Predicting Chicago Bears' Top Position Battles This Offseason
Position battles define the summer leading up to a season for most NFL teams.
For the Chicago Bears, the blistering summer heat of 2017 is more of an even split. Years of significant roster turnover orchestrated by general manager Ryan Pace mean more positions cemented before the summer begins.
As a brief example, nothing will change across the offensive line in Chicago this summer, nor will much alter at another strength such as linebacker.
Which isn't meant to suggest battles won't happen or earn the attention of fans. The Bears, after all, drafted a rookie quarterback and addressed positions of need such as wideout and corner with several names at each.
Even so, the Bears have a top-heavy depth chart at most positions. The general narrative might pump up a supposed battle more than it deserves, but there are spots where a battle will decide who starts, how the team performs and how the needs outlook around the roster progresses as Pace continues his build-through-the-draft approach.
Here's a look at the notable roster battles to watch in Chicago this summer.
6. Tight End
Tight end nudges running back here because three names have a serious shot at stealing every-down snaps.
Whereas the battle for change-of-pace snaps between rookie Tarik Cohen and others is interesting, the trio of Zach Miller, Dion Sims and rookie Adam Shaheen makes for some interesting angles.
Miller seems like the obvious starter until remembering he's 32 years old and only showed up in 10 games last year. Stretching back a bit further, he played in 15 in 2015 and four in 2011.
In fact, Sims and Shaheen could make Miller a cut candidate. Sims, a free-agent add, is one of the better blocking tight ends in the league who continues to develop as a receiver. Shaheen is a huge threat in the passing game who could see snaps right out of the gates, even getting labeled as Chicago's best draft pick by ESPN.com's Todd McShay.
"The Bears needed an infusion of youth at tight end, with Zach Miller turning 33 this season and coming off an injury. Shaheen, who ran an impressive 4.79 40 at 278 pounds, has the tools to develop into a difference-making starter in the NFL," McShay wrote.
If Shaheen can show well in the positional battle this summer, how the coaching staff decides to divvy up snaps, if not make cuts, is one of the more interesting situations on the roster.
This is the battle sure to get the most attention both nationally and perhaps locally this summer, to the point that it makes slapping it fifth here almost seem like blasphemy.
Still, it's hard to talk up the situation between Mike Glennon and rookie Mitchell Trubisky too much.
The Bears brought Glennon on as a stopgap solution. No matter what anyone says, Pace giving the veteran a deal with little in the way of guaranteed cash after the first year said it all—he's an upside option at 27 years old, but he is replaceable quickly if the future of the franchise presents himself.
And Trubisky might in time. He's 6'2" and 222 pounds with a live arm and good mobility, with perhaps his most alluring trait being the ability to keep his eyes down the field while moving out of the pocket.
But Pace didn't approach the situation this way to seriously let Trubisky contend for a job as a rookie. He's the potential franchise quarterback with a veteran in front of him who can win games in the interim, meaning Trubisky likely sits on the bench for his entire rookie year, learning while otherwise maybe seeing some garbage-time snaps in blowouts.
Alas, failing to mention quarterback in a column like this could start a riot. And if Trubisky looks outstanding this summer while Glennon falters under the pressure of someone breathing down his neck, well, Pace has a rather unexpected problem on his hands. But it's a problem many around the league would love to have.
An infusion of rookie talent makes the returners on special teams an interesting battle to watch.
Deonte Thompson returned 35 kickoffs last year for 804 yards, though what might stick in the minds of fans are his fumbling issues. Eddie Royal and a handful of others handled the duties on punts to little fanfare.
The outlook changes with the arrival of the aforementioned Cohen and possibly defensive back Eddie Jackson.
At the least, the explosive Cohen should take part in a competition on special teams, even if the idea of trotting out a 5'6", 179-pound returner doesn't seem like the best idea.
