And just like that, training camp is over. On Saturday, August 27, the Chicago Bears play their final tune-up game in Cleveland against the Browns. Then just like last year, when the League went to a 17-game season, there will be two weeks between the final preseason game and the opening game.
Because of this fairly new two-week gap between the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season, I feel that it will change how starters are used in this third and final exhibition.
Back when clubs played four preseason games, most teams never played their starters in that fourth game. The starters would get the majority of their playtime in that third game and then rest during game four. Last year was the first three-game preseason ever and teams varied their approach.
Here are my thoughts on how teams will approach things this season.
The two weeks between the final preseason game and the opening of the regular season is in effect a new “bye” week. It won’t surprise me if we see starters on many clubs play well into the second quarter this week. That could change with established teams, but for clubs like the Bears, getting that extra playtime for young players can be very beneficial. In other words, the third preseason game this year may be treated like the third game in past years.
In the Bears' case, several players still have not seen action this preseason. Among them are offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive tackle Mario Edwards and defensive backs Kindle Vildor and Dane Cruikshank. Both Cruikshank and Reiff were signed as free agents and were thought to be important pieces of this team. Vildor has been nicked up, so I understand why he hasn’t played. With the way Edwards played last year I thought he could contribute at the all-important 3-technique position. Has the coaching staff seen enough of these players in practice to know what they can or cannot contribute? If none of these guys play this Saturday, we will find out for sure in another week when the roster is cut to 53.
Now, on to a couple of Chicago players I have some specific thoughts on.
As we all know, Roquan didn’t practice during all of training camp because of his contract dispute. We also know that he finally practiced on Saturday, and there is a chance he will see some action this week in Cleveland. He has stated that he will play this season under the terms of his current contract and “bet on himself.”
Roquan publicly asked for a trade, and some feel the Bears should grant that wish because as an off-the-ball linebacker, he’s not worth what he wants contractually. I disagree, and here is why. In the 4-3 defensive scheme the Bears play, the Will linebacker is THE most important position. I learned this back in 2004 when Lovie Smith was hired as Head Coach. On his first day in the office, he explained to me the importance of the Will and that player had to be special. We had that special player in Lance Briggs.
Lance wasn’t the first great Will in the Tampa-2, that belongs to former Tampa Bay Buc Derrick Brooks, who played the Will when Tony Dungy installed the scheme years ago. Bears Head Coach Matt Eberflus also had an outstanding Will the last four years in Shaq Leonard, who became an All-Pro as the Will. I do not doubt that Roquan has the traits to be similar to Leonard, but in reality, the Bears won’t know that until they see it.
Some feel that off-the-ball linebackers aren’t worth the money that Leonard is being paid ($19.5M average). Again, I disagree. Why? Because it’s the value of the position to the scheme. In some schemes, the linebackers aren’t as important as the Will is to what the Bears ask that position to do. When a player is playing the most important position, shouldn’t he be paid that way?
Reportedly, Roquan wants to be paid similar to Leonard and Fred Warner (49ers), who both make over $19M per year on average. The Bears have reportedly offered a similar contract to Smith, so why hasn’t he accepted? Some say that the structure of Smith's contract is different than Leonard’s. That may be true, but we don’t know as we have never seen the exact offer, nor will we ever see it.
As I see it, the problem is that Roquan is negotiating for himself. That puts him in a no-win situation. Negotiating a contract is no easy task, especially a contract the size of Smith’s potential deal. In contractual negotiations, there is always back and forth. The player's side points out everything the player can do and tries to negotiate using the player's strengths. The Club, on the other hand has to be more negative, so they often deal with the player's weaknesses to use as a counterpoint. They will also use the value of off-the-ball linebackers in other schemes. It’s all part of a negotiation.
When an agent is involved, he knows exactly how these points and counterpoints work, and he knows how to keep things on track. When a player is doing the negotiation, it becomes personal and he gets upset. When Roquan stated the other day that the negotiations were “distasteful” that is what he was referring to. If Smith wants to get a fair deal done, he needs to hire an agent and take himself out of the equation. If that happens, a deal will get done.
What a roller coaster ride this story has been. During OTAs Jenkins was installed as the starting right tackle, but then after about a week he was replaced by Larry Borom. Fast forward to training camp and Jenkins practices on the first day but then misses the next week of practice with an undisclosed injury. While he was missing practice, there were national rumors that Jenkins was on the trading block and that he was immature, and there was a disconnect between him and the coaches.
Once Jenkins got back to practice, he practiced well. For the most part, he played good football in the opening preseason game at right tackle. At the same time, the Bears struggled at right guard during the game. The day after that game, Bears O-Line Coach Chris Morgan informs Jenkins that he’s being moved to right guard, and he practiced last week with the first team. Last Thursday he again played very well in his first game at guard. Then on Saturday, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter tweeted that Jenkins is still on the trading block.
I don’t believe it.
I have been around the game long enough to know that coaches aren’t about to waste their time in practice or games. If Jenkins was still available in a trade, there is no way he would be working with the first-team offense. That would be an extremely non-productive way of holding practice and simply makes no sense. This is a new scheme under new coaches, and every rep counts!
From what I have seen in the first two preseason games, Jenkins has the tools to be a very good guard in this outside zone offense. Moving him to guard does not mean he failed, as several outstanding guards in the League were productive tackles in college. It does mean that he is a good fit for what is being asked of the right guard within the scheme.