A good deal of attention will be paid to how long the offensive starters will remain in the game. This will be the first chance to see the 2005 version of Ron Turner's offense. Rex Grossman and his receivers will look to show good timing and execution. The newly revamped offensive line boasting Fred Miller (#69) at right tackle and John Tait at left tackle will have its first challenge. Thomas Jones will get a chance to show that he has earned the right to be the starter at halfback until proven otherwise. Who gets the first reps at wide receiver opposite Muhsin Muhammad will be important, as well as the amount of playing time doled out to the other receivers while Grossman is in the game.
Nathan Vasher will be running with the first team at cornerback for Jerry Azumah (hip surgery), and it will be interesting to see what defensive backs come in for nickel and dime situations. Strong side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer will be able to show why the Bears didn't aggressively pursue another body at that position to start. Hillenmeyer might be this year's version of Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera, who wasn't the most athletic linebacker as a Bear, but was one of the smartest and toughest. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye will be at top speed for the first time as a Bear. Although there aren't likely to be a lot of stunts this early, a good showing from the pass rush will go a long way to validating the compliments that have been thrown their way.
If you're planning to watch the entire preseason from start to finish, it's a good idea to get your hands on a roster, and keep it nearby. Roughly half of the preseason roster will eventually be cut, and of that half, most of them will be playing the majority of the first few preseason games. Additionally, players that are further down the depth chart that don't see action during the season other than special teams will usually play significant roles on offense and defense at this time.
For example, expect backup running back Adrian Peterson (#29) to see a lot of action again this preseason. He excelled the last two preseasons and has earned a role as a backup and key special teams player. He is a tremendous coverage man on kicks, and holds many NCAA rushing records. Don't get too excited about the production that you see in terms of him challenging Jones or Benson for reps. You'll need to watch this from the perspective that these are professionals, and that they're always being asked to prove themselves. Additionally, remember that there can be emergencies where multiple starters get hurt, as we've seen at the quarterback and cornerback positions in recent years. It's reassuring to know that somewhere along the line you've seen these guys produce in the pros against other teams' front-liners.
Roster battles take place every day in training camp, but are often won and lost based on performances in the exhibition season. At cornerback, the departure of R.W. McQuarters means the fourth cornerback spot is crucial. Jerry Azumah's hip surgery and likely visit into free agency after this season puts an exclamation point on its importance. The loss of Azumah for most if not all of the preseason will allow the battle between newcomers Jerrell Pippens (#27) and Rashied Davis (#21) to take center stage. Todd McMillon (#26) is also in the mix and is going to be tough to knock off the roster by virtue of his special teams play. Other cornerbacks looking to get noticed but fighting difficult battles to stick include Talib Wise (#43), Leroy Smith (#38) and Alfonso Marshall (#22).
The loss of Azumah also trickles into special teams, where he previously earned Pro Bowl honors returning kickoffs. Wide Receiver Bernard Berrian (#80) will get the longest look in that role. Don't be surprised if Davis gets some reps as well. He was one of the best at returning kicks in the Arena Football League. Newcomer Mark Bradley (#16) has been hailed as a special teams standout not only on returns but also in coverage. He'll look to make an immediate contribution to validate his draft status.
There's quite a logjam at the safety position. After Mike Brown and Mike Green, the first backups appear to be Bobby Gray and Todd Johnson (now wearing jersey #35). They'll see considerable action, and would be shockers if they were cut before the season begins. Beyond them, the battles for the final positions will include rookies Chris Harris (#46) and Brandon McGowan (#44) as well as veteran Cameron Worrell (#24).
What happens behind the starting linebackers is going to be crucial. The Bears are not very deep, so the final cutdown decisions become more important. At first glance, Jeremy Cain (#58) appears entrenched as Brian Urlacher's backup in the middle. However, that's only if Hillenmeyer is moved back to the inside and one of the outside linebackers steps up enough to be counted on. Joe Odom (#59) played extremely well as a rookie but struggled to catch on to Lovie Smith's system last year. If he plays like he's thinking too much instead of reacting, he'll be in jeopardy of losing his spot to Marcus Reese (#52) or rookie Rod Wilson (#64). Reese is banged up again (shoulder), and might lose out if he cannot make a showing before the preseason ends.
