Ten thoughts on the Chicago Bears after their 20-17 exhibition victory Friday night over the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J.
1. Lovie Smith always has said that it's hard to make final roster cuts, with plenty of hard decisions in the process.
Sure, it’s never easy to ask a large group of men to turn in their playbooks -- now on iPads -- and hit the road. But when coaches talk about competition that has been going on since the first day of training camp (and before that in the offseason program), they’re also talking about evaluations that have been going on just as long. The front office and coaches reported to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais with an idea of what the 53-man roster was going to look like. After the third preseason game, it’s coming more into focus.
First cuts to a 75-man limit are due by 3 p.m. Monday and it would not be a surprise if the Bears announce some in advance of the deadline. They have in the past and the club needs to trim only 13 players to reach that figure. Final cuts to 53 are due by 8 p.m. Friday -- about 22 hours after the conclusion of the preseason finale at Cleveland. So, you better believe the team will have an idea what direction it is heading before that game against the Browns because no one is going to pull an all-nighter deciding on the 52nd and 53rd roster spots.
With a new general manager and front office in place, perhaps trends shift in roster shaping. Here is one man’s projection on a 53-man roster:
Quarterbacks (3 projected, 3 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Jay Cutler, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown
Analysis: No one will be able to say the club didn’t do all it could in the event an injury comes again for Cutler. The Bears sunk $3.5 million in Campbell for one season and McCown did enough in the two starts at the end of last season to earn a job as an emergency option. Some have suggested undrafted rookie free agent Matt Blanchard could be considered for a roster spot but he’s still got a long ways to go to make the leap from Division III to the NFL. It’s more realistic he will be considered for a practice squad spot but we’ll get a better snapshot of him after the Browns game, when he should get considerable playing time.
Running backs (3 projected, 4 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Matt Forte, Michael Bush, Armando Allen
Analysis: The battle for the third roster spot became clearer after Kahlil Bell was informed Thursday he would be waived after declining to accept a pay cut of more than $500,000. That left Allen and Lorenzo Booker in competition for the final spot and based on reaction from the coaches and a fumbling problem that has plagued Booker previously in his career, this seems like how it will go. Fullback Tyler Clutts is in a difficult position and in this projection he winds up on the outside looking in. It’s not that he cannot perform but offensive coordinator Mike Tice has a well-defined history of preferring more versatile tight ends than fullbacks. Consequently, Clutts’ reps were limited in training camp even though he was on the field for 309 snaps (30.7 percent) last season. He barely played Friday night. He also will be missed on special teams where he contributed on 40.3 percent of snaps. But Clutts easily could land work elsewhere.
Wide receivers (6 projected, 6 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Alshon Jeffery, Eric Weems, Dane Sanzenbacher
Analysis: The first five are locks and the question is does a sixth make the cut? Sanzenbacher projects to have an edge over Rashied Davis for a final spot that might or might not be there. Sanzenbacher’s greatest competition for a job could come from another position or wild-card factors that are explained a little later on. Smith has praised Sanzenbacher when the subject has come up and Cutler certainly backs the guy he went to dinner with weekly last season. Special teams obviously will play a key role in decisions and Sanzenbacher isn’t new to it. He did get 38 snaps last season. Sanzenbacher is signed for $465,000 this season while the 33-year-old Davis would earn $825,000 if he makes the roster.
Tight ends (4 projected, 3 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Kellen Davis, Matt Spaeth, Kyle Adams, Evan Rodriguez
Analysis: Clutts’ loss is a gain here as the hunch is Adams, an undrafted free agent from last year, and the fourth-round pick Rodriguez, who got considerable playing time with the ones against the Giants, both stick. Adams can help on special teams and Rodriguez opened eyes with his effort against the Redskins. Davis has high expectations to meet.
Offensive linemen (8 projected, 8 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Gabe Carimi, Roberto Garza, Lance Louis, Chris Spencer, J’Marcus Webb, Chris Williams, Chilo Rachal, Edwin Williams
Analysis: The top eight have never been in question and it’s a matter of whether a ninth lineman is worthy of a roster spot. Many believe it is a necessity but the fact is No. 9 will not contribute to victories this season. James Brown, an undrafted tackle from Troy, has gotten some attention. But even though he had a mid-round grade entering the draft, the Bears didn’t have to beat doors down to sign him for a modest bonus of $5,000. The point is there is a chance he could be re-signed to the practice squad. Of course, exposing him to waivers always introduces an element of risk. But Brown isn’t going to be the difference between wins and losses this season, nor will any other bottom-of-the-roster lineman who has gotten looks like Cory Brandon. That being said, there could be as many as three who make the practice squad, especially if the Bears have only eight on the 53.
Defensive linemen (9 projected, 10 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Ends: Israel Idonije, Julius Peppers, Shea McClellin, Corey Wootton. Tackles: Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, Matt Toeaina, Nate Collins, Brian Price.
Analysis: Don’t discount the possibility the club could keep 10 linemen. Ten might seem like a lot but Smith loves to collect defensive linemen and so does coordinator Rod Marinelli. At the start of the 2008 season when Marinelli was head coach in Detroit, the Lions kept 11 defensive linemen at final cuts and only six offensive skill players -- four receivers and two running backs. But for the Bears to keep 10 linemen it would likely mean a fifth end. The competition for that spot would be between Chauncey Davis, a veteran who knows the ropes, and Thaddeus Gibson, who has more pass-rush ability. Cheta Ozougwu has shown some burst off the edge but he also has three roughing-the-passer penalties in two weeks. Pass-rush ability is what got Nick Reed and Mario Addison jobs at the start of last season. Scouts from other NFL teams have asked about Gibson. Those scouts believe Collins will make the Bears and if he doesn’t he won’t be out of work. Price is a developmental player the Bears will work with after trading a seventh-round draft pick to the Buccaneers. More on him a little later on.
Linebackers (7 projected, 5 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Lance Briggs, Nick Roach, Brian Urlacher, Geno Hayes, Blake Costanzo, Dom DeCicco, J.T. Thomas
Analysis: The increase in numbers here is more about core help on special teams than it is cover for Urlacher in the event his left knee remains problematic. Costanzo was signed to anchor Dave Toub’s unit and has been better than expected on defense. Thomas, who missed his entire rookie season last year with a back injury, has shown well with special teams opportunities created by DeCicco’s absence with a groin injury. It wasn’t a minor injury for DeCicco but he might be able to return in the next few weeks so it’s impossible to count him out for the roster at this point. It looks like a minimum of six linebackers make the roster and this could be a position where the Bears take a close look at the waiver wire.
Cornerbacks (6 projected, 5 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, D.J. Moore, Kelvin Hayden, Jonathan Wilhite, Isaiah Frey
Analysis: Provided he remains healthy, and that has been an issue for him the last few seasons, Hayden provides a real boost to the depth chart and would likely be the first man up if another body is needed outside. Moore will have an expanded role on special teams this season. Frey has been more impressive than fellow rookie draft pick Greg McCoy. We’ll see how attached Emery is to his draft picks when final cuts roll along. A final choice could come down to McCoy and Wilhite.
Safeties (4 projected, 6 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Chris Conte, Major Wright, Craig Steltz, Anthony Walters
Analysis: It’s difficult at this point to say if rookie third-round pick Brandon Hardin will be on the 53-man roster after suffering a neck injury against the Redskins. In this projection, he heads to injured reserve but he’s one of the wild cards that will be discussed below. Walters has improved since last season and should merit a role on special teams. The hope has to be that injuries do not thin out the depth chart but six made it for opening weekend last year because of the late addition of Brandon Meriweather and because Winston Venable was a special teams selection. There could be a fifth safety for the final roster that is not currently on the roster.
Specialists (3 projected, 3 on 2011 Opening Weekend roster)
Robbie Gould, Pat Mannelly, Adam Podlesh
Analysis: This could change if Podlesh’s left hip flexor injury is not improved and the club has been bracing for the possibility of having to replace him, at least early in the season. Ryan Quigley did plenty to help his cause Friday night if that need arrives.
