Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith said this week that most of the positions on the team's final 53-man roster are set. He said it's hard for a player to, at this point in the preseason, propel his way up the depth chart.
"Not very often," said Smith. "But, I think we've seen a lot of guys who have performed well and they confirmed what we were thinking in that last game. And that's what you're looking for, as much as anything. We've had so many OTAs and so many practices. We've seen guys in most situations but, in the end, you want to see how they're going to finish. When you know that you need to play the best you can play, you want to see how they handle that."
Yet if there is one position that is still up in the air, it's the third running back spot. The release of Kahlil Bell, the team's third running back the past two seasons, just six days ago threw a wrench into Chicago's well-laid plans. Bell didn't want to take a $700,000 pay cut, forcing the coaches to move on to Plan B: deciding between Lorenzo Booker and Armando Allen.
RB Armando Allen
Allen spent most of last season on the Bears' practice squad before being elevated to the active roster on Dec. 19. He appeared in the team's final two games, carrying the ball 15 times for 48 yards (3.2 ypc).
Allen was impressive this offseason. His relatively small size (5-10, 190) gives him a low center of gravity, which, combined with his quick feet and speed, creates a shifty player that's tough to corral.
"We've seen him for a while. For Armando, we've seen him game action too at the end of last year," said Smith. "He's done everything we've asked him to do. He can play special teams. When you're in a reserve role, you need to be able to do a few things. He can return, but there are a lot of things he can do. We have a pretty good idea of how we would use him, if he is on the roster."
Allen is also a weapon in the passing attack, particularly on screen passes, where he can hide behind his big offensive linemen and make defenders miss in open space. When matched up on linebackers, he's been too much too handle. Coordinator Mike Tice has regularly lined up Allen in the slot or out wide to create those mismatches. His change-of-pace ability, particularly on third downs, had many contemplating whether he could beat out Bell, a point now rendered moot.
Yet Allen hasn't had a strong preseason. He's rushed the ball 10 times for just 14 yards (1.4 ypc) and caught five passes for 31 yards. The shiftiness he showed in Bourbonnais hasn't translated to the game field, where he hasn't been able to make defenders miss.
"[Making the team] is something that you think about. At the end of the day you can only control what you can control," Allen said. "We've been in camp for a while so we kind of know the expectations and the things they want to see us do. Now we're just at that point where you have to go out and execute."
Allen possesses a lot of the tools a team looks for in a third-down running back and he still could have a lot of value in Tice's offense this year. While the numbers haven't been great this preseason, training camp showed he's capable of in the NFL.
Conversely, Booker showed almost nothing in camp, yet stood out immensely in the preseason games. Signed a week before the first Bourbonnais practice, Booker was nearly invisible on the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University. Yet once the games started, Booker showed his worth.
He led the team in rushing yards in the first contest, then returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown in the second preseason game. Last week, he carried five times for 15 yards and caught 4 passes for 31 yards.
RB Lorenzo Booker
"I feel like I've played to my strengths, which for me is obviously the return game and being able to make plays in space and make people miss," Booker said. "The good thing about that return is that I was able to cover all of that in one play. But, obviously there is more to me as a player."
The Bears put a premium on special teams and Booker is a weapon as a kick returner. He has the big-play ability Allen just doesn't possess at this point in his career.
"When you get a chance, you need a splash play and make everyone take notice. The kick return did that," Smith said. "[Booker] has a history in the league, too. But, in every situation we put him in, we've seen something special from him. He's also a little different from our other running backs, too. Quick guy, so he brings a different dimension to the rest of the group."
While Allen has a lot of potential, my money is on Booker winning this competition. His return ability is too much to ignore and he can be just as good on offense as Allen, whom I believe will go another round on the practice squad this year. As long as Booker doesn't fall on his face tomorrow night against the Cleveland Browns, he'll likely be invited back to practice next week.
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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.