General Manager Jerry Angelo lamented over cutting last year's fourth-round pick Leon Joe (#48) so much that he was recently re-signed. Joe has tremendous athletic skills. In the right situation, he might be a project to take on. Considering Reese's background and injuries, the two of them along with Wilson might be in competition for the same roster spot and share of coaching resources.
The defensive line looks set and deep with roster locks in Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, Michael Haynes, Tommie Harris, Ian Scott, Alfonso Boone and Tank Johnson. Fighting for the final spot or two are a load of pass rushers like Shurron Pierson (#98), Israel Idonije (#71), Quinn Dorsey (#90), Jonathan Jackson (#73), Alain Kashama (#94) and Greg White (#72). Often a backup pass rusher will rack up big sack numbers in the preseason, only to see little action during the regular season. Worse, they get shut out when they have their opportunity. Think of the Adrian Peterson analogy and apply it here. Idonije is versatile because he can play both tackle and end. If he shows well he should have a spot. At tackle, Darrell Campbell (#67) will be watched closely to see if he's the kind of player many scouts thought he was prior to getting injured. If he is, things will get crowded fast.
At quarterback, Grossman and Hutchinson are all but assured of roster spots. The third position is open between Kyle Orton (#18), Ryan Dinwiddie (#2), and Kurt Kittner (#15). Orton, a fourth round pick, is a heavy favorite to not only win the position but also challenge Hutchinson. How well he and Hutchinson can adapt to Turner's offense will be a key. Hutchinson is not known for the quick release the system calls for, and Orton came from more of a shotgun approach at Purdue. Don't expect to see many reps given to Kittner and Dinwiddie. They're "camp arms." This is a term used to refer to quarterbacks that are needed to run all of the drills necessary to give the receivers good practice and the defense something to work against. Think of this as a skill position version of the guy who holds the dummy for the line blocking drills.
The wide receivers are likely set with Muhsin Muhammad, Justin Gage, Bernard Berrian, Bobby Wade, and Mark Bradley making the team. Questions will arise if Eddie Berlin (#86) continues to shine. Carl Ford (#19) isn't likely to challenge for a spot. It will become more interesting when rookie Airese Currie becomes healthy. He's a safe bet to be put on either the physically unable to perform list (PUP) or the injured reserve. If he goes on the PUP list and is healthy enough during the season to be activated, one of the incumbents could get released to make room, provided there aren't injuries among that group.
Tight ends John Owens (#82), Ron Johnson (#11), John Gilmore (#85) and Darnell Sanders (#83) will seek to make an impression on Bears coaches while Desmond Clark and Dustin Lyman do their best to again round into full health. Since both Clark and Lyman are nicked up, the Bears will have an excellent chance to evaluate the depth at this position against other teams' first stringers. Johnson is the most unique of the group, being converted from wide receiver to tight end. It will be interesting to see if he can handle the blocking aspects while showing his receiving skills and speed. If Turner's offense is going to depend on excellent blocking from this position, it might also be important to find out which of the blockers among Owens, Gilmore, and Sanders can distinguish himself in both running and passing situations.
Fullback Bryan Johnson is still a little ways off from returning, as is Jason McKie. This makes veteran acquisition Marc Edwards (#49) and Thump Belton (#44) intriguing prospects to contend for the backup position behind Johnson. Johnson's injury was severe enough that there needs to be a good level of confidence in the backup to the point of challenging for a starting spot. With that in mind, extra scrutiny will be given to Edwards to see if he can not only unseat McKie but also push or usurp Johnson. Since Edwards has had some nagging injuries since he's arrived, Belton is likely to see time with the earliest groups. He's a heavy underdog who will be given a chance to make a roster.
Since the offensive line is pretty much set, there will be some competition to fill out the backup roles. Roberto Garza (#63) should be a lock by virtue of his contract and versatility in terms of playing both guard and center. His chances of unseating Metcalf at right guard seem have diminished since the start of camp. From there, special attention should be paid to the backup tackle spot. Marc Colombo (#75) looked like he was close to fully healthy in terms of his troubled knee early in camp. He recently has been sidelined by a knee infection. He'll need to perform well to hold off last year's camp surprise Rob Droege (#73). Qasim Mitchell (#72) has been moved to guard, and isn't a lock for that spot in spite of starting at left tackle most of last season. He'll need to outperform Steve Edwards (#79). Edwards originally came to the Bears as a tackle and was moved to guard out of necessity. He has started 23 games over the last two seasons, and is an excellent security blanket at either guard.