For the fans that have not had the opportunity to attend the training camp practices at Olivet Nazarene University, Thursday will be the first opportunity to see the Bears’ revamped offense under new coordinator Mike Tice.
However, one thing fans will not see much of during the opener will be the starters, who traditionally only play two series on offense and defense.
This is the smart play and avoiding injuries is the main priority during these preseason exhibitions. The final score is irrelevant and the injury report is the real statistic that coaches and players will monitor in the box score as they look to walk away from the game unscathed.
While the first preseason game will only feature the starters for limited duty, the game will provide some insight into position battles, and here are a few that I will be monitoring closely vs. the Broncos:
Left Tackle: J’Marcus Webb vs. Chris Williams
Webb has seen the majority of snaps with the first team after alternating with Williams at the onset of camp. The incumbent starter will be tested by Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who had 9.5 sacks last season.
Webb has been a lightning rod of criticism from the fans, and if he struggles early the fan chatter will only increase. Williams, a former first round pick, has seen time along the offensive line and may see time with the first team if Webb struggles early.
My prediction is this will be a battle throughout the preseason, but this will be the first true test for each player to separate from one another.
Nose Tackle: Stephen Paea vs. Matt Toeaina
Paea was selected in the second round last season to be the team’s nose tackle of the future after an All-American season at Oregon State. However, a dismal rookie season beset by injuries and a steep learning curve stunted the expectations placed on Paea.
Toeaina is solid if not spectacular and has been a contributor on the line for the last couple seasons, but the team needs Paea to step up and claim the spot next to Henry Melton in the interior of a line that could become a strong point this season.
Coaches have raved at the improvements made by Paea during the offseason, and he has been working with the first team as the starter for the last week of camp. Look for #92 to make a few plays in the backfield vs. the Broncos on Thursday in what promises to be a surprising sophomore season for the former Oregon State Beaver.
Right Cornerback: Kelvin Hayden vs. Tim Jennings
Jennings was re-signed this offseason despite an inconsistent season that saw him benched at one time in favor of the departed Zach Bowman. Hayden, Bears fans will remember, was the Colts corner that picked off a Rex Grossman pass in the Super Bowl and ran it back for a touchdown, sealing the Bears fate in rainy Miami.
The Chicago native will battle Jennings for the starters spot opposite pro-bowler Charles Tillman. The loser may find themselves fighting for a roster spot as DJ Moore is entrenched at the nickelback spot.
Shea McClellin: It will be interesting to see how the Bears implement the first rounder out of Boise State in the opener on Thursday. Some have said the rookie has disappointed so far in camp, and some have said he has shown flashes of his athleticism and burst off the edge. The Bears will need his edge rush potential on third downs this season.
Alshon Jeffery: The second round pick out of South Carolina has the ability to dominate, especially in the red zone where his 6’3’’ size will create mismatches for smaller cornerbacks and safeties in the league. I am anxious to see what the rookie is capable of accomplishing in his first season. Traditionally receivers take time to adapt to the NFL game, but having Brandon Marshall on the other side will help give him single coverage to exploit.
Evan Rodriguez: The fourth round pick out of Temple has athleticism and speed that none of the other tight ends on the Bears roster have. He is not a traditional in-line tight end at 6’1’’, so Mike Tice will need to use him out of the backfield or flexed out wide to create mismatches. He should see extended action Thursday with backup quarterback Jason Campbell.
On a team with Super Bowl aspirations a number of positions are already set in stone, but the aforementioned battles merit watching and competition will only bring out the best in the players.
Injuries are bound to happen in the NFL, and quality depth is tantamount to success, as the Green Bay Packers showed in their Super Bowl run two seasons ago when they had a glut of starters wind up on injured reserve.
The unsung hero in their title run was the quality depth on the roster to overcome the injuries and not miss a beat en route to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
The Bears will get an idea of the quality of their depth as they take their first step toward their championship season along the lakefront at 8 p.m. on Thursday.
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Patrick is a diehard Chicago sports and avid college football fan, and the host of “The Wake-up Call,” a weekly sports show on Sportstownchicago.com Wednesday morning from 8-10. View his show’s website here.