From a fan's perspective, the preseason opener has to be one of the most boring and worst-played games on the NFL calendar. Each team is carrying 90 players, and outside of some key players, most of the 90 play in the game. That leads to mistakes and usually a large number of penalties. What I have learned to do over the years is treat the preseason opener as just a glorified practice where the score is kept and an excellent chance to evaluate individual players.
It's my opinion that what the "team" does means nothing, but how individuals play is extremely important. A club's coaching and scouting staff strictly looks at how each player performs his assignments during the game. They need to find out if rookies are capable of playing in the NFL and if second and third-year players are ready to take the next step and become big-time contributors. We have to remember that about a third of guys playing Saturday will not be on the team in three or four weeks when the regular season begins. There is going to be some poor play, and the staff needs to know who those players are, as they won't be around.
Preseason games are nothing but basic football. Teams show little as to what they may do during the season, but how each individual plays is much more important. With the Chicago Bears, there is a large group of players that I want to see in action. Some are rookies, and some are young veterans who need to step up. The following are some of the players I will be watching closely.
Wright was drafted to be the starting right tackle. To date, he has had a strong camp, but the intensity level of a game is much more than practice. We know he can be a powerful run blocker, but we need to see if he can hold up in pass protection against NFL quality pass rushers. My thinking is he'll be fine, but on Saturday we will begin to see that verified.
Tyrique Stevenson and Terrell Smith
Stevenson was a second-round pick, and Smith was a fifth-rounder. On paper, Stevenson should easily be the better player, but to date, Smith has strongly challenged Stevenson for a starting spot. Watching the tape pre-draft, I felt that Stevenson had great natural tools but would come up with some mental errors almost every game. Smith, on the other hand, has similar physical traits but, in my mind, is a smarter player, and that is probably the reason he has looked so good in camp. The Bears have three games and two joint practices with Indy next week to figure out the answer but don't be surprised if Smith wins the competition. An even better outcome could be if both look great in the preseason, and that could figure into if the Bears try to extend fourth-year vet Jaylon Johnson. Watch this battle closely because the results are significant in the long run when looking at future Bears rosters.
Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens
These highly rated defensive tackles were picked to help upgrade the interior DLine. At least one, and hopefully both, can have strong preseason play. Neither has to be a starter at the beginning of the season, but they have to be trusted by the coaching staff to get a large amount of playtime in the DLine rotation. In a perfect world, all four defensive tackles play about 50% of the defensive snaps.
What's nice about these two is each is capable of playing either defensive tackle position. If that proves to be correct, that will make the rotation much better. I'm particularly interested in seeing Dexter's snap reaction. He was slow off the ball in college, and there have been reports that he hasn't improved much in that area to date in camp. His get-off is a very important trait.
Scott timed in the low 4.4's at the Combine but looks and plays much faster. Speed isn't an issue, but the inconsistency with his hands is. Early in camp, he was catching everything, but in the last few days, he's had a number of drops. Hopefully, it's nerves and concentration, and the drops will go away. If they don't, regardless of his speed, he can't be trusted to play if we don't know he will make the catch.
Dominique Robinson and Trevis Gipson
Robinson flashed as a rookie, but inconsistency was a large part of his game. Now that he is in his second season the staff is looking for him to make a big jump. He's a freak athlete with size, speed, strength and explosion to go along with very good change of direction and body control. The problem is he is raw, as this is only his fourth year playing as a defensive end.
What Robinson needs to develop is his pass rush technique. Knowing this, he spent a good part of the offseason working with all-time great pass rusher Robert Mathis. Hopefully, Mathis helped Robinson refine his game. If Robinson can go from 1.5 sacks to seven or eight, it will really help the defense.
Going into last season, it was hoped that Gipson would improve like he did from year one to year two. Instead, he regressed, and the staff is down on him. That is one of the reasons he was ranked so low on the unofficial depth chart that came out. There is no question that Trevis has the talent to become a quality NFL player, but he lacks consistency and attention to detail. He has three more weeks to impress the staff; otherwise, he could be history.
As a rookie last year, Jones played very well at left tackle. Being he was just a fifth-round draft pick, he was the most surprising draftee the Bears had. The only real weakness that showed in Jones' game was his ability to stop a strong bull rush. In the offseason, he worked hard on developing his lower body strength and power to correct the problem. Yesterday there was a report that he stopped both Rasheem Green and Andrew Billings cold on bull rush attempts. That is a good sign, especially stopping Billings, who is one of the strongest defensive linemen in the League. To give you an idea of how strong Billing is, as a high school senior, he was the Texas State Powerlifting champ with total lifts of 2010 pounds which is the State record. In the State meet, he benched 500, squatted 805 and deadlifted 705. He was 18 then, so how strong do you think he is now? It's obvious that Braxton has improved in his weakest area and is ready to become a top left tackle in the League.
Who are you looking forward to watching most in the preseason opener?