At long last, it's time for some real football.
The Chicago Bears have undergone two weeks of practice leading up to tonight's game against the Buffalo Bills. Some areas of the team look strong, while others stand on shaky ground. Yet across the board, roster spots will be won and lost based on the performances of the players this preseason. That process begins tonight.
At 7 p.m., the fate of nearly a third of the roster will begin to be decided. It's possible the starters may play a bit longer than they normally would in the first game, a side effect of lost time due to the lockout. We'll all get a glimpse at how the offense has improved in its second year under Mike Martz, whether the defense can continue its dominant play and how the special teams units are gelling.
When the starters depart, the real battles will begin. Tonight will be the first opportunity for many younger players, and some veterans, to truly battle for a place on the 53-man roster. The Bears have 88 players on the current chart, so there will be a lot of shuffling going on in the game's second half. Which is why it's important to know who, and what, to watch for.
Last season, Chicago's offensive unit finished 30th in the league in total offense, 21st in points per game, 28th in passing and 22nd in rushing. It's hard to imagine they could get worse. There's been a much-talked-about increased level of comfort amongst the players regarding Martz's system. At times in practice they have looked like an elite group, yet have also reverted to 2010 form for long periods.
Let's take a look at the offense and how tonight's play could affect this unit going forward.
T J'Marcus Webb
The offensive line this year only has one starter playing at the same position he did last season, Chris Williams at left guard. Roberto Garza has moved to center, J'Marcus Webb has switched from right to left tackle, rookie Gabe Carimi has been inserted at right tackle and Lance Louis is at right guard.
Webb and Carimi have had a rough time in camp so far protecting Jay Cutler, but both are improving. Pay attention to their one-on-one battles on the outside, which should give us a good idea how far along they are in their progression. In the run game, Carimi has been dominant in practice. That will very likely carry over to the game.
The exchange between center and quarterback is something to pay attention to, as Garza and Cutler only began working together a few weeks ago.
With the second unit, Frank Omiyale has been anointed the swing tackle, or first backup on both sides. Yet he's being challenged by rookie Josh Davis, who will be playing at right tackle. If Davis can come out of the gates strong, he and his reduced salary could compel the club to re-evaluate Omiyale's place on the team.
Free agent signee Chris Spencer will be playing his first game as a Bear at center with the second team. The former first rounder could create a huge shakeup with a strong performance tonight. If the coaches feel he's worthy of starting at center, they could shift Garza back to right guard and force out either Louis or Williams. Spencer is technically sound, be he needs to show some aggressiveness and nastiness inside if he's to move up on the depth chart.
Levi Horn should be on the field for an extended stretch tonight. He's been practicing with the second team at right guard and with the third team at right tackle. He's been more impressive at guard. His versatility is attractive to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who has high hopes for the second-year player. With the extra reps he's likely to get playing with two units, Horn could pull away from the competition tonight.
The rest of the linemen – C J.C. Brignone, C Alex Linnenkohl, G Johan Asiata, G Ricky Henry and T Mike Lamphear – are all at or below the cut line right now. None have shined in practice save Brignone, who has had some strong stretches of tough-nosed play. Someone from this group needs to stand out tonight and show he can be a reliable backup.
The biggest question for the wideouts is: Will newcomer Roy Williams be able to play like he did under Martz in Detroit – 2006: 87 receptions, 1,310 yards and 7 touchdowns – or be the same player who led the league in drops the last three years in Dallas. Williams is still the big-bodied, talented receiver he was when came into the league as a first rounder in 2004.
Yet it's his effort, or apparent lack of, that has been most noticeable in camp so far. He's not making the tough grabs and not beating defenders one-on-one. He's been inserted into the starting lineup ahead of the team's leading receiver in receptions and yardage last season, Johnny Knox. A poor start by Williams will only increase the scrutiny of that decision.
Devin Hester has been the best receiver on the field so far in Bourbonnais. He seems to be the most-comfortable player in the offense right now. He's making the routine plays and the spectacular grabs. Watching him fly by CB Tim Jennings in practice for big gains is almost a daily occurrence. We'll get to see tonight if he can transfer that over to the playing field.
The fifth and final receiver spot is still up for grabs. The leading candidates are Sam Hurd, Dane Sanzenbacher and Andy Fantuz. Hurd has the lead at this point due to his experience on special teams and his non-stop motor. Sanzenbacher, an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, has been the biggest camp surprise so far. He's short and quick, and his ability to get in and out of his breaks quickly allows him to create necessary separation. Fantuz, a former CFL star, has been inconsistent to this point. He needs to lean on his experience as a five-year pro up north and show he's worth a roster spot.
Will Matt Forte play tonight? It remains to be seen.
RB Chester Taylor
He's unhappy with his rookie contract – which pays him $550,000 this year, or about $6.5 million less than what Chester Taylor made last season – and wants an extension. GM Jerry Angelo promised him the deal will get done but there's been no progress so far. Forte may choose to sit out the games, avoiding any chance of injury, until the deal is done.
That would leave more time to watch two players in a heated battle: Chester Taylor and Marion Barber. Taylor was a huge bust last season. He didn't get the job done as a short-yardage or third-down back. He's looked great in practice so far but he has Barber breathing down his neck. Barber has been running over people in camp. It's obvious he can be the goal-line back the team needs. Yet he's had some fumbling issues. Which of these two will take the lead tonight in the race for the team's primary backup?
Jay Cutler has looked like a Pro Bowler at times in Bourbonnais and like a backup at others. He has slimmed down and his arm is as strong as ever but accuracy has been an issue on a few occasions. He may only get in a few series but pay attention to how comfortable he feels tonight. That will be one of the biggest indicators as to the potential growth of the offense this season.
Backup Caleb Hanie has had a tendency to throw into coverage, looking downright awful at times. He makes very good throws when he's focused but he too often has mental breakdowns – B.J. Raji knows this all too well. He's firmly entrenched as the backup, so his improvement is crucial in case Cutler loses any time to injury.
Third-round pick Nathan Enderle was thrown in to the fire early in camp and looked overwhelmed. Additionally, his arm doesn't appear to be as strong as advertised. This will be his first chance at live action in the NFL. Expect some painful moments. A few good throws though will go a long way toward building his confidence.
By trading Greg Olsen, the club committed to Martz's system, which requires tight ends to be better blockers than receivers. Yet Kellen Davis has been very impressive as a pass catcher. He's a beast of a human being (6-7, 267) and he has good speed and coordination to go along with his size. He could be a key component of the offense this year. It will be interesting to see how often, and in what manner, he's used in the passing game.
Matt Spaeth, a former Steeler who signed with Chicago this offseason, will be used almost primarily as a blocker. Pay attention to how much push he's able to get up front. His ability to move guys off the edge will be important to the run game this year.
Desmond Clark returns for what could be his final season with the Bears. He's been getting occasional reps with the first team and could be spot contributor this season.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.