Jackson was an outstanding punt returner at Alabama, though again this one has some issues—normally trotting out a defensive back on returns isn't the best idea unless the guy is as great as say, Adam Jones. Add in the fact Jackson might be fighting for a starting safety role and it's hard to know if the Bears will let him win the job.
Either way, whoever flashes on returns will decide roster spots. Thompson isn't a lock to stick around after additions at wideout unless he shows some versatility. The same fate could chase a guy like running back Ka'Deem Carey, among others.
3. Wide Receiver
The impending battle at wideout might be the most interesting of any this summer in Chicago, though the impact might pale in comparison to the two ranked above it here.
Chicago still awaits the breakout year from Kevin White, who flashed last season before his body again failed to handle the rigors of the pro game. But the staff don't need to wait on Cameron Meredith, who led the team in receiving last year and on paper should blow up in 2017 if lucky enough to have consistent quarterback play.
Behind those two is where things get interesting. Guys like Thompson, Eddie Royal, Rueben Randle and Josh Bellamy might have to fight for jobs this summer after the additions of free agents such as Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton has a spotty track record as a pro in large part because he was buried on Pittsburgh's depth chart. At his best in 2015, though, he turned 44 catches into 749 yards and five scores. Wright is the same largely due to inconsistency issues, yet his best years as a pro in Tennessee came under the watchful eye of current Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.
If both guys mesh well with Glennon, it's going to be hard to keep them off the field. Wheaton can keep defenses honest by stretching them vertically, and Wright can make less athletic defenders look silly out of the slot.
No matter who wins out, Glennon wins—the improved depth at the position should produce one of the better wideout corps the Bears have fielded in years.
Like wideout, Pace went out of his way to improve the depth at cornerback this offseason.
Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper are the new faces at the position, welcome additions given their strength and how defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes to play his boundary guys close at the line.
Amukamara only graded as the 43rd corner in the NFL at Pro Football Focus last year, while Cooper had a down year and landed 106th. But both are major upgrades for a Bears depth chart seeking quality and actual fits.
Amukamara is hungry to show he's No. 1 corner material after an up-and-down career so far, and Cooper shouldn't see such a heavy dosage of targets like he did last year while opponents avoided Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu (he was targeted 97 times in 2016).
Both guys will compete for starting boundary jobs, though it's important to keep Kyle Fuller in mind. He missed last year, but it's easy to forget he had a superb sophomore campaign and slotted as the No. 39 corner at PFF.
The slot and nickel competition offers other intrigue. Cre'von LeBlanc and others offer upside, but they also endanger the futures of guys like B.W. Webb and Johnthan Banks.
At the least, this is a far better outlook than the Bears have had in years past at cornerback heading into the summer.
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise—Chicago fielded some of the worst safeties in the NFL last year.
Adrian Amos finished as the 27th-graded safety at PFF, which seems generous given the performance of the defensive backfield as a whole. Harold Jones-Quartey finished 67th and Deon Bush 75th.
Hence, Pace possibly finding two new starters this offseason. One is free-agent add Quintin Demps, who finished 12th on the same list at PFF. Though over 30 years old, Demps didn't play more than 354 snaps over the first four years of his career and tallied six interceptions a year ago, meaning he's an immediate starter and upgrade.
More interesting is the aforementioned Jackson, who could easily beat out others on the roster for the starting gig next to Demps right away. His strong instincts and impressive range as a center fielder make this possible, if not an upgrade.
Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune spoke with Nick Saban about Jackson's strengths, in which instincts and range were consistent topics:
"I call it 'athletic intuition' to have those kind of innate instincts to be able to track the ball, play the ball, anticipate where the ball is going, know where the reception area is. That's one of the things Eddie always did well. People say the ball just comes to him. It doesn't come to him. He gets in the right place so he gets the ball."
When it comes to positional battles this summer, none other will have the impact of those in the secondary. Pace entered the offseason aiming to overhaul the units as he had others such as linebacker in the past.
Now all he can do is sit back and watch the additions fight it out while forming the best 2017 roster possible.