10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears completed an undefeated preseason for the first time since 1994, defeating the Cleveland Browns 21-20 at FirstEnergy Stadium Saturday night.
1. The Bears practiced their two-minute offense repeatedly this spring and summer, maybe more than I’ve seen any previous coaching staff zero in on situational football.
So it was no surprise when coach Matt Eberflus said he was hoping his offensive starters would be put in that exact situation in this game, one of the reasons he wanted to play starters in the third preseason game as far as the end of the first half.
Quarterback Justin Fields and the starters did well enough before the final minutes of the second quarter, building a 21-0 lead, that Eberflus pulled them after three scoring drives. Fields finished with a sparkling stat line, completing 14 of 16 passes for 156 yards with touchdown passes to tight end Ryan Griffin (22 yards), wide receiver Dante Pettis (12) and tight end Cole Kmet (24). Fields completed passes to 10 different targets.
Now the Bears must find a way to make this progress for a new offense meaningful with the regular season two weeks away on Sept. 11 when the San Francisco 49ers come to Soldier Field.
“I think we’ve progressed each time we’ve gone out there,” Kmet said. “We see the progression each and every week. We’ve got another week now and then a week leading up to the game, so we’ve got two weeks before we iron all this out.”
After going three-and-punt on the first series, the offense encountered only three more third downs the rest of the first half — and it was another clean effort in terms of minimizing penalties and turnovers. As importantly, the Bears appeared to get out of the game relatively healthy. Rookie defensive end Dominique Robinson (leg) was the only player to leave with an injury.
In other words, the game was just about everything Eberflus, an Ohio native, was hoping for.
“I think they feel positive about the performance,” Eberflus said. “When you have a good performance or you have an OK performance or whatever that performance is, you can always learn from it. Let’s take it play-by-play. What can we learn from each play to get better as a football team?”
Yes, it’s only preseason and Cleveland kept five defensive starters out — defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, middle linebacker Jacob Phillips and cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome. But the last time the Bears were here — 11 months ago — it was a mistake by the lake for them as the gameplan of coach Matt Nagy and his staff was terrible and the corresponding execution was horrendous.
“That was probably one of the worst games I have ever played in,” wide receiver Darnell Mooney said of the 26-6 loss in Week 3. “Not understanding what we could do offensively. It was a crazy experience, something I don’t want to remember. Now we’re understanding and trusting the process, trusting the offense and going from there.”
Garrett and Clowney were a wrecking crew in the previous meeting, combining for 6 ½ sacks and 11 quarterback hits. That loss to the Browns, the first start of Fields’ career, was one of the worst offensive games the Bears have had in decades. Fields was sacked nine times and the Bears managed a meager 47 yards offense on 42 plays.
“Glad 95 (Garrett) didn’t play,” Fields quipped with a smile after Saturday’s game.
This isn’t the regular season and doesn’t count for anything, but the win ought to give Fields confidence. He had David Montgomery (nine carries, 28 yards) in the game with him for the first time this summer, and the running back flashed the rugged effort that leads to extra yards as games go on. Fields was on the money and decisive on most snaps. He even earned an unnecessary roughness call at the end of a scramble, something he’s been waiting for as the hits pile up.
“I just think we are continually getting better,” Fields said. “We’re just building off the previous days and we are ready to get back to work next week and keep going.”
He finished preseason 23 of 30 for 243 yards with three touchdowns (all in this game). He was sacked twice and his passer rating was 133.1.
“I think it gives all the guys confidence,” he said.
We’ll know soon if it means anything. It’s a young group, as Fields and two offensive linemen are in Year 2. Left tackle Braxton Jones is a rookie. There were three starters on offense that have gotten beyond a rookie contract and one of them was wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who totaled 846 snaps for the Green Bay Packers from 2018-2021. That’s the equivalent of a full season for a starting receiver who is on the field for most snaps.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan summarized preseason pretty well earlier in the week when his team wrapped up their games Thursday night at Houston.
“It’s a fine line for everything,” Shanahan told reporters. “That’s why preseason is important, but it’s also something that I compare it to the driving range. Whatever happens there doesn’t really matter, but you need to do it to get better too.”
The Bears looked good off the tee and chipped well around the green. It’s on to the first tee box.
2. Roquan Smith went from a guy who was going to make his preseason debut to working out on the field about two hours before kickoff and then taking the sideline in athletic clothing prior to kickoff.
Eberflus — who said Smith would play Tuesday — chalked it up to “just tightness.” Yes, that is as unclear as the explanation the club never provided for why Smith opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list.
Smith looked like he was moving around OK for linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi and head athletic trainer Andre Tucker pregame, running and redirecting. Maybe a guy who spent the first 3 ½ weeks of training camp as a “hold in” didn’t want to strap on the pads to play in a game that will have zero impact on his contract negotiations at the end of the year. I don’t think Smith needed to play a quarter or so to be ready for the regular season, and my guess is that tightness will be cleared up in time for him to practice in the coming days at Halas Hall.
Eberflus said free safety Eddie Jackson, who didn’t play, is “day to day” without specifying why. Defensive end Robert Quinn was allowed to sit out because he’s a veteran that doesn’t need to prove he can bend the edge and beat some of the best offensive tackles. Jaylon Johnson was also diagnosed with “tightness” by Eberflus, although the cornerback came down with a case of that earlier in the week.
There shouldn’t be any concerns about the status of these three defenders who will play a significant tole in determining how good that unit will be in the regular season. But there is concern from the 18 players who did not see action:
- Center Lucas Patrick is starting to do more cardio work as his return from a broken right thumb nears. Patrick is still wearing a cast and because he snaps with his right hand, it will be interesting to see how long he’ll need to get up to speed once cleared.
- Rookie strong safety Jaquan Brisker has a cast on his right hand as well. It will be much easier for him to play with some padding after surgery than Patrick.
- Wide receiver Byron Pringle has been sidelined since early August with a quad injury. The Bears think he can be an asset to the offense. He’d probably have to be back on the field relatively soon to get up to speed for the 49ers.
- Wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. has been in and out with an injury Eberflus hasn’t detailed. Hopefully when he returns, the rookie will be good to go for an extended period.
- Veteran defensive linemen Mario Edwards Jr. and Angelo Blackson have missed time.
- Cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Tavon Young were considered candidates for the nickel role, but both have missed nearly all of training camp. That makes it tough for a new staff to evaluate them.
If you’re looking forward to the first day Eberflus has to be a little more specific about injuries, mark Wednesday, Sept. 7, on your calendar. That is the first day the Bears must release a legitimate injury report.
3. Veteran offensive tackle Riley Reiff got on the field for the first time this preseason.
He played left tackle, entering with the second team at the end of the second quarter. I counted a total of 13 snaps and it doesn’t look like he’s moving real well.
This is a 33-year-old player is entering his 11th NFL season with 139 career starts under his belt. He’s not the kind of guy that really needs preseason as a tuneup, but his pass sets look like he’ll be in trouble if he goes against someone like Nick Bosa in Week 1. Reiff has consistently been on the practice field but the Bears held him out of the first two preseason games.
“It’s good to get out there with the fellas, at least get a few hits in and take a few pass sets,” said Reiff, who got one hit that earned a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness when he was following running back Khalil Herbert and dove in a little late.
When I asked Reiff if he was moving as well as he could be, he said, “Yeah, I’m getting old. I felt good out there today.”
An ankle injury led to surgery last December when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals. Obviously, the Bears felt good enough about what shape he was in to sign Reiff to a one-year contract just before the start of training camp. He’s getting $3 million guaranteed — and another $4.5 million kicks in if he’s on the field for 10% of the offensive snaps and the offense improves in one of six statistical categories. I don’t know the specific categories, but if the Bears can make even marginal gains on offense and Reiff can start two games, you figure he’s pocketing $7.5 million.
