The Chicago Bears square off against the Carolina Panthers in the preseason opener this evening. It's a long-awaited day for most Bears fans, as it's been an offseason loaded with new parts, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players. Turnover has been abundant and now we get our first glimpse at the team GM Phil Emery envisioned when he fired Lovie Smith this past January.
As is always the case in the first preseason game, starters will not be on the field for very long tonight. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if a lot of the big-name veterans sat out the contest all together. So while Bears football is back, tonight's game won't be truly indicative of what we'll see once the regular season begins.
Some might say that makes the game irrelevant, but the astute football fan knows better. Tonight is where players start to make names for themselves. Where the guys battling for roster spots can show the coaching staff they deserve to be on the team. Where guys emerge as viable candidates to produce once the games matter.
Every year, one or two players standout in the preseason and go on to provide value throughout the remainder of the campaign. And those special teams units that Chicago fans gush about every year? Those players earn their jobs in these games. So one could argue that the four preseason contests, while meaningless in regard to the win-loss column, are the most important of the season in terms of developing a championship roster.
With that in mind, here are 10 things to watch for during tonight's contest.
West Coast rolloutSince he was hired as head coach, speculation has swirled around Chicago as to how much better the Bears' offense will be under Marc Trestman. Tonight will be our first look at the new passing attack in live action. During camp, it's been a flurry of short passes used to lure the defense forward, thus making them vulnerable to the deep ball. It will likely be vanilla play calling against the Panthers, so don't expect anything exotic, but by 10 p.m. tonight, everyone will have a much clearer vision of Trestman's West Coast passing game.
Trestman the coachSo far in training camp, Trestman has been an intense, hands-on coach who is involved in almost every aspect of practice. But how will that translate to the games? Will he be a heated participant, berating coaches and players the way Smith never did? Or will he be too involved in the play calling to do much else? And where will the coordinators be, on the sidelines or in the booth? And when things go wrong, how will Trestman react? We know very little of Trestman as a head coach, so we're about to get a good look at his in-game demeanor.
Martysaurus RexThe Bears signed two big-name free agents this offseason, yet one of those players, T Jermon Bushrod, isn't likely to play due to a calf injury. Yet TE Martellus Bennett should see at least one series with the first team. Bennett has been very impressive in camp and has been one of Jay Cutler's favorite targets in the passing game. Even if Bennett doesn't catch a pass tonight, just seeing a competent tight end on the field should warm the hearts of most Bears fans. Beyond him, a three way battle will ensue for two roster spots between Steve Maneri, Fendi Onobun and Leonard Pope. Pay attention to those three, as the standout player will likely move up the depth chart.
Front-Five RotationInjuries to Bushrod and his backup Jonathan Scott have forced offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer to experiment with a number of different O-line combinations in training camp. He has been shuffling guys from team to team, position to position. Kromer said the beginning of camp is the time to experiment, yet will that carry over into the games? I predict it will. If so, pay attention to who is playing where and with which grouping. Will Eben Britton and J'Marcus Webb flip flop at offensive tackle with the first team? Will Matt Slauson get second-team reps at center? Will James Brown get snaps at both left and right guard? It's no way to develop continuity, but moving guys around will quickly weed out the pretenders.
Take the Long Way HomePeople inquire constantly about the play of first-round offensive linemen Kyle Long in camp. Here's my answer: he looks like a rookie with five Division I games of collegiate experience who missed all of the team's offseason programs. Long is raw and undisciplined. Now we get our first chance to see him in live action. Long has showed outstanding strength and quickness but he has struggled mightily in stunt and blitz pickup. Tonight will be his first chance to improve in those areas and show he's on the path to being a starter.
Not-so-safetyIt's tough to gauge safety play during non-contact practices. Pass-rush isn't allowed to finish, so the safeties are forced to cover huge areas of the field for unrealistic periods of time. In that scenario, of course they are going to get beat often. So it's no surprise Chicago's safeties have looked bad in camp but to this point, they've looked really bad. Not a single safety has shown much on the field, which includes starters Chris Conte and Major Wright. Yet the play of Brandon Hardin is what I'll be intently watching. Hardin hasn't played in live action since the second preseason game last year and hasn't played a meaningful game since 2010. If last year's third rounder is going to make the team, now is the time to prove he deserves it.
First Opp for FreyWith the season-ending injury to Kelvin Hayden, the Bears turn to second-year player Isaiah Frey to fill the club's starting nickelback role. Frey has been the best corner in camp and has earned this shot but will the pressure be too much? Can Frey, who spent all of last season on the practice squad, finalize his ascension up the depth chart or will the bright lights cause him to regress? We'll find out tonight, as he's sure to see plenty of game time against Carolina.
Rookie LinebackersWith D.J. Williams still nursing a calf injury, second rounder Jon Bostic has assumed the starting duties at middle linebacker. Without the ability to tackle, it's been tough to gauge Bostic and fellow rookie Khaseem Greene. Against the Panthers, we'll see if these two can fill gaps, chase down ball carriers and wrap up. We'll also see where they stand as coverage players. Bostic and Greene are the future of the linebacker position in Chicago, so it'll be exciting to finally see them on the field.
D-Line StandoutThe Bears have a solid six-man rotation along the defensive line but the final two or three D-line spots are still wide open. Right now, Corvey Irvin is the frontrunner at defensive tackle, while Kyle Moore is the leader of the competition for the fourth DE position. But that could all change tonight. Remember, Cheta Ozougwu made the roster last year due to his strong play in the preseason, as did Nick Reed the year before. So if one of the back-end D-linemen tears through the Carolina offense tonight, he'll likely shoot up the depth chart.
Return GameDevin Hester doesn't play offense anymore and has taken nearly every rep in practice as the club's top kick and punt returner. We'll see tonight if the extra focus on being a return man has done him well. That said, Hester probably won't field too many kicks, as special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis will want a closer look at some of the unproven players. The biggest question on special teams: will Pro Bowl returner Eric Weems get a punt or kick return? He hasn't had any in camp and if he's ignored in that role tonight, then the odds of making the roster this year are slim to none.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.