When someone refers to an NFL preseason game as meaningless, he or she is implying that the final score has no impact on a team's chances at winning a championship. In that sense, they are correct.
Yet preseason games are the proving grounds for those players looking to fill out a 53-man roster. These are the second- and third-string athletes hoping to prove on the field that they deserve to be on that roster when the regular season starts. In essence, about 45 players will be vying for the last 4-6 roster spots.
To those players, and their families, these games are anything but meaningless. And in today's NFL, where injuries are prevalent and depth is crucial, how a team fills its roster on the back end could be the difference between success and failure that given season.
Consider the Chicago Bears in 2011, a team that opened the campaign with five undrafted free agents on the roster. Because few players stood out during the preseason, the club was never able to build adequate depth, which ended up costing them later in the season.
The Bears tonight will begin the process of erasing the bad memories of last year and building toward a brighter 2012. That starts with the numerous positional battles that have yet to be decided, the youngsters that will need to prove themselves on special teams and the rookies, all of whom will be playing their first game on a professional NFL field.
Those that are ready to play in this league will shine, those that are not will crumble under the pressure. Meaningless preseason game? No such thing.
Let's break down Chicago's roster so you know what to look for during tonight's contest against the Denver Broncos at Soldier Field.
Everybody wants to see Jay Cutler connect with Brandon Marshall. Unfortunately, that may have to wait a few weeks. The starters won't see a ton of reps tonight and likely won't play more than one series.
As a result, backup Jason Campbell will see plenty of playing time. He's a solid quarterback, and a severe upgrade from Caleb Hanie, but so far in training camp, he hasn't shown himself to be a playmaker. He almost always defers to the check down, as his downfield balls need a lot of work. We'll see if he continues to prefer the underneath pass or if he'll open it up under the lights and take some deep shots.
Josh McCown appears to have a strong grasp on the final QB spot, as Matt Blanchard has not been impressive in camp. Yet a strong game by Blanchard, who has shown flashes of potential, could quickly renew that camp battle.
Like Cutler, Matt Forte won't see many carries tonight. Backup Michael Bush may only play about a quarter as well. That leaves plenty of time for Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen to take the lead in the competition for third string.
Allen has been very impressive in practice, showing very well as a runner, and even better as a pass catcher. His quickness, speed and versatility could stand out tonight. Bell's biggest issue is fumbling. He can carry the load as a runner but he'll take a step backward if he puts the ball on the ground.
Expect to see a lot of rookie Alshon Jeffery. This will be our first chance to see what he can do against live competition. He's been inconsistent in camp, yet when he's on, he's very good. We'll see if that transfers over to the playing field.
Dane Sanzenbacher, Eric Weems and Rashied Davis are all battling for the final receiver spot(s). Weems hasn't practiced in a week and is unlikely to play, opening the door for Sanzenbacher, who has looked very good as a receiver of late. Just like last season, if he shines on game night, Sanzenbacher will put himself in good position to make the team.
Davis has only participated in a couple of practices, having just recently signed with the team. His value is on special team but coordinator Dave Toub said Davis won't be on any of his units tonight.
Undrafted rookie Brittan Golden has been a big-time playmaker in camp. He's competing with fellow UDFAs Chris Summers and Terriun Crump for a place on the practice squad. Crump has really stepped up the past couple of practices. If one of these guys can stand out, he'll separate himself from the other two.
Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth are established as the top two tight ends. They'll see limited snaps but it will be interesting to see where they line up and how they are used. Don't be surprised if coordinator Mike Tice tries to get his big guys going early.
Rookie Evan Rodriguez has played a number of different roles in camp, lining up everywhere on the field. Bears fans will get their first chance to witness his diversity as both a powerful lead blocker and downfield threat.
Kyle Adams will also see a lot of game time with the third stringers. He's a quality player but he's currently buried on the depth chart. He'll need to have one heck of a preseason if he's going to earn a roster spot. That journey starts tonight.
Despite J'Marcus Webb serving as the team's starting left tackle the past week, Tice's comments this week revealed that no position up front is safe. If Webb has a rough outing, the competition with Chris Williams could start anew this weekend.
As for the other starters, it would be nice to see this group show some continuity, something to build on going forward, even though they won't be on the field that long.
C. Williams will work mostly with the backups, although he could spell RT Gabe Carimi early, as he's been dealing with a sore knee. A strong showing by Williams could earn him another shot at the LT job.
Beyond the starters, pay attention to James Brown, a UDFA who is working as the second-team LT. He doesn't have ideal size but he's got quick feet and strong fundamentals. Being stout on the left edge is going to be his key to a roster spot.
Additionally, I'll be watching backup G Chilo Rachal and backup C/G Edwin Williams, as those are the likely candidates to round out the roster, and could even challenge starting guards Chris Spencer and Lance Louis with strong outings.
Starters Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije may not even step on the field tonight. As such, the three players vying for the backup gigs – Chauncey Davis, Corey Wootton and rookie Shea McClellin – we'll have plenty of opportunities to show their stuff.
I'm particularly interested to see Wooton, who is healthy and has been phenomenal in camp. If he carries that over to game night, he'll propel himself into the No. 3 spot. Also, McCellin really needs to show that he was worth the first round selection by getting pressure and/or a sack, which could really boost his confidence.
One third-string player of note is Thaddeus Gibson, who is amazingly quick off the edge. He's demonstrated great ability as a pass rusher but he'll need to show better against the run.
The top three DTs are set: Henry Melton is the starting 3-technique, while Stephen Paea and Matt Toeaina are the two nose tackles. Paea has been the best player in camp so far and has taken over the starting role, although he'll rotate plenty with Toeaina.
Behind those three, it's an open competition. Nate Collins has looked great as a potential 3-tech backup, showing good quickness off the ball and great strength. He's being challenged by John McCargo, Brian Price, Ronnie Cameron and Jordan Miller. Tonight is the night for one of those players to take a commanding lead in this competition.
As such, Nick Roach is going to get a lot of time at middle linebacker, giving us an idea of how he might fare if Urlacher has to miss time during the regular season. Geno Hayes will also see time with the starters on the strong side. He's gotten better as camp has progressed but he still has work to do against the run.
Another player to watch is Dom DeCicco, a second-year player who will work at MLB with the backups. He was a safety in college but he transitioning well to linebacker. I'm very interested to see if he's made significant strides.
Patrick Trahan and J.T. Thomas will also work with the second team. They are both fighting for a chance at the final linebacker spot. That spot is likely designated for Blake Constanzo, due to his ability on special teams, but Urlacher's injury gives both Trahan and Thomas a potential shot.
Charles Tillman won't see much playing. Neither will Tim Jennings. Yet backups Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite will get plenty of opportunities to prove they deserve a roster spot over the rookies Greg McCoy and Isaiah Frey. That is a heated competition between those four players, for only two roster spots. Expect a lot of effort out of the second- and third-string corners tonight.
Craig Steltz will see time as the backup strong safety but we all know what he brings to the table. The big question mark is rookie Brandon Hardin, who has been working as the backup free safety. He's learning a new position and the transition has been slow. We'll find out tonight how far along he is in his development.
Here is where roster spots are won and lost. Players that can get down the field on coverage and make tackles will stand out in the eyes of Chicago's coaches, a group that puts a priority on special teams. If one of the players deep down on the depth chart can make a couple of open field tackles on punts or kickoffs, he'll do himself very well.
The return game will be crucial as well. McCoy was a very good collegiate kick returner and will need to show well in that role if he's going to make the roster. The team is also trying to put Sanzenbacher in the punt return role. We'll see how that works out tonight.
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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.