Kevin Toliver

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. 

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

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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. 

Bears’ ‘next man up’ mentality will be tested with Kevin Toliver II against Buccaneers’ receivers

Bears’ ‘next man up’ mentality will be tested with Kevin Toliver II against Buccaneers’ receivers

Prince Amukamara (hamstring) and Marcus Cooper (hamstring) both did not practice for the second consecutive day on Thursday, leaving a strong possibility undrafted rookie Kevin Toliver II will be in line to get plenty of playing time against the high-powered air attack of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Toliver played 22 snaps after Amukamara exited the Bears’ 16-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals with that hamstring injury, and while he got beat on a Christian Kirk double move for a 32-yard gain in the fourth quarter, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought the LSU product held his own. 

“They obviously went after him a little bit there towards the end,” Fangio said. “We helped them some. Sometimes we didn’t. And I thought he responded well. They caught some balls in front of him and he got double-moved. 

“So it was baptism under fire. But I didn’t see a guy out there who looked out of place. And I’m glad he got those 20-something reps, because I think it helps him for this week.”

That 32-yard play on which Toliver got burned came on a third-and-five, and he admitted he was trying a little too hard to make a play to force a stop and a punt (“eyes were in the wrong area,” Toliver said. “That was a mistake on me.”). 

While the Bears trust their go-to nickel corner, Bryce Callahan, to play outside in their base 3-4 defense, Tampa Bay’s trio of productive receivers likely will lead Fangio having to frequently use nickel packages. The Buccaneers have had at least three receivers on the field on 58 percent of their plays this year, with Mike Evans (156 snaps), Adam Humphries (126 snaps), Chris Godwin (112 snaps) and DeSean Jackson (96 snaps) all heavily used. 

The Evans-Godwin-Jackson trio has combined for 48 receptions on 63 targets for 850 yards with nine touchdowns in three games. And as long as Toliver is on the field, he can expect to be picked on no matter who he’s lining up over. 

“If I was at any team, as long as I’m out there I know they’re going to throw my way,” Toliver said. “I just have to be ready, be prepared.” 

The Bears liked Toliver’s length and athleticism coming out of training camp, which is why they decided to keep him over a more experienced guy in Cre’Von LeBlanc (who’s now on the Detroit Lions’ practice squad). A former blue-chip recruit, Toliver didn’t pan out at LSU and wound up going undrafted despite leaving school a year early. 

But that experience playing in front of over 100,000 fans at Death Valley, or in huge, pressure-packed games across the SEC prepared Toliver for this moment. 

“LSU, they really got more fans in the stadium than a lot of NFL teams,” Toliver said. “That aspect of the game wasn’t really nerve-wracking for me.”

The spotlight will be on Toliver on Sunday in a different way, though. The Bears need him to make good on that next-man-up mentality and not be a reason why they head into the bye week 2-2 instead of 3-1. 

So you’ll probably hear Toliver’s name quite a bit on Sunday. Tampa Bay would be foolish to not test him, and he knows that. But it’s also an opportunity for an undrafted rookie to not just show he belongs in the NFL, but take it a step further. 

“I embrace that challenge,” Toliver said. “I love that challenge. I love this stage of my career, just guys trying me. Got to make a name for myself.”