Predicting the Winner of the Chicago Bears' Biggest Training Camp Battles
Once training camp officially opens for the Chicago Bears on July 30, the battle for roster spots and starting positions will ramp up.
Many spots on Chicago's roster are already set in stone, but some will still be up for grabs this offseason. New head coach John Fox talked earlier this offseason about how it will be up to the players to determine the team's 53-man roster in training camp, according to Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com:
It's just like the 53-man roster. These guys understand that they pick the team. It's how they perform. How they practice. How they're evaluated. It's what to do, how to do, do it under pressure. So we'll try and create that the best we can at camp as we ready for the season, and where that's going to take us I'm not sure. But I've been very pleased with how they've gone about their business up to date.
Almost every position on the roster will have players fighting for either a roster spot or a starting role during training camp, and those players have just a handful of weeks to prove themselves to Chicago's coaching staff.
Who will win some of Chicago's toughest training camp battles? We explore that ahead.
No. 2 Running Back
Matt Forte has been Chicago's workhorse at the running back position since his rookie season in 2008, but the veteran's role could be reduced a bit this season given Fox's history.
Earlier this offseason, Fox talked about using a rotation at the position this season in Chicago, according to Dickerson:
It's a positive that [Forte has] had a number of carries and the production he's had, both catching the ball and running the ball. We've always been believers in kind of a one-two punch and rolling guys through there whether it's the defensive line; a wave of those guys to stay fresh. I've always had the approach the same thing with running backs. But as I tell guys they pick the team -- how they perform -- and it will be no different at running back, who that guy is and how dependable he is and if he earns that number of reps to get in. We're early in the process and hopefully somebody kind of sets themselves out.
Forte will still get the majority of the carries this season, but he should get an opportunity to catch his breath more often in offensive coordinator Adam Gase's scheme.
The Bears added veteran running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Daniel Thomas in free agency, and they also drafted Michigan State's Jeremy Langford in the fourth round of this year's draft. The Bears also have second-year running backs Ka'Deem Carey and Senorise Perry on the roster.
Rodgers and Thomas both work well between the tackles and can catch the football out of the backfield, while Langford is a speedy threat who can get to the edge and pick up yards down the field.
Carey is similar to Rodgers and Thomas because of his ability between the tackles, but he needs to improve in pass protection. Perry spent all of last season as a special teams contributor and will have a difficult time making the team.
Rodgers is a proven third-down running back who excels in pass protection, and he should make the roster as the team's No. 3 running back. The battle for the No. 2 job could come down to Langford and Carey.
Carey finished his rookie season with just 36 carries for 158 yards, but his lack of playing time could have had something to do with former head coach Marc Trestman's struggles as a play-caller. Trestman relied heavily on Forte last season and did not give Carey a real opportunity to prove himself.
Forte and Carey are similar because they are both considered to be north-south runners, while Langford has the ability to move laterally before making his way up the field. Langford has good hands in the passing game, but he needs to improve in pass protection.
Carey and Langford both have a lot of upside and potential, but since Langford has the ability to make big plays because of his speed, he should enter the 2015 season as the team's No. 2 running back behind Forte.
Winner: Jeremy Langford
Starting Strong Safety
The safety position has been a thorn in Chicago's side for the better part of the last decade, but that could change in 2015.
Chicago signed veteran Antrel Rolle in free agency to help stabilize the free safety position, leaving veteran Ryan Mundy and second-year man Brock Vereen to battle for the starting strong safety spot in training camp.
Mundy started all 16 games in Chicago last season after signing a two-year, $3 million contract last offseason. He led the team in tackles with 103 and recorded a career-high four interceptions. He is a prototypical box safety who is at his best when asked to play against the run, but he proved last season he can handle his own in pass coverage.
According to Pro Football Focus, Mundy finished the year with a plus-2.6 grade against the pass, and he allowed 34 catches on 50 passes thrown his direction. Opposing quarterbacks registered just a 75.9 quarterback rating when targeting him in the passing game last season.
