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LAKE FOREST — The Bears continue to do things that make sense.
I know, it’s weird.
But that’s exactly how I would summarize training camp under new head coach Matt Eberflus. They practice hard. They reward players who are playing well. They play players in preseason games who need game reps.
It sounds simple, and kind of obvious. But simple and obvious aren’t always what the Bears do.
Watching Tuesday’s practice at Halas Hall — the first since “training camp” technically ended — I came away with this thought: The days of babying the players are over.
The pads were on. The practice was physical. Sometimes it looked like the Bears were live tackling, even though they weren’t.
In the latest move that just makes sense, Eberflus announced he will play his starters for the first half of Saturday’s preseason game against the Cleveland Browns. Remember, this is a new offense. This is a new defense. They still have a young, unproven starting quarterback.
Just last week, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy made it clear: “Game reps is what the kid needs.”
As of today, Justin Fields has just 14 passing attempts in the preseason. If he didn’t play Saturday, he would have gone 23 days without playing live football before the Week 1 opener against the 49ers.
Duh. He had to play against the Browns. It just makes sense.
The Lead: Unanswered questions remain
Yes, there’s a lot to like from the Bears’ two preseason games. But there’s also a chance reality hits hard when they face the 49ers’ front seven on Sept. 11.
The reality is there are some major questions left unanswered, including:
1. Who the heck is catching Fields’ passes?
You can scroll down to my updated WR power rankings, but it’s not pretty. The No. 2 guy hasn’t caught a pass in the two preseason games. The No. 3 guy is struggling to stay healthy. The No. 4 and 5 guys haven’t practiced in two weeks. The No. 7 guy won’t be ready for the regular season. The No. 8 guy has never caught an NFL pass in the regular season.
I’m on record as saying the Bears’ wide receiver room could be more productive this year than last year, but that’s based more on the (vastly) improved scheme and the lack of talent they had in 2021. There’s still a lot to figure out between now and Week 1. I wouldn’t be surprised if more receivers are added.
2. Do the Bears have enough depth at cornerback?
When you see Kindle Vildor still running around as the No. 2 outside corner on nickel downs, you realize that the depth in the secondary is still suspect. If rookie Kyler Gordon can stay healthy, then the Bears should be much improved, but they’re just one injury away from being in a similar spot as they were last year. The same goes at safety, where promising rookie Jaquan Brisker is dealing with a hand injury that could threaten his NFL debut against the 49ers.
3. How do Braxton Jones, Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom react when the real thing starts Sept. 11?
If Jones, Jenkins and Borom truly win their respective jobs on the offensive line, then that’s probably the Bears’ best-case scenario coming true. But all three are still inexperienced, especially Jones (who played FCS football last year) and Jenkins (who is playing a new position in the NFL). The young offensive line has a different vibe right now — a positive vibe — but what they’ve experienced in the preseason will be a lot different than facing Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead in Week 1. There’s bound to be a learning curve. It will help a lot if center Lucas Patrick is back in time for the opener.
Poles’ position on Roquan Smith contract
It was fairly obvious linebacker Roquan Smith had very little leverage during his training camp “hold-in,” but you can’t blame him for trying.
The reality is that there was very little reason for new Bears general manager Ryan Poles to give into Smith’s contract demands or trade request.
Look at it this way: Poles could have made Smith the highest paid off-the-ball linebacker right now, or he can wait a year, see how Smith performs in the Bears’ new 4-3 defense, and if all goes well, he can make him the highest paid off-the-ball linebacker next year. The contract won’t look much different in 12 months. This isn’t the quarterback or wide receiver market where there’s a line of players waiting to get paid top dollar.
The worst-case scenario would be something like what happened with Allen Robinson. Maybe Smith has a good, but not great 2022 season, making Poles apprehensive about giving him a huge contract next offseason. Instead, they put the franchise tag on Smith and can’t come to an agreement. After playing out the 2023 season under the tag, Smith eventually departs. Except even in that scenario, it would be viewed as smart that they didn’t make Smith the highest paid off-the-ball linebacker, and he would still have played two more seasons for the Bears.
Understand why Poles isn’t in a hurry to pay him?
Best/Worst from Week 4 of training camp
The best: Contract dispute aside, Smith’s return to practice has to be a welcome sight for defensive coordinator Alan Williams. After being eased into practice over the weekend, Roquan sure looked like Roquan in Tuesday’s physical practice. On the first snap of team drills, he shot through a gap and stuffed a run. His teammates went nuts. The drama appears over … at least until the winter.
The worst: The Bears’ running back depth has suddenly taken a hit as both Khalil Herbert and Trestan Ebner are nursing injuries. Assuming David Montgomery doesn’t play a lot on Saturday in Cleveland, Darrynton Evans and De’Montre Tuggle will likely get the bulk of the work in the preseason finale.
Updated Wide Receiver Power Rankings
- Darnell Mooney – Give Mooney one series with Fields on Saturday. Or don’t.
- Equanimeous St. Brown – Seems like the clear No. 2 in practice, but still needs to show he can make plays in a game.
- Velus Jones Jr. — Jones finally played in Seattle, then missed practice again Tuesday.
- Byron Pringle — Pringle might be getting closer to a return as we’ve seen him do more side work recently.
- Tajae Sharpe — Sharpe had a great preseason debut, but hasn’t practiced since. Still not sure he’s a lock.
- Isaiah Coulter — I’ll say this about Coulter: He’s out there. He’s playing. He’s practicing.
- N’Keal Harry — I have a feeling Harry will be carried on the initial 53-man roster before being placed on IR. That would allow him to return during the season.
- Nsimba Webster — These are wide receiver rankings, and Webster still needs to prove he can be involved in the passing game, but his special teams ability could be enough to make the team.
- Dante Pettis — Pettis seems to be slipping on this list.
- Chris Finke — Finke is back practicing and needs a big game in Cleveland.
- Kevin Shaa — Has made a couple plays in the last week, but size is an issue.
No longer listed: David Moore was moved to season-ending IR and Dazz Newsome was waived Tuesday.
Thank you for being a member of the CHGO family. I will miss the game against the Browns Saturday due to a family wedding, but don’t worry, our awesome CHGO crew will still have you covered with a postgame show as soon as it’s over!
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