There are a number of major storylines heading into Chicago Bears training camp, most of which have been beaten into the ground: Shea McClellin’s position switch, competition at safety, Jared Allen’s impact, the growth of Jay Cutler, etc.
Those storylines will impact this season but the fate of this team goes far beyond the big names. In fact, it could be argued the second wave of players on the roster are just as important as the starters. For proof, look no further than last season, when Chicago’s defense was decimated by injuries and could not recover with backups on the field.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five players who will likely play a substantial role for the Bears this season, about whom almost no one is currently discussing.
Hayden was the club’s starting nickelback heading into 2013 before a hamstring tear early in training camp ended his season. The team signed him to a one-year deal but also re-signed Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, and drafted Kyle Fuller in the first round. As a result, Hayden has dropped out of the starting lineup and was working with the second team during offseason activities.
Yet Tillman is 33 and coming off an injury-shortened season, while Fuller is an extremely aggressive player who dealt with injury in college. In addition, Jennings is 29, so there’s a good chance at least one of those three starters will hit the shelf at some point this season.
Hayden will serve as the primary backup to all three positions, so he’ll be Johnny on the Spot if anyone succumbs to injury. An eight-year veteran with 91 career NFL games under his belt, Hayden could also beat out Fuller in camp, especially if the rookie struggles early on.
Either way you slice it, it’s very unlikely Hayden will stay on the sidelines all season. If called into duty, his experience at multiple positions will help keep the secondary afloat.
In two games as a starter last season, Collins racked up seven tackles and a sack. Extrapolated to 16 games and his state line would have been very impressive: 56 tackles, 8.0 sacks.
Yet an ACL tear during his second start ended his 2013 campaign after just five games. Collins had surgery to repair the knee injury and was recovered enough to fully participate in OTAs and veteran minicamp, albeit with a brace on his left knee.
As a pure 3-tecnique defensive tackle, Collins showed a lot of promise last year and was on the verge of a breakout season. The wellbeing of his knee is a major question mark but if he’s healthy and shows the same burst off the ball he did last season, there’s no reason Collins can’t convince the coaching staff to keep five defensive tackles.
In front of him is a 32-year-old starter (Jeremiah Ratliff), another starter coming off a bad turf toe injury (Stephen Paea) and two rookies, one of whom (Ego Ferguson) looked as raw as sushi during offseason programs. If Collins is healthy, expect him to again emerge as a playmaker for Chicago’s defense.
Britton was solid in his role as the club’s sixth tackle last year, particularly as a run blocker. He then stepped in for Jordan Mills in the season finale and played like a starter.
The Bears have again handed Mills the right-tackle gig, despite the fact he allowed the most QB hurries of any offensive tackles in the league last season, yet the second-year player has a tenuous grasp on the position. If Britton, a five-year veteran with 34 career starts, proves the more reliable option on the right edge, he could very well emerge from Bourbonnais as the starter.
Britton also has experience at guard and took plenty of snaps along the interior during OTAs and minicamp with Kyle Long and Matt Slauson on he shelf. If either of the club’s starting guards goes down, Britton will again be in line for playing time.
Chicago’s front five didn’t miss a single start last year, which is truly amazing. Those things tend to even out, so expect Britton to see plenty of the field in 2014.
Rosario has a small role in Marc Trestman’s offense but he’s an important piece of the puzzle. He’ll be used as a blocker in two-tight-end sets and showed some pass-catching ability this offseason.
He has no legitimate competition to his roster spot, so Rosario is a lock to have an impact this year, which could be substantial if Martellus Bennett succumbs to injury. While he never missed a game last season, Bennett dealt with numerous bumps and bruises and, since he almost never comes off the field, he’s somewhat of an injury risk.
A lot of folks are concerned about Chicago’s linebackers this year due to aging starters Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams, as well as the development of Jon Bostic, who was in over his head as a rookie. With Shea McClellin switching from defensive end to linebacker, and Khaseem Greene being molded as Briggs’ long-term replacement, few are discussing Christian Jones.
Signed as an undrafted free agent, Jones could end up being one of GM Phil Emery’s best offseason acquisitions. A three-year starter for Florida State, Jones was considered a mid-round talent before a failed drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine – he reportedly handed in a “diluted” sample – caused him to drop out of the draft completely.
He was inserted with the second team at SAM this offseason and stayed there. The odds Jones sees the field this year are slim but if enough guys get hurt ahead of him – which is possible with Briggs and Williams on their last legs – and if McClellin proves incapable of playing his new position, Jones could see the field.
At the very least, Jones should be able to emerge from training camp on the club’s 53-man roster. And if he develops into the player the Bears believe he can be, he could challenge for a starting role in 2015. Keep an eye on Jones as a deep sleeper in Chicago this season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.