With the Bears eyeing another division title, depth at certain positions will be key
The beginning of the 2019 NFL preseason means that each team gets a fresh start. In the case of the Chicago Bears, it means that they are about to begin their defense of the NFC North championship. The Bears approached last year's preseason as an evaluation of what talent will be needed to end a seven-year playoff drought. This time the Bears are looking to add depth behind the first and second units that made last year's postseason appearance possible.
The Bears need to establish a 53-man roster by September. Right now the roster sits at 90. So that means 37 players will be let go as Labor Day approaches, although some players could be signed to the practice squad. Nevertheless, all of the roster business starts to get sorted out this week. So with the Bears kicking off against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, here are some players who must stand out in order and make a positive impression on Matt Nagy and his coaching staff.
Tight ends behind Trey Burton
With Burton being limited in some practices as he continues to recover from offseason sports hernia surgery, the rest of the position group is under the thinnest of microscopes. If Burton sees the field against Carolina his reps will be limited, so this is the opportunity for everyone else on the roster to step up. Ben Braunecker (83 career receiving yards) needs to prove himself worthy of another roster spot, Adam Shaheen (17 catches, 175 yards, 4 TDs) must prove that he can stay healthy, be productive, and prove that the Bears were right for taking a gamble on him two years ago. Bradley Sowell, a converted offensive tackle, already knows how to block based on his previous experience with the Bears but now he has to show that he can get downfield, beat coverages, and make plays.
Then you have a group of rookies who are also pushing for an opportunity. Ian Bunting only had limited reps during his time at both Michigan and California (29 catches, 319 yards, 0 TDs), so he needs to prove that he's more than his collegiate numbers suggest. Princeton alum Jesper Horsted (72 receptions, 1,047 yards, 13 TDs) is converting from wide receiver, which means he'll have to show that he can block and take on bigger defenders. Ellis Richardson proved that he can run block during his two seasons at Georgia Southern, but in the NFL he needs to establish himself as a pass catcher (19 catches, 266 yards, 5 TDs at GSU).
The one rookie who has the best college numbers is Utah State's Dax Raymond (72 catches, 873 yards, 3 TDs), but he will have to shed the stereotype that comes with playing in a spread offense. This will be one of the harder positions for the Bears coaching staff to decide on.
Kerrith Whyte Jr. and Ryan Nall, RB
Tarik Cohen, Mike Davis, and David Montgomery are guaranteed spots on the 53-man roster. Convincing the Bears to keep a fourth back will be a challenge but both Whyte and Nall make strong cases for doing so. Nall played in the preseason for the Bears last year and then spent the regular season on the practice squad after totaling 2,779 yards from scrimmage with 28 total touchdowns for Oregon State from 2015-17. Whyte registered 3,700 all-purpose yards with 15 touchdowns in a backup role at Florida Atlantic. Making this choice even more difficult is the fact that Nall can be used as a fullback while Whyte can return kicks and punts.
Eddy Pineiro vs. Elliott Fry
It's been a while since I can recall a kicking competition that drew this much attention. But this is the situation that the Bears find themselves in. And if they want to fully move past the failed Cody Parkey experiment, then they need to get this right. Both men were the last kickers standing after minicamps and OTAs and are now pushing for the starting job.
Pineiro was traded to the Bears from the Oakland Raiders during the offseason while Fry was signed after the Alliance of American Football folded, The Bears have not completely ruled out bringing in a veteran kicker to add to the competition. Both Pineiro and Fry are unproven in the NFL which makes this competition that much more difficult.
Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, DE
Is it too much to say that these two could be on the roster bubble? Both have been with the Bears since their rookie seasons in 2016 but haven't made the impacts that some thought they would. Bullard was a third-round draft pick out of Florida while Robertson-Harris was signed as an undrafted free agent from UTEP. An illness caused Robertson-Harris to miss his entire rookie season.
Together these Bullard and Robertson-Harris have combined for 97 tackles, seven sacks, nine pass deflections in their careers. Both played in all 16 regular-season games last year. The Bears value these young defenders but they need to start producing more.
Aaron Lynch, OLB
The injuries that led to the end of his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers followed him to Chicago. Lynch missed the majority of the 2018 preseason with a hamstring injury, missed three regular-season games with other injuries, and it is believed that he played in some sort of pain when he was on the field. Lynch registered just 16 tackles, three sacks, an interception, and a pass deflection last season. And with a good crop of younger outside linebackers looking for a roster spot behind him (Kylie Fitts, Isaiah Irving, Chuck Harris etc.), Lynch needs to return to his previous form when he was a key contributor for the 49ers in 2014 and '15.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of www.chicagobears.com)