By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
Suddenly, the 2019-2020 Chicago Bears season has insisted itself upon us as preseason play begins this evening at home against the Carolina Panthers — with exhibition game No. 1, a long journey begins based in high hopes and expectations for the reigning NFC North champions.
These next four weeks — or specifically the four preseason games that punctuate them — are a part of the process to get ready for the following four months of the regular season. Fans will likely see very little of the starting units on offense and defense based on the way head coach Matt Nagy held such players out last season. The starters played only in two of the five preseason games in 2018. Even without the starters there is a lot going on with the rest team and in all reality where the most competition will be.
Injuries become the most important part of the preseason and how well teams do in avoiding them. No team can afford to lose players this early in the year but sadly it seems like an inevitablity that ravages some teams hopes before the season starts. Preseason games are in a lot of ways an alternate to the grind of training camp practices.
Coaches and players won’t be concerned about wins or losses and teams will be using basic play calls saving their good stuff for the season. But these games are important to getting a full roster of players ready for a season that has fans in Chicago buzzing.
It certainly must be nice for general manager Ryan Pace to look across his roster and know essentially his starters and high value role players are mostly established if not completely.
Throughout the roster, the only real ambiguity when it comes to the starters is who will feature as the main running back. Big news this week leading up to the first game was the release of the first “unofficial” depth chart. No real surprises shown with the first and second units as most of the camp competitions are coming from the bottom of the roster. A tough task lies ahead for Pace and Nagy to cut down the roster after the fourth preseason game.
There will be plenty of talented players this year that the Bears will cut that will get picked up by other teams. Such an expectation ramps up the meaning of this first game with the Panthers as it is a huge chance for some guys to get a leg up with the coaches and the front office.
Outside of the quarterback position, every group has some mystery as to fringe players trying to make the roster or how many players will be kept at a position group. Just for example, the team has multiple talented receivers who could be projected to contribute in Nagy’s offense — some will have to be cut because there just will not be enough spots on the roster.
One of the juiciest battles to watch unfold in the preseason is the kicker position. Much has been made of the competition down in Bourbonnais between Elliott Fry and Eddy Pineiro. Neither has any real experience to speak of in the NFL so seeing them kick under some game pressure should be entertaining.
As much as the roster feels settled and finalized, the kicking competition is critical in preseason. Either the Bears will go with Fry or Pineiro or a different kicker who is kicking elsewhere right now. Hoping for another kicker to come in after final cuts is risky as well as going with an unproven kicker. How the kickers handle themselves in tomorrow’s game will be the next big development in this kicking competition.
A new wrinkle for the team this year exists in its makeover of the running back position, the only hold over from last year being Tarik Cohen. Along with Cohen are running backs Mike Davis and rookie David Montgomery. Davis and Montgomery are battling for the bulk of the carries but all three running backs will be used consistently throughout the year. Running backs are very difficult to assess in training camp since the tackling and hitting is so limited.
The running back position in this offense has to able to run between the tackles, catch passes like a receiver and when called upon to be an extra blocker on pass plays. Most of those responsibilities are hard to judge when tackling is limited and quarterbacks aren’t allowed to be touched in camp. Physicality of an actual game should give fans and analysts an idea of the type of play to expect out of the new running backs this year.
How well the running back position develops from last season could be the difference in the Bears transforming into a great offense instead of a good or average offense like last year.
After the disastrous 2014 campaign, the Bears have spent most of the last several preseasons mixed in a smorgasbord of roster battles with very few talented NFL players. Last year things started to change dramatically, but no Bears roster has been this complete since their Super Bowl run in 2006. Bears coaches and front office people have a pretty good idea of what the 53 man roster will look like outside of a few battles in the preseason.
What a change from what was one of the darkest periods in the franchise’s history. Enjoy this first of four preseason games as each game is one more developmental step towards preparing a roster for a long arduous journey full of Super Bowl hopes.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR