Almost none of the starters for either team will take the field, as clubs typically rest their starters in the preseason finale, instead using the time to get a final look at the back-end roster players.
While it may not be as exciting as most NFL contests, there will be plenty to watch in tonight’s game. The Bears have a handful of roster spots still open, while a number of players can earn a spot on the practice squad with strong performances.
With that in mind, let’s break down the top things to watch for when the Bears take on the Browns at 7 p.m. CST.
Fales in Charge
The plan for the offense is to start and finish the game with sixth-round rookie quarterback David Fales under center.
“He's gotten a lot of work scout-team-wise and individual-wise,” coach Marc Trestman said this week. “I'm excited to see what he can do. When we looked at him we saw that he's a very accurate passer, which is something that is hard to coach into a player, is to be accurate. He showed the ability to do that, and to move around, he's got some mobility, so I think he's just in his developmental stage. It's going to be fun to see what he can do.”
Fales has been used sparingly to this point in the preseason, compiling just seven total pass attempts the first three games. Tonight will be his first chance to put a full game’s worth of action on film for the Bears, and other NFL teams, to evaluate. So for Fales, this is anything but a meaningless contest.
“I think the right thing for us to do with him is to let him play and to see what he can do and use this opportunity for him to grow as a player and not get caught up in all the things that might happen as a result of playing in three or four quarters,” Trestman said.
If Fales has a strong showing, he should earn a spot on Chicago’s practice squad.
The backup running back situation is still unclear. Rookie Ka’Deem Carey and veteran Shaun Druaghn have competed for weeks to be the No. 2 behind Matt Forte, yet neither player has stood out as the clear winner.
Carey was solid last week, racking up 42 yards from scrimmage, and showed in Week 2 his prowess in short-yardage. He’s younger and the team invested much more in him than Draughn, so the club would love for Carey to separate himself tonight.
Yet Draughn is still firmly in this competition despite a rough outing in Week 3 (4 carries for 4 yards, 0 catches). He’s a quality pass catcher and he has value in pass protection as well. If he shines, it’ll be tough for Trestman to hand the job to the inexperienced rookie.
Last Chance for Lynch
The running back depth chart will consist of Forte, Carey and Draughn, yet the club will likely keep one more ball carrier on the practice squad. That competition will play out tonight between Jordan Lynch and Senorise Perry.
Lynch hasn’t carried the ball since the first preseason game but he’s an exceptional athlete who might be worth stashing. If he can show well as a runner, while giving a solid contribution on special teams, he could sneak onto the practice squad.
“I think he has made improvements,” said Trestman. “He works at everything, he works at it hard. He'll get an opportunity Thursday night. I think under the lights and the fire will be a good opportunity to show what he can do.”
The more likely scenario has the Bears keeping Perry, who is a much more fluid runner with returner experience.
“It’s certainly going to be an opportunity for [Perry],” Trestman said. “He’s flashed for us. He’s had a couple of good games in the reps that he’s had, both in the kicking game and running the football. He’s going to get that chance again, to run the football on Thursday night.”
And who knows, if Perry lights it up as a kick returner and breaks off a couple of long runs on offense, he could convince the coaching staff to keep him on the final 53-man roster.
Will Chris Williams return tonight and emerge as the answer to Chicago’s problems in the return game?
Williams was slated to return kicks all preseason but never got an opportunity, as a hamstring injury suffered in the first half of the Week 1 contest put him on the shelf until now. He was a last-second scratch against the Seahawks but is expect to play in Cleveland.
“Well, obviously we’d like to see Chris Williams, see what he can do,” said coordinator Joe DeCamillis. “Senorise [Perry] took a couple of reps last week, which were positive. I think he averaged 25.7. Those two are probably the ones who are going to get most of the reps on kickoff return.”
Williams has breakaway speed but his inability to stay on the field, combined with his diminutive size (5-8, 175), will make him an injury liability every week. That could open the door for Perry, a tryout player in rookie minicamp who has steadily progressed this offseason.
“[Perry] did do some [kick returning] at Louisville,” DeCamillis said. “A couple of things about him. One, he’s gotten better every game. And two, I’m not just talking about as a returner. I’m talking about as a cover guy. And that’s the second thing I was going to say. As a special teams player, also — as a coverage guy — he’s done much better, too. He made a couple of plays the other night where he was around the ball and forcing the ball, which is good.”
Michael Spurlock also has an opportunity to earn a roster spot tonight. He’s made plays on offense (4 catches, 56 yards, 1 TD in Week 2) so if he can break off a long run or two, he could emerge the starter.
“Chris [Williams] will be in the [punt-return] equation, along with Micheal Spurlock,” said DeCamillis. “Micheal Spurlock is also in the equation on kickoff return, too, by the way.”
It’s still unclear what the Bears will do with Marquess Wilson, whose broken collarbone could land him on the Active/PUP list. In that scenario, Wilson would return in Week 7 at the earliest, meaning the Bears could be searching for an additional receiver tonight.
That means, out of the remaining wideouts, the top two players in tonight’s contest could earn roster spots. That will be a battle to watch between Spurlock, Williams, Josh Bellamy, Armanti Edwards and Dale Moss. The standout amongst this group could be the last player added to the 53-man roster.
My money is on Spurlock, who has value at both receiver and kick returner. If Williams could stay on the field, I’d consider him a lock to make the team, and he still might with a strong outing against Cleveland, but his susceptibility to injury could make him a risk too big to take.
I don’t believe there are any competitions on the defensive side of the ball that will be won or lost tonight. All of the roster spots have been decided, although a few players could put the coaching staff at ease with strong performances: Austen Lane as the fifth defensive end; Christian Jones as the sixth linebacker; and M.D. Jennings as the final safety if Chris Conte is out for an extended period of time.
McClellin Must Dominate
Shea McClellin has worked as first-team strong-side linebacker the entirety of training camp and the preseason. Through three preseason games, the jury is still out in regard to his transition to linebacker.
Despite being a “starter”, I fully expect McClellin to play a good chunk of tonight’s contest. During that time, he should be the best player on the field. If this former first-round draft pick doesn’t stand out against Cleveland’s second and third team, it might be time to put the experiment to an end.
And if McClellin does look out of place, in a good way, it should give everyone confidence he can eventually develop into a solid linebacker.
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.