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.