Wild cards: Injuries in training camp and preseason will shape decisions and affect the final few players to make the roster more than anything else. For example, if the team determines Podlesh will not be ready for a month –- and this is just for the purpose of an example, not a timeline for his return -– the Bears will have to carry two punters on the 53-man roster. That will cost someone a job at another position. Injuries to Urlacher, DeCicco and Hardin need to be monitored, especially if the team faces the prospect of being without two linebackers for any stretch of time. One more note, defensive tackle Nate Collins has a one-game suspension and therefore he would not count against the 53-man roster to begin the season. That would free up a roster spot for one week before a move would have to be made to bring him back from the reserve/suspended list. So, 54 players can make the cut for the first week if Collins is moved to the suspended list.
2. It is anyone’s guess when the Bears will get around to announcing their starting offensive line. The team returns to practice at Halas Hall on Sunday. The guess here is J’Marcus Webb will be the starting left tackle and Chris Spencer will be the left guard.
Asked if he thought he performed well and felt good he would be the starter, Webb highlighted his day for reporters. After posting a video during training camp of himself swinging through the drive-thru lane at McDonald’s, it’s fair to wonder if Ronald will be upset Webb went another direction.
“You know, I had a pasta bar for lunch and then I got a good nap in and I am feeling pretty good right now,” Webb said.
How did he feel about his performance after lunch and the nap?
“Well, I got a good stretch in before the game and that pasta bar, I think it really amped up my energy and came out and had a good game, had some fun, had a good game out there,” he replied.
Did he feel like he won starting job?
“Gotta look at the film and I think that addition to the chicken and the shrimp and the pasta, it really made it a good night,” he said.
Finally, Webb added that he would like a resolution to the process, and that surely will be coming soon. On the other side of the room, Chris Williams stated his case for the job.
“I played OK,” he said. “Just trying to carry practice over to the game and continue to get better, build to Week 1.”
Webb and Spencer played for the first four series of the game. They wound up with considerably more playing time than Williams and Chilo Rachal, strong evidence which way the coaching staff is leaning.
“I had planned on (playing before the fifth series),” Williams said. “I don’t know what happened. Coach decides who goes in and I don’t know if he was going off a play count or what. I am OK with how I performed. I need to get better at some certain things so there is always room for improvement. It’s still preseason.”
Does he think he will be the starter Sept. 9 against the Colts?
“Yeah, I think I will,” Williams said. “But that is out of my hands. The game is over now. I did all I can do. We’ll see.”
And we didn’t even have to listen to what he had for lunch.
Neither player had glaring problems over the past two games when they shared time, with Webb getting a longer run with the starters. Webb has been in the starting position and faced with a challenge, he didn’t fall on his face. It will be interesting to see what kind of shape the line takes in the first month of the season.
3. It’s far from foolproof but one good way to get an indication of how the bottom of the roster will shake out is to see what the depth chart looks like on special teams. Dave Toub isn’t going to fill the first team with players that are not in consideration for jobs in the regular season, not in the third exhibition game. Is every player listed on an inside path to a job? Probably not. Injuries have forced some changes early on with the losses of Dom DeCicco and Brandon Hardin and the reshuffling of some depth charts. Here is how special teams looked at the start of the game:
Kickoff: TE Evan Rodriguez, LB Blake Costanzo, LB Geno Hayes, CB D.J. Moore, LB J.T. Thomas, WR Rashied Davis, WR Dane Sanzenbacher, K Robbie Gould, CB Tim Jennings, WR Eric Weems, S Anthony Walters
Kickoff return: WR Earl Bennett, TE Kyle Adams, TE Evan Rodriguez, LB J.T. Thomas, S Anthony Walters, WR Dane Sanzenbacher, WR Eric Weems, LB Blake Costanzo, S Craig Steltz, LB Geno Hayes, DE Corey Wootton.
