The Chicago Bears are heading into their final game of the preseason after what has felt like an eternity since the start of training camp over six weeks ago.
After head coach Matt Nagy’s controversial decision to sit all but a pair of their projected starters, Thursday’s game should be much more predictable. It’s also worth noting that the cut down period must be finalized by Saturday at 4 p.m. EST.
With roster moves on the horizon, how many roster spots are truly up for grabs? That answer isn’t exactly clear, but an educated guess would be right around five.
Let’s focus on those battles as we dive into the final what to watch for of the 2018 preseason.
Potential preseason debuts
It’s possible the Bears could opt to play purely reserves in this game just to play it safe with injuries. Whether that’s to save money on potential cuts (Aaron Lynch) and not risk turning a $1.3 million investment into a $4 million mistake, or simply to have them fresh for the regular season (Roquan Smith). Even so, the team has a pair of players that were expected to play big roles this season that have yet to play in a preseason game.
First and most importantly, they must decide on the best move for Smith. The No. 8 overall pick hasn’t played a snap and may wait for Week 1. The question is, how comfortable would they be with the future “quarterback” of the defense playing, and possibly starting, as soon as Week 1 without a single NFL snap?
Then there’s Lynch, who is finally back at practice after fighting off his third injury since being signed to a one-year deal in March. I’m not convinced that his roster spot is completely set in stone, but who has stepped up to replace him?
At inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski is capable of starting in Smith’s absence. And on the outside, Lynch could still be the team’s second best pass rushing option if healthy.
All five starters are set in the defensive backfield. The depth, though, is still unsettled.
At cornerback it appears Marcus Cooper, Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and Doran Grant are in a battle for the last spot. The issue? Much like outside linebacker, none of these players have done much to separate themselves from the pack. More importantly, they’ve done little to calm doubts of depth at the position.
Let’s assume that it’s Cooper’s job to lose heading into Thursday with Toliver as the only true challenger. With that in mind, if one of these four can distinguish themselves against the Bills, they could win the job outright.
It’s also possible corner is a position that’s addressed this weekend during the cut down period. Until then this is who the Bears have to rely on if one of their starters goes down.
Despite both Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving registering a sack, pressure, and quarterback hit each last Saturday, edge rusher is a position in serious peril for the Bears.
The starting two in Leonard Floyd and Sam Acho are set. Overlook the quality there, it’s still a glaring weakness with the final two or three spots on the depth chart. It’s possible Lynch is still the player general manager Ryan Pace signed him to be, but that’s a large gamble.
It’s more likely that Fitts, Irving, and Kasim Edebali are fighting for two spots: the caveat being that none of their jobs are safe if they can add an outside option this weekend.
Regardless of how you cut it, the Bears could use a true stand out here. Whether that’s Lynch making his debut, or one of the young options making a large statement: a big game is needed for at least one of these four names.
Here’s a battle that has gone somewhat under the radar for the last 40 or so days. Yet, we’re heading into the final game where an argument could be made for either punter to make the roster.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Unless you’re a special teams coach, it’s much harder to evaluate a punter because there’s a surprising amount of factors that go into this process.
- Patrick O’Donnell has received more opportunities and usually veterans win out by default in these situations.
Even so, when you dive into the numbers the undrafted rookie Ryan Winslow has been nearly as productive in half as many punts, including better hangtime numbers.
Holding duties is another large factor in this competition. Kicker Cody Parkey has missed two 52-yard attempts with both O’Donnell and Winslow as holders over the course of the last four games.
The edge likely goes to the veteran in this situation. Then again, not many outside of Chris Tabor know what they are truly evaluating. By Saturday afternoon we’ll know whose job it is.
The three primary backs in Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, and Benny Cunningham are locked in. It’s also fair to assume that barring something unexpected, fullback Michael Burton has a roster spot.
Despite that, it’s likely the Bears opt to carry four true running backs. Which leaves three players fighting for one opportunity.
Veteran Knile Davis was a late addition to the mix, and has seen his fair share of opportunities, even over the likes of undrafted rookie Ryan Nall. Davis’ special teams value could intrigue the Bears enough to keep him. Although Nagy may not see enough of a value in a lesser version of Benny Cunningham when all is said and done.
This final running back spot likely comes down to Ryan Nall and Taquan Mizzell. Play on the field says that Nall should win the job, but the actions of the coaching staff in snaps leads me to believe that it’s Mizzell’s job to lose.
Either way, expect the loser of this Bears positional battle to find their way on the practice squad by Sunday afternoon.