By Robert Zeglinski
It’s been an arduous summer ride, but this Saturday’s Bears preseason dress rehearsal against the Kansas City Chiefs begins the final countdown towards Chicago finalizing it’s 2018 53-man roster. What the approximate last month has done is a facilitate Bears positional battles.
And no, we’re not discussing depth chart matters like quarterback: everyone knows Mitchell Trubisky is the starter. For as much as the Bears are settled in at most positions, they still need more of a sample in select roster areas. These are battles across the board such as a starting defensive end, to depth tight ends.
Let’s run down the latest developments in key competition spots to keep an eye on for the Bears over the remaining days of the preseason.
Roy Robertson-Harris vs. Jonathan Bullard
It’s funny. On one side, the Bears have one of the best and most proven 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL in Akiem Hicks. A human wrecking ball capable of carrying a defense on his back. On the opposite end, they have a gaping hole until proven otherwise. Two third-year players that have been competing directly against each other to break through.
Robertson-Harris and Bullard was the most blatant competition to monitor for the Bears way back at the start of training camp in mid-July. Two 2016 acquisitions with completely different skill sets and backgrounds, one an undrafted free agent physical freak in Robertson-Harris, and the other a third round draft pick supposed more polished technician in Bullard. This duo has duked it out over the past few weeks for the right to complement Hicks’ talent.
And for the most part: it’s preseason sack leader Robertson-Harris with the pole position with little time remaining. Game action is the best indicator of how far along players have come and how much value they have. Through three exhibitions against the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, and Denver Broncos, the 6-foot-7 Robertson-Harris has been much more impactful in the snaps he receives.
Whenever Bullard’s in the game, there are flashes of a quality first step and hand usage, but he otherwise becomes invisible too often. There are no other signs of major growth that his counterpart in Robertson-Harris has definitively displayed. That makes Robertson-Harris far and away the more valuable player to this point and the clubhouse leader to start at defensive end when the Bears visit the Green Bay Packers in Week 1.
Unlike most of the other Bears’ positional battles, Bullard isn’t a cut if he can’t amaze Chicago’s coaching staff in the next couple of weeks. He’ll likely be the Bears’ swing defensive end, featuring as needed. It’s more that this role is for a major and full-time contributor. A role that Robertson-Harris has snatched with gusto.
Daniel Brown vs. Ben Braunecker
At the moment, it’s difficult to see anyone deeper at tight end in the NFL than the Bears are. Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, and Dion Sims is a talented trio that offers multitudes of offensive versatility. That makes their official, unofficial backups more of luxuries than absolute needs. Crazier things have happened in regards to injuries, though, so it’s good to stay prepared.
The two men squaring off for that fourth tight end slot are Brown and Braunecker. A few weeks ago, this vaunted fourth tight end shuffle looked like more of a dead heat. Brown was and is a more accomplished receiving option, but the Harvard graduate in Braunecker had shown enough progress to warrant a deeper look.
Through three preseason games, it’s predictably now Brown sitting pretty. Six receptions, 101 yards, and generally acting as the quality safety valve for the Bears’ backup quarterbacks in Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray separates you from all comers. Braunecker has received plenty of shots, and even had Chicago’s game-winning touchdown against the Broncos last Saturday night. It hasn’t translated to the same kind of production with only two catches, however. Brown is just a more polished and able receiver downfield.
It should also be noted that Brown is more of a “U” tight end, meaning he would be Burton’s direct backup. Meanwhile, Braunecker is more of a traditional “Y” tight end, of which the Bears already possess two in Shaheen and Sims. It was always an uphill battle for Braunecker and at this stage he’s a likely practice squad candidate barring pending explosive performances near the finish.
Cody Whitehair vs. James Daniels
The Bears will never publicly classify this as a competition seeing as how they’ve continually insisted Whitehair is their starting center regardless of any poor snaps or plays he makes. Yet it’s Daniels, one of Chicago’s second round picks this spring, that has been receiving repetitions at center only in the past few weeks.That illustrates an eventual plan to play Daniels at center, and quickly. If the 20-year-old was still going to feature at left guard as originally proposed, he’d be getting snaps at left guard, which he isn’t.
It’s Daniels who has shined on every occasion as the Bears’ No. 2 center against the Bengals and Broncos: as sure of a sign he’s ready to play up top. When you’re dominating backup competition and look like a natural in the process, that only bodes well for your standing as long it’s understood the plan for progression is in the cards.
What Chicago’s game against the Chiefs on Saturday offers is the likely final shot to get Daniels in at center with the Bears’ No. 1 offensive line in time to start at the open of the regular season. If he doesn’t, it’s Whitehair that will continue to snap footballs to Trubisky.
Given everything the Bears have quietly done and how both have fared to this stage, it’d make little sense not to see Daniels for even one starting offensive series. Play the natural center in Daniels at center, and play the natural guard in Whitehair at guard. It’s not that nuanced a concept to grasp. R.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.