I thought he was a near lock to be a starter when the team brought him in, paying him significantly more than the Bears under a previous regime paid Jason Peters a year ago. Reiff hasn’t run with the starters in weeks and would be making big money as a backup.
“I’m just here to help the team win,” he said.
If Braxton Jones and Larry Borom play well as starting tackles, Reiff’s situation is an afterthought. Jones and Borom clearly look like they will be with the first team. I just don’t know how much the Bears can rely on Reiff as a backup right now.
4. It’s impossible to say how the Roquan Smith situation will play out after the season.
I’m not going to speculate what avenue it will take anytime soon. I will point out, however, the Bears once brought back an excellent player at the same position and in the same scheme when they allowed Lance Briggs to reach the open market. Briggs played on the franchise tag in 2007, and he and the team reached an agreement that the Bears would not tag him a second straight time. Briggs made 103 tackles, second on the team, and was selected to the Pro Bowl in ‘07.
The Bears wanted him back after the one-year contract, but Briggs figured free agency was the path to his biggest contract. The team made a calculated decision: Don’t pay Briggs so much that he would pass on free agency and just see how things would unfold. Wide receiver Bernard Berrian also was a free agent in March 2008, and the Bears really wanted him back as a speed threat. Berrian wound up signing with the division rival Minnesota Vikings, which made it easier for the Bears to re-sign Briggs — who thought he might wind up with the San Francisco 49ers — to a six-year, $36 million contract.
Briggs was an outstanding player for a long time paired next to Brian Urlacher. Briggs was regarded as a durable and instinctive player and was arguably more of a playmaker early in his career than Smith has been through his first four seasons. Smith could stand out more in the new scheme playing the same position as Briggs for seven Pro Bowl selections. But Briggs didn’t find the level of interest in free agency he expected because off-the-ball linebackers generally don’t command the same level of pay as linemen or elite defensive backs. That was the case then and is the case now.
Who knows how Smith will play this season, what his goals are and how general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus will evaluate him. Joel Corry, who does fine work as a cap and contract expert for CBS, estimates the franchise tag for linebackers will be $20.5 million in 2023. Corry pointed out the last off-the-ball linebacker to be tagged was David Harris of the New York Jets in 2011. That’s because outside linebackers, some of them elite pass rushers, are lumped in with off-the-ball linebackers for calculation of the franchise tag. Teams don’t want to pay inside linebackers that kind of money. Tagging Smith at $20.5 million for 2023 would allow him to use that as a floor for annual pay in negotiations for a long-term deal.
Smith is taking a risk in playing out his contract. He’ll assume injury risk every week he steps on the field. A lot of players have bet on themselves and won. Former Bears center Olin Kreutz turned down an extension offer from the Bears in 2001 and wound up getting significantly more in free agency. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is a great example of a player who bet on himself before having enough leverage to get a four-year, $160 million contract in March 2021.
The Bears signed wide receiver Earl Bennett to a four-year, $18 million extension in December 2011, including $9 million guaranteed. It was pretty much the same offer the team offered wide receiver Johnny Knox. Bennett’s payday was finalize less than three weeks before Knox suffered a career-ending spinal injury in a game against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 18, 2011. Knox underwent spinal fusion surgery the next day and never played again.
Knox was a Pro Bowl returner as a rookie in 2009. and the next season when the Bears reached the NFC championship game, he was the best receiver on the team, catching 51 passes for 960 yards (18.8 average) and five touchdowns. He remained the go-to target in 2011 and could have figured a better offer would come in the offseason before entering 2012, the final year of his contract.
Marc Lillibridge, the director of player personnel for the Houston XFL franchise, said the initial offer to Knox was based off a contract the Green Bay Packers did in October 2011 with Jordy Nelson, a three-year, $13.35 million deal that averaged $4.45 million per season. Lillibridge was one of the agents representing Knox.
