We made it, football fans. After a long, excruciating offseason we finally have real football to discuss – even if there’s no tackling yet.
There has been plenty of speculation this offseason about player roles and how each guy fits into place. But after training camp this weekend, we now have a better idea of who is locked into a starting spot, who is fighting for a starting spot, and who might be on the roster bubble.
Using what we saw and heard this past weekend, let’s take a look at some position battles which should be fun to watch over the next month and a half.
3rd Running Back
Benny Cunningham vs Taquan Mizzell
Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen are the clear-cut one-two punch at running back, but behind them, it is an open competition.
Cunningham was a solid player for the Bears last season filling in mostly on third downs. While his stats weren’t flashy he provided a steady presence in the passing game – both catching and blocking. You also cannot overlook his special teams ability.
But Mizzell received a lot of times with the ones and twos and frankly looked more explosive. Earlier in the offseason, I wrote about how Mizzell will fit a lot better in Nagy’s offense than he did in John Fox’s. The Bears seem to agree. Chicago had a couple of packages with Mizzell and Cohen on the field at the same time as seen here.
This is taquan Mizzell with the first team offense. Looked quick and explosive all day. I really like him and Cohen on the field at the same time like they are here. Also Tru changed the play at the line. pic.twitter.com/qMoNrk8a5p
— Stephen Letizia (@StephenLetizia) July 24, 2018
This should excite Bears fans as that is a lot of speed and elusiveness for which opposing defenses will have their hands full.
The Bears ran their offense almost exclusively out of the shotgun so far in camp with every running back (even Howard) lining up at wide receiver at times. This fits Mizzell’s game better than it does Cunningham’s. While Cunningham is no slouch as a receiver, this is where Mizzell truly shines. In his last two seasons in college, Mizzell had 127 receptions for 1,125 yards and six touchdowns.
While Cunningham would be the safe choice given his experience, there is a lot more upside to keeping Mizzell, and right now, it seems like Mizzell has the slight edge in the coaches eyes. The question will be are the coaches comfortable enough with his pass protection and special teams ability to give him a roster spot.
Starting Defensive End
Jonathan Bullard vs Roy Robertson-Harris
Defensive end opposite Akiem Hicks is really the only starting position up for grabs at this point. You can argue outside linebacker, but Leonard Floyd and Sam Acho seem to have those spots locked up considering Aaron Lynch has not practiced yet. And while the Bears, like all teams, will be in their nickel package roughly 60 percent of the time, who wins the “starting” position is still important.
As of right now, both players seem to be given every opportunity to take the spot. While Bullard started with the first team on Sunday, Robertson-Harris also saw plenty of time with that unit. But while there doesn’t seem to be a frontrunner yet to the coaches, this quote from Eddie Goldman shows how the players are thinking.
Eddie Goldman said he and Akiem Hicks have benefited from the 'explosive' Jonathan Bullard: "He can get to a gap so fast, and you can play off him because you see him so early."
— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) July 21, 2018
Neither player has done much to separate from the other so far in camp. But Bullard has been more stout at the point of attack. Let’s look at the same play as above but this time look at Robertson-Harris who is at right defensive end. He gets completely washed away by the double team.
Robertson-Harris did have some good reps as well, but at this point, his pass rush is far beyond his ability in the run game. Which is why coupled with player recommendations, I believe Bullard will ultimately win the starting position with Robertson-Harris rotating in on passing downs. As I mentioned before, the Bears will be in sub packages more often than not, so while Bullard might win the starting job, Robertson-Harris might end up playing more snaps.
4th Tight End
Daniel Brown vs Ben Braunecker vs Colin Thompson
The Chiefs, for whom Matt Nagy was the offensive coordinator, kept only three tight ends on the roster last season. So while initially it seemed like the Bears will do the same, I am not sure if that is the case after observing them practice.
This past weekend the Bears had two or three tight ends on the field often enough where it was an obvious pattern. Whether they were lined up as an inline tight end, slot receiver or outside receiver it is clear the tight end position will be a large part of this offense. If that is the case, three tight ends won’t be enough.
Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, and Dion Sims are currently locked into roster spots but that fourth tight end spot is completely up for grabs.
Daniel Brown has the most experience and would seem like the obvious choice, but he missed three practices already which has allowed the other players to shine.
Ben Braunecker and Colin Thompson both flashed over the weekend. Thompson especially looked good albeit against third stringers.
Whoever wins the job will have to prove to they can contribute on special teams which is expected of any backup. However, with Shaheen and Sims serving as bigger, blocking tight ends, they will also have to prove they can be an asset in the passing game and backup Burton.
Right now the edge goes to Brown with Thompson passing Braunecker in my eyes. It will take a lot for Thompson to overtake Brown, but if he continues his strong showing, he could be the surprise player to make the final 53-man roster.
5th Wide Receiver
Josh Bellamy vs Bennie Fowler vs Javon Wims
With the Bears likely to keep four tight ends and Burton, Cohen, and Mizzell – if he makes the team – essentially being wide receivers, I would be surprised to see the Bears keep more than five players at wideout.
It also likely means that they will put a higher emphasis on special teams from this spot. With Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller locks for the roster, and Kevin White mainly getting first-team reps, the three players above will be competing for the last spot.
Bellamy has to be the front-runner at this point. He has proven to be a valuable player on special teams in the past and has been a better receiver than given credit for during his time in Chicago. Yes, he has a couple drops and it doesn’t help that some of them have been in the end zone, but he knows how to get open and has some chemistry with Trubisky.
At the same time, Fowler was brought in by this regime specifically to compete against Bellamy. This indicates that Nagy might not have been happy with what they saw last season. Fowler is a good special teamer in his own right. Last season he was credited with six special team tackles which were second most on the Denver Broncos. He also got some reps with the first team offense this weekend and showed some good hands.
Good coverage across the board. Trubisky with a dart to Fowler for a good gain. pic.twitter.com/wDdKG9EEVe
— Stephen Letizia (@StephenLetizia) July 24, 2018
Wims, the Bears seventh-round pick this season, is still a longshot to make the roster. On Sunday, he made a few nice catches, ran good routes, and was heavily involved throughout practice. On the flipside, he had to be told where to line up a few times. If he shows he has a firm grasp of the playbook and can hold his own on special teams he has a shot. But as of right now, he seems like a practice squad candidate with some upside.
This is where we stand right now, but we still have over a month of practices and five games to continue to evaluate these players, their roles, and how they fit into the complicated puzzle of the initial 53-man roster. It is possible some of these players start to separate themselves from the pack or another player not mentioned makes a few plays and catapults himself into contention.
But whatever happens it should be a fun few weeks and we will keep you up to date on all of it right here at Da Bears Brothers.