Head coach John Fox expects his starters to play 12-15 snaps, which typically equates to the majority of the first quarter. Battles for starting spots begin today and the majority of the team’s roster is wide open in preparation for the eventual cut from 90 to 53 players in the coming weeks.
Fox released the team’s first unofficial depth chart yesterday and although it’s a very rough draft, the chart gives a good perspective on how the coaching staff feels going into the process. The first preseason game is always hard to truly gauge the progress of most players but for most, it will lay a crucial foundation for their progress moving forward.
Backup running back
Matt Forte is firmly entrenched as the team’s starting running back for 2015. Former general manager Phil Emery drafted Ka’Deem Carey in the fourth round last year to be the primary backup to Forte but saw little time on the field. This year, new GM Ryan Pace spent a fourth rounder on Jeremy Langford, who has impressed during camp with his speed and homerun ability.
In front of the two youngsters on the depth chart is former Falcons RB Jacquizz Rodgers, who was signed to a one-year deal early in the offseason. So far, Rodgers has taken the majority of the snaps as the primary backup and provides great pass-blocking ability and special teams value.
Also in the mix are Daniel Thomas and Senorise Perry. Thomas provides that “bruiser back” role and has surprised in camp so far. The former Miami Dolphin came in as a roster long shot but he is a name to keep an eye on moving forward. Perry holds his roster spot solely based on his special teams value and has been a staple in the first-team ST units in camp.
Forte is expected to see some snaps tonight but once his work is done, the battle for two or three roster spots behind him will begin.
This group’s depth has been no secret to this point. Last year, the front office spent the majority of its free-agent expenses on Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. All three will now be transitioning to a new position, with both Houston and Young coming off season-ending injuries. To add to the competition, Pace brought in prized free agent Pernell McPhee, who is one of the few Day 1 starters already set, along with former Arizona Cardinal Sam Acho, who has split first-team reps with Allen and has looked good doing so.
According to the depth chart, McPhee and Allen have been named starters for this week’s affair. Behind them will be Acho and Houston with the second team, both of whom are still in the running for a starting spot and will likely be part of a heavy rotation.
Houston has bounced back nicely from an ACL tear that ended his 2014 season but Young has done very little off-season work. He’s struggling to get to 100 percent and it has become evident that Young is simply out of place in the new system. While the team is still expected to run it’s fair share of 4-3 fronts, Young could be on the roster bubble moving forward.
There’s no way to sugarcoat just how bad the return game was for the Bears last year, especially before the arrival of Marc Mariani.
It became very evident that Emery and former head coach Marc Trestman simply ignored special teams as a whole last year and it hurt them in terms of field position. This year, don’t expect that to be the case. The new coaching staff has worked out multiple players at the returner positions, including guys like Marquess Wilson and Terrance Mitchell.
In addition, low-risk players like A.J. Cruz and Levi Norwood have been added to the mix. Eddie Royal and Jacquizz Rodgers have experience as well but the veterans appear to be taking a backseat in this competition so far.
Mariani still looks to be the frontrunner for the job but a good games from a more explosive returner could make him expendable, but that is not likely to happen. This battle is something to monitor going forward, especially if the coaching staff puts a strong emphasis on field position.
One of the biggest questions coming into the season is who would be starting Week 1 at right tackle. Reports came out that two-year starter Jordan Mills was “put on notice”, but judging by OTAs and the opening weeks of Training Camp, Mills will have to really struggle to lose his job.
So far, Mills has not been remotely impressive and while he was rehabbing a small injury during OTAs, starting right guard Kyle Long was taking the majority of snaps in his position. As time goes on, it looks less likely that Long will slide outside, barring injury, which leaves the competition with Mills very light.
Last year, the team spent its final draft pick on Charles Leno, who has taken all of his snaps at left tackle to this point. It looks as if they prefer to keep him on the left side, which leaves Michael Ola and mammoth rookie lineman Tayo Fabaluje to push Mills for the lone starting spot.
Neither Ola or Fabaluje have impressed in camp but as many know, game speed and the pressure that comes with it can provide a much different product.
Nickel corner/Third corner
Kyle Fuller is entrenched as the unquestioned No. 1 corner moving forward and Tim Jennings will take the majority of snaps is base sets. With sub packages being used over 60 percent of the time in today’s NFL, the importance of any team’s third cornerback is high.
Pace brought in often-injury defensive back Alan Ball on a one-year/$3 million, but he simply can’t stay upright in camp. After missing all offseason workout programs while he rehabbed a foot injury, it seems as if Ball is behind the eight-ball.
Tracey Porter, who was also a late addition in the off-season, seems to have found a home with the Bears so far. Porter has been impressive in camp and has moved into a virtual lock with Ball for the third cornerback spot.
Behind both Ball and Porter is special teams ace Sherrick McManis and second-year players Terrance Mitchell and Al Louis-Jean, who have both made good first impressions. McManis could end up being the surprise out of this group if he can stay healthy and impress in the preseason.
Other battles to watch
- The team’s primary backup tight end slot behind Martellus Bennett is wide open. Dante Rosario, Zach Miller and Blake Annen provide the best options as pass-catchers, while Bear Pascoe, Chris Pantale, and Kevin Greene will battle for the primary blocking role.
- Defensive line is another intriguing battle moving forward. Jeremiah Ratliff seems to be the only set starter in the group but could slide out to the defensive end position if rookie nose tackle Eddie Goldman continues his great camp. Ego Ferguson and Jarvis Jenkins have similar skill sets but Ferguson’s pass-rush upside may be the difference in determining who wins the third and final D-line spot moving forward.
- Finally, the inside linebacker position, namely Shea McCellin. How will he adapt to his third position change in as many years and can he be the vocal leader of this defense? Off-season acquisition Mason Foster or last year’s starter Jon Bostic could capitalize if McClellin stumbles.
Aaron Leming has years of salary cap knowledge and has written for Rant Sports, Bears Draft On Tap, and Cover 32. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report.