“We thought Johnny was going on the same trajectory,” Lillibridge said. “I will be honest with you, I had two other partners at the time and we all said, ‘Let’s just wait.’ Johnny was cool with it. I thought it was a fair deal (the contract Bennett received). I didn’t think it was a great deal, but I thought it was a good enough deal. Hindsight being 20/20, you wish you would have done it. It wasn’t where we thought it needed to be, and they gave it to Earl. I didn’t think (Bennett) was the same player as Johnny, but they wanted to get somebody locked up.
“That is always the risk. Every player (even ones not in a contract situation) has risk though. I know that sounds cliché, but that’s the truth.”
Knox was paid his 2012 salary when he was on the physically unable to perform list. His contract was terminated after that season, and later he won a worker’s compensation claim. Knox, who now lives in Europe with his family and still walks with a limp, also had an insurance policy that he has collected on because his career was ended by a catastrophic injury.
It’s easy to say Knox should have taken the contract offerbut he was an ascending player who quickly went from being a dynamo on special teams to a dangerous vertical threat. He was betting on himself. Had he stayed healthy, we would look back on it and say he made the right move.
5. Lamar Jackson figured he did enough during a bizarre 2020 rookie year to earn a job last season.
It was bizarre because of the extreme COVID-19 protocols in place. Bizarre because his introduction to the NFL was on the spiraling New York Jets, who lost their first 13 games before finishing 2-14. Bizarre because defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was fired one day after Jackson was hung out to dry on a wildly aggressive call. The Jets led the Las Vegas Raiders 28-24 in the final moments of a Week 13 game at MetLife Stadium. The Raiders had the ball on the Jets 46-yard line with 13 seconds to play and no timeouts remaining. The Jets only had to keep the Raiders out of the end zone to win their first game of the season.
Williams called a zero blitz, meaning there was no safety help. That left Jackson, an undrafted rookie from Nebraska, in solo coverage against speed merchant Henry Ruggs, a fellow rookie who was the fastest of the year’s draft class at the scouting combine. The blitz didn’t get home and — you guessed it — Ruggs motored past Jackson to get open for a 46-yard touchdown reception. Game over. Veteran safety Marcus Maye was critical of the play call after the game. Jackson, like a seasoned vet, got on a Zoom call with the media and took blame for the game-ending score. Williams was out of a job the next day.
The rest of the coaching staff was ushered out the door after the season, and while Jackson figured he would have somewhat of a foothold on a roster spot when coach Robert Saleh and his staff took over, that never happened. He opened the 2021 season on the practice squad.
“It was a big letdown because through the whole year, I was on the practice squad making plays,” Jackson said. “Coaches had no explanation for me why (I wasn’t promoted to the active roster). It was this and that. The biggest reason to leave was I was getting respect — everyone respected me there. They told me I wasn’t doing anything wrong and each week I was fighting for (a promotion) but I was never seeing the reward for my hard work. So it hurt my heart.”
He wound up being bumped up for the Week 17 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and got five snaps on special teams, none on defense. That was after appearing in 13 games as a rookie with six starts. He played 49% of the defensive snaps and saw 98 more plays on special teams, a foundation he thought would be a springboard to bigger things.
“I’ve gotten way better since then,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to think, the last time I really played, I was a rookie. I was wet by the ears, young, and I played decent. I played well enough to be out there. They trusted me enough to be out there, and the second year was kind of a disappointment. My mind was made up about midway through the season that I needed a fresh start.
“They wanted me back after the season (on a reserve/futures deal), and I had a long conversation with Saleh. He could have said anything and it was going to be hard for me to go in there and look people in the eyes because it got harder to do that as the season was going on, just going in there and being a pro.”
Jackson said he drew quick interest from four other teams, including the Bears. Why did he pick them?
“Really because of what I went through last year,” he said. “When a new staff comes in, they’re looking to replace people. I felt like I was coming in here with a fresh start. The scouting department here, some of the guys had interest in me coming out of school, and me and my agent, we knew that. I’ve got a lot of God-given stuff. I felt like it was a good opportunity to come in, fresh start, level playing field, learn the system. I felt like I could come in here and compete.”
