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Practice How You Play: Which Training Camp Battles Will Be Most Exciting?

Can Cole Kmet launch into a full-time starting role? Will quarterback be an unofficial battle? And where the heck is Eddie Goldman?

NFL: Chicago Bears-Training Camp Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

As your pets slowly rise from their slumber, searching for the source of the rattle, put your ear to the ground and listen. The sound grows into a rumble, displaying itself in a shake of your decoratives on shelves. Glass and porcelain become musical instruments, tuned to the melody of a coming storm.

Do you hear it, Bears fans? The sound of a head coach praising a player he fully plans to cut in a few weeks? The ill-advised drunken rant of an out-of-shape man complaining about a peak athlete missing an “easy” read? The crowds of people gathering to watch a group of monstrous men slam into each other to earn millions?

Training camp season is upon us, and it’s nothing short of exciting. While jokes can and will be made, this is the start of a wonderful time of year: football season.

Like any team in the NFL, the Bears have sealed starters on their roster. Khalil Mack could show up in Los Angeles on September 12th after wholly skipping camp and preseason, and he would still be the most talented player on the Chicago Bears. He’s actually done that once before. Allen Robinson, with or without a contract extension, will be the unquestioned WR1. Roquan Smith will start at inside linebacker as he continues to seek his first Pro Bowl and a new contract of his own.

Also like any team in the NFL, the Bears have questions. Let’s take a dive into a few of the matchups which should make for an exciting training camp in Lake Forest.

Safety:

NFL: Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

While some might question Eddie Jackson’s play in 2020, between missed tackles and his first career NFL season without an interception, he remains the most talented safety on this team. His starting spot is not up for grabs. Opposite him, however, the Bears should look to hold another battle to determine the starting “strong safety.” Tashaun Gipson is the incumbent, returning to the Bears on a one-year contract following a somewhat non-flashy 2020 season with 66 combined tackles, 48 solo, 7 pass breakups, and 2 INTs while playing 98% of the snaps. The 30-year old will look to continue to earn starting snaps this camp.

Last season Gipson won the job over 5-year Bears veteran Deon Bush. With the fun game-ending plays made by fellow reserve safety Deandre Houston-Carson early in 2020, Deon Bush found time on special teams and elsewhere, logging 5 total tackles, 2 pass breakups, and 1 INT. If you’re one to follow the money, both players return on one-year deals, with Gipson’s cap hit just north of $1.8 million and Bush just shy of $1.0 million. Bush faces an uphill battle to fight for a larger role in this defense, and it starts this camp.

Tight End:

NFL: Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Cole Kmet was an interesting story to follow in 2020. As a rookie taken in the 2nd round, and also the first tight end selected in the draft, there were lofty expectations placed on him. The Bears offensive strategy didn’t fully support a player with Kmet’s skillset to shine, with him being asked to block and run short routes while the red zone looks went heavily to veteran Jimmy Graham.

Even still, the snap counts between Graham and Kmet are nearly identical, with both the veteran and the then-rookie logging 58% of the Bears snaps on offense. This offense desperately needs a tight end worth a spot on your fantasy team, and with Graham doing most of his dirty work inside the ‘20s, Kmet should use this camp to carve out a role as a first- and second-look in more plays.

Trenches:

NFL: Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

They say football games are won and lost in the trenches. If you know what to look for, you can see where a well-designed play was made to look like a preschool art project. You can also see where the best running backs in football owe a set of Rolex watches.

This camp, the Bears have a pair of lockdown starters on the offensive line, but not even those two are firm bets at a respective position. Cody Whitehair, the Bears on-again off-again left guard, will likely settle into his best position there. With James Daniels returning from an injury-plagued 2020 season and starting experience on this team from 2019, he will have a starting role inside this line.

Sam Mustipher had a breakout 2020 season at center and would retain that if neither of the former two take his spot, and the Bears drafted a pair of tackles in 2021 to replace Charles Leno, Jr and Bobby Massie, both out the door. In Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom, the Bears hope to see good camp practice against elite edge rushers. Germain Ifedi figures to be the starting right tackle, but anything can happen in camp.

On the other side, the Bears are hopeful (and somewhat annoyed at the lack of so far) that Eddie Goldman’s return can seal up a large hole at nose tackle. Bilal Nichols, while sporting versatility and size of his own, never looked the part at the position, and the Bears would do well to find him a place to use his hands more than his body to find holes. Should the Bears press on with Akiem Hicks (rather than trade him), he’ll have his defensive tackle role locked up, and Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn will spend all camp making Andy Dalton and Justin Fields thank the gods for their red jerseys.

The fun matchup to watch here is which line gives the other more problems. If the defensive line looks leaps and bounds ahead of the offensive line, as they have in the past few years, it could spell doom for the Bears’ efforts of turning this offense into a respectable unit for the first time since head coach Matt Nagy took over in 2018.

Quarterback:

NFL: Chicago Bears Minicamp Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears are going out of their way to pretend this starting quarterback position isn’t an open competition. Even with Matt Nagy standing firm on Andy Dalton starting week 1, while admitting the obvious in that he can’t predict the future, it’s obvious to anybody who watched the Bears trade up 9 spots to grab a quarterback in the first round that there will come a Sunday this season where the Justin Fields era begins.

We can clamor and shout and argue a pout every week Andy Dalton throws 200 yards 1TD 1INT, but at the end of the day this training camp will be a great chance for the Bears to get an idea of an internal timeline of their self-described “plan.” If Fields is a stud in camp? Great, pull Dalton once he has a bad half. If Fields needs film study to speed up processing and make it to his second read while avoiding pass rush at the same time? OK, let’s cut extend the leash on Dalton and see if we can stay above .500 with him at the helm.

Either way, the repetitions in training camp with Fields and Dalton will have an impact on the timeline, and the “plan.”

Honorable Mention: WR2

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears’ playbook has plenty of room for 3 wide receivers to move around the field and see playing time, but the big question is who will start in two-wideout sets for the Bears? With former second-round pick Anthony Miller falling out of favor with Bears coaches and rookie Darnell Mooney finding playing time out wide, the snap counts from 2020 don’t quite support a camp battle here. Mooney played 72% of the snaps, with Miller contained to 54% this doesn’t look like much of a battle. Look for Mooney to have a great camp and step into an even larger role for this offense.

What are some of your must-watch battles for the Bears’ training camp in 2021? Let us know in the comments. There will be a limited amount of fans allowed to attend this year, you can enter for a chance to win free tickets right here. Be sure to take plenty of pictures and let your fellow Bears fans know how the new facility at Halas Hall is!