The Chicago Bears kick off their preseason schedule against the Baltimore Ravens in Thursday night’s Hall of Fame game.
While it’s nice to have football back into the weekly rotation, the inaugural preseason game in Canton, Ohio is hardly must-see TV. The game is usually chalked full of second- and third-stringers fighting for roster spots.
We won’t see Mitch Trubisky, Jordan Howard, Allen Robinson, Akiem Hicks and other marquee starters for the Bears. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t have fun.
If you’re not going into work Friday, play the “it’s-only-preseason” drinking game. Take a drink any time someone remarks “it’s only preseason” or some variation of the phrase during the broadcast. You’ll be blitzed by halftime.
But if you’d rather use your scouting eye, the extra preseason game is a great opportunity to watch to watch some position battles unfold at game speed. You also might see a hidden gem make enough impact plays to force the coaching staff’s hand going forward.
For starters, here are three position battles to watch for during the Bears preseason debut.
Allen Robinson is going to be the No. 1, and we know that Taylor Gabriel will be a weapon in the slot. But after that is where things are up for grabs.
Rookie Anthony Miller has been turning heads so far in training camp. The second-round draft choice is expected to play for at least a couple of series on Thursday. Aside from highlight plays, one thing to look for is where Miller lines up on the field. He’s gotten reps in the slot and flanked out wide at the Z position to start training camp. How effective he is in either spot this preseason will help determine his role in the regular season.
Kevin White will be another receiver to focus on, of course. The No. 7 overall selection in 2015 has played five games in three seasons and has shown nothing to validate his draft stock in limited action. White has shown flashes the last two weeks in camp, so seeing him in game action will show if that translates versus a live defense.
White’s production will have an indirect impact on other receivers like Bennie Fowler, Javon Wims, Josh Bellamy, and Tanner Gentry. Those three names would make the 53-man roster mainly as special teams’ players and emergency receiving depth.
If Fowler, Wims, Bellamy or Gentry have equal or more production than White during the preseason, White could be a casualty when the roster is trimmed down. But if he makes impact plays starting Thursday, Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace will have to decide if they prefer another big-bodied weapon over special teams help.
Cornerback depth is key on any roster. There are moments where the Bears will trot out three or four corners on passing downs, and certain players at the position can be regular contributors on special teams. We know Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara and Bryce Callahan are locks to make the 53-man roster.
The cornerback slots behind them are up in the air. Competing for the remaining spots are Marcus Cooper, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Deiondre’ Hall, Jonathon Mincy, Doran Grant and Kevin Toliver. Hall and Toliver are the most intriguing names among that group.
Hall, a fourth-round pick in 2016, has been getting reps at both corner and safety this offseason. Where he lines up in game action will be worth watching. At 6-foot-2 with long arms, he certainly has the body to be a nice depth piece somewhere in the defensive backfield. If he takes a majority of snaps at corner this preseason, it could put guys like Cooper and LeBlanc on thin ice.
Toliver was one of the noteworthy undrafted free agent signings this offseason. A former five-star recruit out of Jacksonville, Fla., he had a solid freshman season at LSU but tailed off after that. Toliver missed the end of his sophomore season with a shoulder injury and had a subpar junior campaign in 2017.
His attitude and technique were questioned a lot in college, but tutelage under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell might be paying off. He’s impressed observers at training camp, showcasing plenty of athleticism and instincts in limited action. Thursday will give us a chance to see if that translates to game speed.
3. Pass Rushers Opposite Leonard Floyd
Perhaps the biggest question heading into the season is who will start opposite Leonard Floyd at outside linebacker? The defense finished as a top-10 unit in 2017, tying for seventh in sacks (42) despite not having a bonafide pass rusher all year.
Given his health and so-so sack totals, Floyd certainly hasn’t proven to be a dominant pass rusher yet. Opposing offenses have sent double teams at him because he’s the only athletic edge rusher on the unit. However, he’s shown enough skills the last two years to beat least a capable outside linebacker.
Having even an above-average pass rusher opposite Floyd would help, taking away some double teams from opposing blockers. However, the Bears lack that option on the current roster. Sam Acho currently holds the top spot at the second outside linebacker position, but the eight-year veteran hasn’t had more than four sacks in a season since 2012.
Aaron Lynch, who was signed in March, played his best football when Fangio was coaching the San Francisco 49ers defense. However, Lynch has spent training camp nursing a hamstring injury. Aside from Acho and Lynch, that leaves the following options:
- Kylie Fitts – Rookie (sixth-round selection)
- Isaiah Irving – Second year
- Kasim Edebali – Rookie (UFDA)
- Elijah Norris – Rookie (UFDA)
These young linebackers are expected to get plenty of run Thursday night, and whoever flashes the most could benefit greatly in a wide open race to push for more playing time. And if that guy keeps producing, Acho could easily lose reps by the time the regular season rolls around.