The Bears’ reason for interest is pretty easy to spot. The Tampa-2 scheme favors bigger cornerbacks with good length. Jackson is 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, and has 32 ¼-inch arms.
As things unfolded from the spring to the start of training camp, Jackson had more and more reps as a slew of other cornerbacks — Kindle Vildor, Kyler Gordon, Tavon Young and Thomas Graham — missed time, some for extended periods. Jackson started the first two preseason games, totaling 67 snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks, and has confidence in what he has put on tape.
On Saturday night, Jackson started again with Jaylon Johnson resting. Jackson was credited with five tackles and a pass breakup.
“When I came to the Bears, I came with a new mindset,” he said. “So far, it has been paying off for me. (A practice squad spot) would be a fail in my book. I am trying to make it hard for them to cut me.”
Vildor is back healthy and started. Jackson doesn’t fit the mold of a nickel cornerback but could stick around. I’d say he’s a bubble guy, and he certainly made the right choice if he was looking for a team that would give him enough opportunities to show what he can do.
“He’s been playing well for us,” cornerbacks coach James Rowe said. “I like how much he has grown since the spring. He’s really come a long way, and we’re excited to see how he looks. He moves well (for a bigger cornerback). I think he lost a few pounds from the spring to camp and he’s been looking a lot quicker. He’s got a real smooth pedal, good feet, and he’s getting better every day.”
6. Different factors lead to different decisions on cutdown day.
This year, those decisions are due by 3 p.m. Tuesday, the deadline for all 32 teams to establish an initial 53-man roster.
Action on Wednesday and Thursday will be worth watching because the Bears could be particularly active with post-cut moves. How many moves could be in the works? There is no way of knowing how the team will view potentially available players, but the bottom of the depth chart at many positions seems uncertain. For the fun of it, let’s set an over/under of new players added in the week ahead at 4½.
The history of former general manager Ryan Pace gave observers a basic idea of the number of players the team would keep at each position. The Bears ran a 3-4 defense the last seven seasons, which generally meant keeping more linebackers than a 4-3 team would keep. This year, expect that number to dip and the number of defensive linemen to increase. While the number of players the Bears kept under Pace isn’t a good guide for what they will do this year under new GM Ryan Poles, here is a look at how the team constructed its initial 53-man roster with a 3-4 scheme on defense. As Poles builds history, we’ll be able to estimate how the numbers might play out when cut day arrives.
Position: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015
- Quarterback: 3, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2, 3
- Running back: 3, 4, 4, 4, 5, 4, 4
- Wide receiver: 5, 6, 6, 6, 5, 6, 6
- Tight end: 5, 5, 4, 5*, 5, 3, 3
- Offensive line: 10, 9, 8, 9**, 8, 8, 9
- Defensive line: 5, 5, 6, 5*, 5, 6, 5
- Outside linebacker: 4, 5, 4, 5**, 4, 5, 5
- Inside linebacker: 7, 4, 6, 4, 4, 4, 4
- Cornerback: 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7, 7
- Safety: 4, 5, 5, 4, 5, 5, 4
- Special teams: 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3
*-Tight end Adam Shaheen was carried through to the 53-man roster before the Bears placed him on injured reserve in order to later designate him to return. The roster spot created was filled by a sixth defensive lineman, Nick Williams.
**-Center Hroniss Grasu was placed on waivers the day after the Bears made the roster official. Khalil Mack, a sixth outside linebacker, was added after he passed a physical and signed his contract extension following a trade with the Raiders.
7. Projecting the Bears offense after cuts to the 53-man roster.
Quarterbacks (2): Justin Fields and Trevor Siemian
There have been some questions at quarterback the last couple summers. You wondered when Fields would supplant Andy Dalton a year ago. There were also questions about whether or not the Bears would be able to trade Nick Foles in 2021, but most of those came from folks who didn’t understand the team was unlikely to find a suitor that would take on his contract. In 2020, there was the training camp competition between Mitch Trubisky and Foles to determine a pecking order. It wasn’t much of a competition and, well, we know where that took the Bears.