He fits in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme because of his ability against the run, but Fangio likes his safeties to be interchangeable. Mundy is a proven NFL starter, but he does not possess ideal range for the position in Fangio's scheme.
The Bears drafted Vereen in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, and the former Minnesota Gopher finished his rookie season with 39 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception. He made four starts, and according to Pro Football Focus, Vereen finished his rookie season with a minus-1.2 overall grade.
He showed flashes of his potential against both the run and the pass, and he could be one of the biggest surprises in training camp this summer.
Even though Mundy appears to be the front-runner for the starting job because of his strong play last season, Vereen lined up with the first-team defense at strong safety during OTAs.
"Mundy was lined up as the starter during the first wave of offseason workouts this year but was replaced by Vereen at the start of OTAs," wrote Jeremy Stoltz of BearReport.com.
The competition between Mundy and Vereen will be one of the most intriguing battles to watch during training camp, but because of his versatility, Vereen looks like the favorite to come away with the job.
Winner: Brock Vereen
Starting Inside Linebackers
Linebackers Mason Foster, Christian Jones, Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin are all competing for one of Chicago's two starting inside linebacker jobs this offseason.
Last week, I discussed the possibility of rotating the starters at inside linebacker based off the team the Bears were going against on a given week, but if Chicago opts to stick with just two starters for the season, the competition at the position will be one of the fiercest this summer.
Foster is a solid run defender who moves well laterally, while Bostic is a good downhill run defender. Jones and McClellin both have the ability to get after the quarterback as pass-rushers, but they both need to improve in pass coverage.
In four years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Foster started 54 games and registered 343 tackles, six sacks, 12 pass deflections and five interceptions. He is the most complete inside linebacker on the roster, and he should begin the season as one of the starters on the inside.
The other open position will come down to Jones, Bostic and McClellin.
Jones went undrafted last year but played in all 16 games with the Bears. He made five starts and finished the season with 69 tackles and two sacks. He is an athletic linebacker who plays well against the run and can blitz the quarterback, but he needs to improve against the pass.
The Bears took Bostic in the second round of the 2013 draft, but he has struggled to make a name for himself in the NFL. He looked lost at times on the field as a rookie, but he did show some improvement last season. He did not participate in the team's minicamps or OTAs due to an injury, but according to Arthur Arkush of ChicagoFootball.com, Fox expects Bostic to be ready for training camp.
Bostic is a good fit in Fangio's scheme because of his ability to attack downhill, but he has his limitations in the passing game.
McClellin moved to inside linebacker this offseason after spending the first two years of his career as a 4-3 defensive end and last season as a strong-side linebacker. He is an athletic linebacker who moves well from sideline to sideline and can attack the quarterback, but he needs to get stronger in order to be more effective against the run.
Jones has the most upside of all the inside linebackers on the roster, and he should be able to solidify a starting job during training camp and the preseason.
Winners: Mason Foster and Christian Jones
Starting Outside Linebacker
The Bears signed Pernell McPhee in the offseason to be one of the team's starters at outside linebacker in 2015, but the other starting job is wide-open.
As it currently stands, Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, David Bass and Sam Acho are all competing to be the team's starting outside linebacker opposite of McPhee.
Only Acho has previous experience playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, while Allen, Houston, Young and Bass are all converting from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker this offseason.
Allen is one of the most accomplished pass-rushers in NFL history, and the 11-year veteran has registered 134 sacks in his career. Last season, he struggled with a bout of pneumonia and finished the year with just 5.5 sacks. He feels the move to outside linebacker can help prolong his career.
“It’s less stress on my body,” Allen said, according to Jake Bartelson of ChicagoFootball.com. “[Standing up], and not banging on every play, it’s a little more refreshing from a physical standpoint. I think it all takes its toll, and it all helps.”
Both Houston and Young are coming off season-ending injuries, but only Houston appears to be on track to return during training camp.
"I want contact," Houston said, according to the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer. "That's one of the things I'm thirsting for—to actually get out there and hit somebody, to actually throw people around. It's not a curiosity. It's a hunger to do it."