Punt: TE Evan Rodriguez, LB Nick Roach, WR Dane Sanzenbacher, RB Harvey Unga, RB Armando Allen, LS Pat Mannelly, P Ryan Quigley, LB Blake Costanzo, LB Geno Hayes, WR Rashied Davis, S Anthony Walters.
Punt return: WR Devin Hester, CB Charles Tillman, CB Jonathan Wilhite, S Craig Steltz, LB Blake Costanzo, WR Earl Bennett, DE Corey Wootton, LB Geno Hayes, WR Eric Weems, S Anthony Walters, LB Nick Roach.
Analysis: There are not a lot of big conclusions to draw but Rodriguez and Thomas showed up well in previous games. Walters and Sanzenbacher also appear to be very much in the mix. I highly doubt Unga figures as a roster possibility.
4. It was a rough night at the office for cornerback Charles Tillman, who was called for two pass interference penalties, one in the end zone that set up Andre Brown’s one-yard touchdown run. Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw at Tillman repeatedly with success, which is a primary reason why Tillman was credited in press box statistics with a game-high 10 tackles.
Tillman wanted to know what the guidelines were for criticizing officials after the game because he wanted to walk a fine line while ensuring his money remains in his wallet.
“Can they fine you for talking about replacement refs?” he said.
Tillman has three pass-interference penalties in the last two games in what has been about four quarters’ of action. He believes one of the three was legitimate, the call in the end zone when he bumped Ramses Barden, who earlier had caught an 11-yard touchdown pass on him.
“I can’t sit here and complain, and whine about calls every time an official gets the wrong call,” Tillman said. “I just need to go out there and continue to play.”
He acknowledged that Manning was working on him a lot.
“It’s preseason,” Tillman said. “I’d rather get all my bad games out now. I’m OK though. It’s not about what they did, it was really all me. It’s not about Eli, it was me. I didn’t play well today. That goes on me. It’s really just going back to the fundamentals. I blame myself tonight, totally my fault, nobody else’s. It’s not about Eli, 13 (Barden), coaching, it was me. I didn’t play well.”
It was pointed out Tillman has been through a lot of preseason games in his career.
“Yeah, 40 bull(bleep) extra games in my career,” he said. “Well, that was the 39th. Sorry, Cleveland will be 40. I’ve been keeping track.”
Not very well. That was actually his 40th preseason game. Tillman forgot the fifth preseason game played in 2005 when the Bears were in the Hall of Fame Game against the Dolphins. He was told he was getting old to be forgetting such facts. He laughed, sort of.
5. Ryan Quigley showed up to Bourbonnais like every other camp leg in the NFL. He was just hoping to get noticed. By someone. There is so little turnover for kickers and punters that it’s difficult for rookies to break in and most have to bounce around before they get an opportunity. It’s too early to tell if his is coming with the Bears but Adam Podlesh’s left hip flexor injury has been a serious concern as secondary doctors have been asked to review MRI’s of his injury. It could be Podlesh will be sidelined for some time and the best-case scenario is he is ready to go in a couple weeks.
Quigley did enough against the Giants to ensure he gets another audition Thursday night at Cleveland. He landed three of his seven punts inside the 20-yard line, struck the ball with good hang time and allowed the Giants only six total yards in punt returns. His net average was 37.4 yards on seven kicks.
“I always think back to when I was 10 years old, if you would’ve told me I’d be doing this, I would say ‘no way,’” Quigley said. “It’s a dream come true, it was awesome to be out there, I wish we didn’t have the blocked punt, but that’s something we’ll get fixed. Great coverage by my teammates, and Pat Mannelly. When you have the best long snapper in the league in front of you, it makes it easy. It was good.”
The blocked punt was the fault of Harvey Unga, who missed a block on the right side of the line. Quigley says he can also work to get the ball off more quickly.
It still wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bears explore what else is available but Quigley did what he had to: He got noticed. He’s done enough to remain in consideration and that isn’t always easy because special teams coordinators don’t rest as well at night if they have untested rookie specialists in regular-season games. Veterans provide a certain element of comfort.
