After three preseason games, most players are spent and just want the regular season to begin. A lot of them are wiped out after the training camp portion of the preseason is finished. In the fourth game of the preseason, most positions on the roster are already figured out. Starters may play a series or two, if at all, and they are most likely set in stone by now while the key backups just might be jostling for a position on the depth chart.
However, there is a small portion of players — call them “bubble players” — throughout the league that have one last chance at making an impression and trying to make the 53-man roster. It’s because of this competition that football fans should still tune in to an otherwise meaningless game in which a player like Jay Cutler might not even take a snap.
Here are five things to watch in the Bears-Browns preaseason finale:
1. The running back depth chart
The Bears carried four running backs last year because they felt strongly in Adrian Peterson’s ability as a special teams player and were unsure about the health of Kevin Jones’ knee. They might do that again this year, but Peterson might be more on the bubble than he was last year. The team likes Garrett Wolfe as a change-of-pace back who can get the ball in space and make things happen. Also working in Wolfe’s favor is that he contributed on special teams last year and the diminutive player came up big in that aspect, leading the team in special teams tackles until he got hurt later in the season. Pay attention to how Jones and Peterson run the ball.
2. Last stand for wide receivers
They may not have any superstars at the position, but the Bears have a deep corps of receivers at about the same talent level and will have to make a tough choice in cutting one or more of them. It’s likely that the Bears will keep six at the position, and starters Devin Hester and Earl Bennett are already set in stone. Because of their status as draft picks, Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox are likely to stay on board because neither one would make it back to the practice squad if they were cut. That leaves two spots open for Devin Aromashodu, Brandon Rideau, and Rashied Davis. The Bears value Davis’ special teams ability, so he looks like he could stick with the roster solely on that. Jay Cutler prefers Aromashodu, but the Bears’ coaching staff and Jerry Angelo have the final say in that decision, not Cutler. Rideau looks like the odd man out, though. Everybody has one final game to change some minds, even though Lovie Smith said most positions are already decided.
3. Three or four tight ends?
Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark form a talented pass-catching duo that can combine for 100 receptions this year. But that’s solely what they do: catch passes. The Bears brought in Michael Gaines this offseason to help with blocking, but he really hasn’t made much of an impact, other than to light a fire under second-year pro Kellen Davis. Davis has played well in the preseason for the second straight year and is listed above Gaines on the depth chart. Whether or not Gaines makes the roster could hinge on if the Bears choose to keep three or four running backs. Keep an eye on the battle between Davis and Gaines against the Browns.
4. Sorting out the linebackers
I’ve said all preseason that the linebacker position is the deepest on the team and now the Bears will have to sort through what they have and pick the best of the bunch. Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and Pisa Tinoisamoa are the starters, which leaves open three or four more spots. Hunter Hillenmeyer, despite his declining skills, figures to stay due to his knowledge of the system and reliability in a pinch. Nick Roach, last year’s starter on the strong side at the end of the season, and Jamar Williams also seem likely to stay. It seems logical that the team would keep Darrell McClover, whom they signed this past week for special teams. That would likely indicate Marcus Freeman and Kevin Malast are out the door.
5. Secondary issues
Veteran cornerback Rod Hood signed with the team on Tuesday, and while his roster spot isn’t set in stone, it would seem they brought him in there because they were unhappy with how Trumaine McBride performed this preseason, particularly against Denver this past weekend. There were reports that Zack Bowman and/or Danieal Manning could see playing time against Cleveland, and that could help clear up the muddled secondary picture. And then the question is whether rookie Al Afalava is competing with Manning at free safety or Kevin Payne at strong safety. About the only sure thing in the secondary is that when Charles Tillman returns from his injury, he’ll assume his starting spot. Hood, Nathan Vasher, McBride, rookie D.J. Moore, Craig Steltz, and Corey Graham are all fighting for either a roster spot or a particular role on the defense.
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