Houston tore his ACL in late October celebrating his first sack of the season, but if he is healthy, he is one of the front-runners for the open outside linebacker job. He plays well against the run, is a disruptive pass-rusher and he has experience playing out of a two-point stance.
He needs to do a better job of finishing as a pass-rusher, but he could break out this season if healthy.
Young tore his Achilles in Week 16 against the Detroit Lions, and nothing has been said this offseason about when he will be ready to return. If Young cannot get healthy by the middle of training camp, he may end up on the physically unable to perform list once the regular season begins.
Bass is an intriguing option because of his athleticism, but he will also have to prove he can drop back in coverage if needed. He has a good motor, uses his hands well and is deceptively fast, but he needs to get stronger at the point of attack.
Acho registered 13 sacks in four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, and his experience should help him land at least a spot on the 53-man roster. He is solid against the run, but he registered just two total sacks between 2013 and 2014.
The competition at the outside linebacker position will be one to keep an eye on once training camp begins. Allen could claim the starting job with a strong showing in camp and in the preseason, but he may be better suited coming off the bench as a situational pass-rusher.
Bass has upside and Acho is experienced, but Houston is a more well-rounded player. He will need to get better as a pass-rusher, but he should be able to come away from training camp as one of Chicago's starting outside linebackers if he is healthy.
Winner: Lamarr Houston
Starting Defensive End
The Bears moved 2014 draft picks Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton to defensive end this season, and the young linemen are both in the running to be one of Chicago's starters at the 5-technique defensive end position in 2015.
Veteran Jeremiah Ratliff has the ability to play both inside at the 0-technique defensive tackle spot and outside at the 5-technique, and as long as 2015 second-round pick Eddie Goldman progresses at the nose tackle position, Ratliff will be a starter on the outside at defensive end.
If Ratliff is one of the starters at defensive end, Ferguson, Sutton and veteran Jarvis Jenkins will be competing in training camp for the other starting role.
Chicago drafted Ferguson in the second round of the 2014 draft, and he finished his rookie season with 23 tackles and two sacks. He appeared in all 16 games and was one of the team's top reserve defensive linemen. He was a good fit in Chicago's 4-3 defense at the nose tackle position, but the Bears feel he is a better fit on the outside at the 5-technique in their 3-4 defense.
Ferguson decided to slim down this offseason, and he believes his hard work has paid off.
“My overall quickness has improved. My reaction time is better," he said, per Beth Gorr of BearReport.com. "I feel more comfortable in lateral moves. Forward speed has a real burst now. That is pretty much the result I was hoping for when I decided to work this hard during the offseason.”
If Ferguson can show on the practice field that he has improved, the Bears will have a hard time keeping him out of the starting lineup this season.
Sutton was an ideal fit in Chicago's Cover 2 defense as a 3-technique defensive tackle, but he will be playing out of position this season at defensive end. Even though he is moving to a completely new position, he knows he has to have the right attitude in order to be successful.
"You've just got to adjust," Sutton said, according to Kyle Nabors of ChicagoFootball.com. "Whatever they bring in, you've got to be coachable. You better come in with an open mind and be ready to work."
Sutton made five starts last season and appeared in 15 games. He finished his rookie year with 22 tackles. He was at his best at Arizona State playing in a one-gap defense, but he will have more responsibilities on the outside as a two-gap player.
He has a quick first step and uses his hands well, but he needs to improve against the run.
Jenkins is the most experienced defensive end on the roster. Washington selected Jenkins in the second round of the 2011 draft, and the former Clemson Tiger started 33 games during his time with the Redskins. He finished the 2014 season with 28 tackles, and he is a solid option on the outside against the run.
Ferguson, Sutton and Jenkins all have their flaws, but the Bears are going to have to lean heavily on all three this season. They will all get ample playing time, but Ferguson's athleticism, strength and ability against the run makes him the favorite to win the starting defensive end job in training camp.
Winner: Ego Ferguson
Matt Eurich is a Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.