6. Jason Campbell looked sharp in the second half in leading the offense to 10 points on three drives. The only possession that didn’t produce points was one that started on the Bears’ 7-yard line. He had command of the offense and threw a nice 12-yard pass to Joe Anderson for the game-winning touchdown. Campbell finished 12 of 19 for 101 yards. There weren’t any big shots downfield but he was poised in the pocket and worked well with the backups.
It was such a clear departure from the days of Caleb Hanie, who is battling to stick with the Denver Broncos as a reserve. Hanie sparked excitement in preseason with the Bears -- it’s how he stuck around for four seasons. But he did so making athletic plays, scrambling and throwing on the run. Avoiding a pressure and completing a pass on a wild play. Campbell stood in the pocket with authority and ran the offense with a smooth presence. That’s the biggest difference between the two.
7. You don’t have to wait for offensive coordinator Mike Tice to talk on Monday to know he’s likely to bring up the lack of a running game as a concern. But keep in mind the team didn’t run it particularly well last preseason before the club had a 2,000-yard season, the first since 1990. Matt Forte carried 21 times for 81 yards in exhibition play last summer and had a long of just 14 yards. The ground game will come around and you saw a glimpse of it when he got on the perimeter for two runs in the third quarter that totaled 35 yards. It’s a legitimate concern but the timing and the consistency and the commitment to running the ball comes in the regular season. If they can’t run it the first few weeks, then there will be reason for concern.
8. It was vintage Julius Peppers when he shot out of his stance and nailed Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon in the backfield for a 13-yard loss on an end around in the first quarter. It was the kind of freakish instinctual play you are accustomed to seeing Peppers make after watching him for two seasons in a Bears uniform. But the pass rush as a whole has left plenty of room for improvement, especially when you consider the Bears will face Aaron Rodgers in Week 2 at Lambeau Field. They’ve got to dial up the pressure.
9. Giants rookie running back David Wilson looked terrific against the Bears’ starting defense, carrying five times for 49 yards and catching two passes for another 26 yards. He’s got a real burst, runs with nice leverage and as the Bears found out, he’s not easy to tackle. The run defense could be the greatest concern for this defense, especially if middle linebacker Brian Urlacher misses time in the regular season. There was some downright sloppy play going on.
10. Scouts from 11 NFL teams were represented in the press box for the game, with the Packers the only NFC North foe represented. The other teams in attendance were Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Dallas, Indianapolis, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Tampa Bay. The Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins, Ravens and Steelers have been to all three Bears’ preseason games. The Toronto Argonauts of the CFL have also been to all three games and the Montreal Alouettes were also represented at this game by former Bears front office assistant Jeremy Snyder.
10 a. While final cuts are due Friday night, teams can begin forming eight-man practice squads at 11 a.m. on Sept. 1.
10 b. Did you notice J’Marcus Webb getting help vs. Osi Umenyiora? Yes, some game planning went into this. On one play, wide receiver Earl Bennett helped block the defensive end.
10 c. Quarterback Jay Cutler was off and a lot of his throws seemed to sail high. He wasn’t happy with dropped passes by Earl Bennett (would have been a touchdown) and Alshon Jeffery, but Cutler was not accurate and even misfired on some passes that were completed. He just wasn’t on target.
10 d. The NFL likes to have its regular-season games played in three-hour windows so they are packaged best for television. Good luck with that goal if replacement officials are in play. They might be getting more and more training but it’s impossible not to wonder about some of the calls. All it’s going to take is one very bad call in a regular-season game by a member of a replacement crew for this storm to get wild.
10 e. Matt Forte’s 103 receptions over the last two seasons lead the Bears. Don’t look for that to happen again, not with the new toys on offense.
“He is not going to get as many catches,” Jay Cutler said. “I think that is fair to say. We would want to limit that. We have so many guys outside. There are going to be times when we get some coverages that are favorable for him but more importantly we have to get him going in the running game. That is his bread and butter and that is what he is good at and that is what we have to focus on.”
10 f. Would love to cover a preseason game that is played in the afternoon one of these years.
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