In 2022, there has been a clearly defined order of Fields-Siemian since the latter was signed in free agency. The Bears like the experience Siemian has along with the intangibles he brings to the meeting room. He’s in the upper half of QB2 options when you look around the league. Nathan Peterman strikes me as a decent bet to be signed to the practice squad unless the Bears identify another option who is cut loose by another organization.
Running backs (5): David Montgomery, Khalil Herbert, Trestan Ebner, Darrynton Evans and Khari Blasingame (fullback)
Ebner has been sidelined since the Seattle preseason game with an ankle injury, but it’s not expected to be serious and barring something unexpected, the rookie will make the roster. Ebner has shown more during the spring and training camp and has good ability out of the backfield as a receiver — something that could give offensive coordinator Luke Getsy options. The team hasn’t carried a true fullback on the roster since Michael Burton in 2018, but Blasingame looks like a fit for the offense and special teams. Before the game, I thought Darrynton Evans was in a tough spot, but he was out there as a core special teamer — something that bodes well for him.
Wide receivers (6): Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown, Velus Jones Jr., Dante Pettis and N’Keal Harry
This is one of several positions where the bottom of the depth chart requires some projecting or guessing. The Bears have to carry Harry on the initial 53-man roster if they want to then place him on injured reserve with his high ankle sprain with the idea being he could be designated to return. So Harry could make it through cuts, go on IR and then the Bears could add another wide receiver or a player at another position. If the Bears place him on IR before Tuesday at 3 p.m., he would not be eligible to return this season. They probably want to see if their investment might pay off.
Complicating matters is that Pringle has been sidelined since the first week of August with a quad injury. It’s possible he’s in the mix before the season opener, but Eberflus hasn’t offered any timeline. Jones has been in and out of training camp too with no specific injury announced and he didn’t play against the Browns. He’s missed enough time that it is fair to wonder if, as a rookie, he’s a little behind on offense. Pettis has experience and is a sure-handed punt returner — and that could be enough to earn him a spot, especially if Jones’ status is in question. Tajae Sharpe is a big target who has had some moments in training camp, but he’s been sidelined for a good stretch now too. Maybe Sharpe is re-signed after Harry is processed through to IR? Isaiah Coulter is a back-end of the depth chart option.
This as one of the positions where the Bears could be monitoring the waiver wire for help, but it would be for someone at the bottom of the depth chart or maybe as help for special teams. I don’t think they want to add a retread and limit opportunities for Pringle, St. Brown or Jones moving forward. The performance of the aforementioned three will go a long way toward determining how different this position group looks a year from now.
Tight ends (3): Cole Kmet, Ryan Griffin and James O’Shaughnessy
If you look at the origin of the outside zone running scheme the Bears are implementing and study what some of the other offenses in the league do, there’s a heavy reliance on 12 personnel (one running back, two wide receivers, two tight ends). That leads me to wonder if the team keeps Chase Allen, an undrafted rookie free agent from Iowa State, or possibly Jake Tonges, who also has lined up as a fullback. It’s a position where you wouldn’t be surprised if the team brought in an outsider for a fourth spot. Kmet looks poised to build off the 60-catch season he had a year ago when he more than doubled his rookie production. He should be a target in the red zone this season after not scoring a touchdown in 2021. Griffin is a guy who, at least early in training camp, was catching some passes from Fields near the goal line. O’Shaughnessy has plenty of experience and can help in a phase or two on special teams. The biggest questions are who the fourth option is and whether that person is on the 53 or practice quad. Allen certainly could be a strong candidate for the practice squad if he’s waived.
Offensive line (9): Braxton Jones, Cody Whitehair, Lucas Patrick, Teven Jenkins, Larry Borom, Sam Mustipher, Riley Reiff, Ja’Tyre Carter and Shon Coleman
The Bears look like they have established a starting five, and there is an element of surprise that it doesn’t look like veterans Riley Reiff or Michael Schofield fit in that group. Both looked like potential starters when they were signed just prior to the start of training camp. Schofield started the first preseason game at right guard and has been replaced by Teven Jenkins the past two games. He signed a contract for the minimum and if the Bears want him, they could potentially release him and sign him after Week 1 to avoid being on the hook for termination pay. If there were some more experienced backups and Reiff wasn’t guaranteed $3 million, he’d be hard pressed to make this roster. I thought about Lachavious Simmons instead of Coleman, but the Bears have more options on the interior than they do outside, especially if Reiff is trying to get better physically.
8. Projecting the Bears defense after cuts to the 53-man roster.
Defensive line (9): Tackles — Justin Jones, Khyiris Tonga, Angelo Blackson and Mike Pennel. Ends — Robert Quinn, Trevis Gipson, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Dominique Robinson and Mario Edwards.
This is where Eberflus really wants to have depth and all you have to do is look at how he operated last season as the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis. The Colts had six defensive ends that logged 170 snaps or more during the season. Only two (Muhammad and Kwity Paye) had above 50% of the snaps, indicative of how the head coach and Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams will likely rotate players to keep them fresh. Indianapolis also used basically a three-man rotation inside at tackle, so the Colts had nine defensive linemen that played regularly.
I’d highlight this position as one to watch for possible additions in the week ahead. In fact, if you asked me what position to watch most closely for additions, I might say the defensive line. I’m not sure Edwards, who wasn’t great last season but can probably fill a couple spots on the line, or the veteran Pennel make it through final cuts, but I do believe the team will carry an absolute minimum of eight linemen and more likely nine. Trevon Coley spent last season in Tennessee on injured reserve with a foot issue and he looks like a bubble guy, although it should be noted defensive line coach Travis Smith called him “an awesome addition to the room.” Coley is also undersized and that will no doubt be part of the discussion. Sam Kamara has gotten a little look inside at the three technique, an interesting development for a guy the previous staff originally tried at outside linebacker. The thing a lot of these guys lack is length — and that is something Eberflus really covets in defensive players, so keep that in mind when the offseason arrives. Undrafted rookie free agent Micah Dew-Treadway is probably a strong candidate for development on the practice squad.
Linebacker (6): Roquan Smith, Nicholas Morrow, Matt Adams, Caleb Johnson, Jack Sanborn and Joe Thomas
This number could easily wind up being five if my projection at tight end or safety is light. Thomas is a proven performer on special teams (he had two tackles against the Browns) and I didn’t see a fourth tight end or fifth safety that could help out in that phase. Thomas has also been around the ball a lot during practice.
Adams looks like he will be the strong-side linebacker when the defense is in base personnel. Johnson was fortunate to only have a minor knee injury in the second preseason game and he was a really good special teams performer as a rookie. Sanborn has been a smart signing as an undrafted free agent, impressing defensive coaches and special teams coordinator Richard Hightower.
Cornerback (6): Jaylon Johnson, Kindle Vildor, Kyler Gordon, Duke Shelley, Lamar Jackson and Jaylon Jones
This is a challenging position to forecast because there are some unknowns after Johnson and Vildor as the starters on the outside and Gordon at nickel — and Vildor is going to have to be better than he was last season to keep his job. The back half of the depth chart is totally up for grabs because most of these guys haven’t been able to stay on the field. Shelley is scrappy enough to stick around for now. Jackson has been durable. How do the Bears keep Thomas Graham, who was hurt on the first d of camp? Tavon Young was often injured in Baltimore and injured here. Jones, an undrafted rookie free agent, was recently hurt, but I don’t think it will have him out long and he seems to have gained the attention of the staff.
“We knew he had a lot of talent coming out,” cornerbacks coach James Rowe said. “That was a good job by our scouting department getting him as an undrafted free agent. We loved his speed and he’s a guy that is just a sponge. He asks questions. He’s intentional about learning and making sure he has it right so we’re excited about him.”
Excited enough to give him a spot on the 53? We’ll see. Keep an eye on this position for newcomers as well.
