with three catches for 24 yards and a three-yard touchdown run. Still, he faces an uphill climb to the roster, as he’s behind a few other guys as a punt returner (and the poor guy was whistled for lowering his helmet trying to tackle Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem on a fake punt). 

Gentry had the best game of any receiver, catching six of 11 targets for 54 yards — and he should’ve had a touchdown had Tyler Bray not underthrown him when he got a step on cornerback KeiVarae Russell (who picked the pass off). 

In reality, the Bears don’t absolutely have to take a sixth receiver, if we presume five guys are locked into roster spots (Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, Josh Bellamy). Robinson, Miller and Gabriel certainly are safe; while White dropped a pass and was largely invisible for the first half, it would take many more uneven practices and games for the Bears to even consider cutting bait on their 2015 first-round pick. Bellamy is a core special teamer who likely isn’t going anywhere, either. 

So not only is this group of receivers competing against each other, they’re competing with a bunch of other guys at different positions to grab a spot on the Week 1 53-man roster. This is especially true after both of the guys competing to be the Bears’ fourth-string tight end — Daniel Brown (five catches, 90 yards) and Ben Braunecker (one catch, 20 yards) — played well Thursday and have put together solid training camps to date. 

4. Cornerback: Marcus Cooper vs. The Field

With Prince Amukamara held out, Cooper had a chance Thursday to put some good things on tape. He didn’t. The Bengals consistently picked on him, and he didn’t do much to take advantage of getting those opportunities coming his way. 

Amukamara and Kyle Fuller are the unquestioned starters at outside corner, and Bryce Callahan will again be the primary slot corner, with Cre’von LeBlanc likely being his backup. Special teams captain Sherrick McManis has a roster spot, too. So that leaves a fairly wide open competition for one or two reserve cornerback spots, depending on how things shake out come Labor Day weekend. 

The price tag for releasing Cooper — $750,000, per Spotrac — isn’t prohibitive, given the Bears paid double that amount to jettison an ineffective Victor Cruz at the end of last year’s preseason. So throw Cooper into the mix with Doran Grant (who had two pass break-ups, though one of those was a dropped interception), Michael Joseph, Anthony Toliver, Rashard Fant (who didn’t play) and John Franklin III (who struggled to cover Auden Tate in his first game action this preseason). 

There’s an opportunity for any of those guys to make the Week 1 roster, or none of them could perform well enough and the Bears will wind up scouring the waiver wire for a reserve cornerback. The next few weeks of practice and these last three games will be critical for someone from this group of cornerbacks to separate themselves from the pack. 

5. Inside Linebacker: Nick Kwiatkoski vs. Roquan Smith

No, Smith isn’t with the team, and there haven’t been any signs that the stalemate between his camp and the Bears will end. Eventually, though, Smith and the Bears will come to an agreement on a contract and he’ll join the team, even if we don’t know when that will be. 

But when Smith does start practicing, he’s not going to immediately take over as a starting inside linebacker. Kwiatkoski is a dependable guy who, on Thursday, called the defense with Danny Trevathan sitting the game out. Bears coaches know they can trust Kwiatkoski; without seeing Smith in pads yet, that’s still a question mark for the eighth overall pick. 

That being said, as colleague John “Moon” Mullin wrote Thursday, there’s not much correlation in team history between a rookie holding out and not having a successful career. Everything Smith did back in OTAs and minicamp was positive, and the athletic traits, football IQ and work ethic that led the Bears to spend the eighth overall pick on him haven’t gone away while he’s separated from the team. 

The point: Smith will, eventually, re-join the Bears and then will win a starting job. But he’ll have to compete with Kwiatkoski to do so — it’s not like he’s stepping into a gaping hole on this defense. But again, if Smith truly is great, he won’t have a problem displacing Kwiatkoski and winning the starting gig the Bears need him to have in 2018.