After a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL preseason will be returning this August.
Teams will have a chance to watch their young up-and-comers and backups showcase their skills and prove themselves as players worth investing in going forward. A lack of a preseason likely made it more difficult for teams to make more informed roster decisions last year, so giving players the chance to play before the regular season should be beneficial to all within the organization, even with the cut down from four to three games.
The Bears are certainly no exception to this rule, and they have their fair share of young, unproven talent looking to make a name for themselves. These six players could take advantage of the 2021 NFL preseason to help their standing on Chicago’s roster.
QB Justin Fields
It appears likely that the Bears are sticking with Andy Dalton as their Week 1 starting quarterback, for better or worse. Regardless, the preseason could help prove Justin Fields as a player worth starting early in the year.
By all accounts, Fields has looked impressive in practices since being drafted. His development will be on display in the preseason, where he will have the chance to shine in a game setting with opposing NFL defenses.
The general consensus is that, while Dalton is the favorite to start for the Bears right away, the team won’t decline Fields the opportunity to start if he is clearly the better choice to help them win now. Through a strong performance in the preseason — during which he will likely have plenty of reps — the rookie could usurp the veteran in the starting role, or at least put significant pressure on him.
WR Riley Ridley
A fourth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft seen by many as a steal at the time, Riley Ridley has yet to live up to expectations.
With just 10 receptions to his name at the NFL level, 149 offensive snaps and only 17 snaps on special teams, Ridley has yet to step into any notable role for the Bears. The team has added the likes of Marquise Goodwin, Damiere Byrd and Dazz Newsome this offseason, putting Ridley’s roster spot in jeopardy.
The return of the preseason should give Ridley more snaps to showcase a skill-set that is generally still unproven. With his job in jeopardy, he could use an increased snap count to prove whether his lack of production to this point has been a result of a lack of opportunity or simply poor play.
EDGE Charles Snowden
The Bears kept three edge rushers on their bench behind Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn in 2021, rotating them in over the course of the season.
Assuming Jeremiah Attaochu and Trevis Gipson both make the team, that leaves a third reserve spot unclaimed. Incumbent James Vaughters figures to have an inside track to making the team, but undrafted free agent Charles Snowden arguably offers a higher ceiling.
Seen by many as a potential draft pick early on Day 3 despite a season-ending ankle injury, Snowden is a lengthy and athletic prospect with coverage value and versatility as both an edge defender and an off-ball linebacker. He almost certainly would have been a draft pick were it not for his medical profile, and with an impressive preseason, he could solidify himself as a potential diamond in the rough.
CB Thomas Graham Jr.
With the release of Buster Skrine, the Bears have a wide-open battle at the nickelback position.
Though Duke Shelley stepped into a bigger role near the end of the 2020 season, and Kindle Vildor has been projected by many as a slot cornerback, it could be sixth-round rookie Thomas Graham Jr. who starts in the nickel in due time. A fluid, intelligent and sticky coverage defender, the Oregon alumnus stood out with 8 interceptions and 32 pass deflections in his three seasons with the Ducks.
One could make the argument that Graham faded into the background in draft circles after opting out of the 2020 season. Don’t get it twisted, though: his tape was certainly impressive. He might not start from Week 1, but don’t be surprised if he sneaks his way into the starting lineup in time, especially if he performs well in the preseason this year.
TE Jake Butt
Demetrius Harris is no longer on the Bears’ roster, and while the team has their top two tight ends secured in Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet, the depth at the position is questionable, at best.
The five other tight ends currently on Chicago’s roster have combined for just 25 catches at the NFL level. Arguably the biggest name of the bunch is former Broncos tight end Jake Butt, whom the team signed last Friday. He has dealt with his fair share of injuries since entering the NFL in 2017, but he arguably offers more value as a pass-catching, in-line blocker than any other backup option the Bears have.
The Bears carried four tight ends on their active roster throughout the entirety of the 2020 season, and they carried at least four in 2019. If Butt is able to stay healthy and put together a strong preseason performance, he could be a front-runner for one of those two reserve spots.
CB Tre Roberson
After suffering a season-ending broken foot last offseason, Tre Roberson has fallen under the radar in the grand scheme of things.
It was just in January of 2020 that Roberson signed the largest CFL-to-NFL deal since Cameron Wake signed with the Dolphins in 2009. The collegiate quarterback-turned-defensive back exploded with 7 interceptions for the Calgary Stampeders in 2019, returning two of those picks back for touchdowns.
Though the momentum surrounding his signing has since slowed, Roberson has the chance to stand out and secure a roster spot with a strong preseason. Given the Bears’ lack of proven depth at the cornerback position, the former CFL star could very well make the team if he plays well in August.