Safety (4): Eddie Jackson, Jaquan Brisker, DeAndre Houston-Carson and Elijah Hicks
This is probably the easiest position on defense to handicap. Houston-Carson gives them flexibility because he can do some things as a cornerback. It’s worth noting they were giving looks at Dane Cruikshank and Davontae Harris on special teams, but they’re bubble guys.
9. Projecting the special teams players after cuts to the 53-man roster.
Special teams (3): K Cairo Santos, P Trenton Gill and LS Patrick Scales
The only thing that remains undetermined is who will handle kickoff duties. Gill has the ability to do it, and both have worked at the craft this summer. Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said it’s a strategic advantage to keep that information cloaked for the time being. It’s possible both will be used, depending on the situation.
“The good thing is we’ve got two guys that can kick off,” Hightower said. “There’s a competitive advantage there for us not to say who’s kicking off, but the things I weigh — in all kickoff guys, not just our guys — are power, what kind of ball contact they’re making, what kind of strike, and then if they can hang the ball, because if you can hang it higher, then your guys have more time to get down there and cover. Do they have the ability to kick it out of the end zone? Do they have the ability to kick it (inside the field) and we can hunt? Or do they have directional ability? Those are the things I look at because you can cut the field in half when you start kicking the ball directionally.”
Santos is considered a very good directional kicker, and the Bears used that to their advantage with special teams coordinator Chris Tabor often instructing him to aim for one side or the other the last two seasons. Last year, Bears opponents had an average starting field position of the 24.2 yard line, which ranked eighth in the league. Santos had touchbacks on 47.9% of kickoffs, which ranked 22nd. That was largely by design. Santos remains good directionally, and Gill probably has a slightly stronger leg, which could lead to more touchbacks when those are desired.
The league published an interesting study last week that noted touchbacks, which had been on the rise for a long time, are beginning to decline. Touchbacks happened 41% of the time in 2011 and reached an all-time high of 61% in 2020. They dipped to 57% last season because special teams coordinators believe they can create an advantage when the kickoff lands close to the goal line but not in the end zone. Per the study, kickoffs landing between the 1- and 5-yard lines resulted in worse field position (average starting spot at the 24) than kickoffs landing in the first 5 yards of the end zone (24.7 yard line). Obviously, kicks landing in the first 5 yards of the end zone can become touchbacks, which place the ball at the 25. The shorter kicks, when properly struck, often can be kicked with greater hang time, too, which allows coverage teams to get downfield and defeat blocking schemes to tackle the returner.
Is this a trend that Hightower is going to continue after Tabor clearly favored asking the kicker to land the ball just short of the goal line much of the time? That’s part of that strategy he believes will give him an edge. But it’s worth noting that in San Francisco, where Hightower was the special teams coordinator with the 49ers last season, Mitch Wishnowsky saw his short-kickoff rate increase by more than 10% in 2021 compared with 2020.
10. Scouts from four NFL clubs were in attendance.
Those were the Carolina Panthers, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and 49ers. As expected, the 49ers were at all three preseason games as they start the season with the Bears. A representative from the Toronto Argonauts (CFL) was also in attendance.
10a. Give Matt Eberflus credit. He’s spoken multiple times about building a team that will be smart and avoid costly penalties. The proof will be in the regular season, but in three exhibitions, the Bears were called for only 13 penalties that cost them 118 yards. Opponents were marked off 25 times for 178 yards.
10b. Browns kicker Cade York drilled a 70-yard field goal in pregame warmups. There’s no rush, but I’ve never seen a kick like that.
10c. The Fox crew of Joe Davis, Daryl “Moose” Johnston and Pam Oliver will call the Week 1 opener on Sept. 11 against the 49ers at Soldier Field.
10d. Looking ahead to that game, the 49ers have two starters that could be sidelined with injuries. Free safety Jimmie Ward (hamstring) is expected to be out some time. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey has been dealing with a knee issue and his status is at least in question.
10e. On to the real thing.