CHARLOTTE (CBS) As you watch tonight’s preseason game between the Bears and Panthers, please keep in mind one important thing:
The veteran starters don’t matter.
They really don’t. You’ll be furious if Jay Cutler drops back on the first play from scrimmage and throws an interception, but I guarantee you Marc Trestman will barely bat an eye.
The only way a veteran starter matters tonight is if he gets hurt. And that’s exactly why some of them won’t play at all, and the ones that do will be extremely limited.
Tonight is about rookies, position battles and making the 53-man roster. Here are ten players to watch closely:
RG James Brown – The second-year undrafted free agent has done a great job holding off promising first-round draft pick Kyle Long for the starting right guard position. In fact, this week he started to receive more reps with the first team and may be taking the upper-hand on the job. Coaches will be watching the preseason games closely though, mainly because you can’t hit the quarterback in practice. Brown has to have a clean game tonight and that includes pre-snap penalties.
RG Kyle Long – Speaking of pre-snap penalties, those are something that Long has been guilty of too much in practice. Otherwise, he’s already proven he’s physical enough to be a starter, he’s just working on improving his technique, understanding the assignments and being disciplined at the line of scrimmage. Long still has a lot of catching up to do if he’s going to edge Brown at right guard. The preseason games are important for him.
LB Jon Bostic – Bostic is an interesting case tonight. He’ll start at middle linebacker with D.J. Williams out, but one would think he would play more than most of the starters because he’s still a rookie. At the same time, however, Williams’ calf has shown little improvement thus far and the Bears might not want to risk losing Bostic. They may need him to start in the regular season. Either way, it will be interesting to see how he performs in his first NFL action.
CB Isaiah Frey – With Kelvin Hayden suffering a season-ending hamstring injury, Frey will get the first crack at becoming the No. 1 nickelback. The 2012 sixth-round draft pick has looked good in camp so far and the Bears will give him a chance to win the job. They may eventually seek outside help, but even if they do, don’t assume that means Frey still can’t win the job. Asking a sixth-round draft pick to be your No. 1 nickelback in Year 2 of his career is not that crazy. In fact, if your college scouting department is doing its job at a high level, it should be expected.
S Brandon Hardin – The 2012 third-round pick has essentially missed two full years of football and it will be interesting to see how he handles live action again. The secondary has had almost zero contact in practices so far, so tonight will be an adjustment, especially for a guy who suffered a neck injury the last time he attempted to make a tackle in a game. Hardin could be on the outside looking in right now and needs to show off his speed and athleticism in a game.
DT Zach Minter – The Bears are thin on the defensive line, but there may be potential help inside the organization with undrafted free-agent Zach Minter from Montana State. At a questionable 6-1, 297, Minter doesn’t necessarily look the part, but he has a high motor and has been noticeable at practice almost every single day. He fits into the nose tackle mold and has a chance to make the team.
CB Demontre Hurst – Another reason why the Bears may not be in a panic to add outside help at cornerback is Demontre Hurst. He fits as a nickel corner and the Bears like him. It’s hard to judge practice reps against third-string wide receivers, however, and that still could be a challenge tonight against the Panthers’ third-stringers, but at least it’s a live game with tackling.
RB Michael Ford – It’s still hard to tell if there’s a legitimate competition going on between Armando Allen and Michael Ford for the No. 3 running back spot, but the undrafted rookie from LSU has looked good in practice. He also appears to be a dangerous kick returner and could help in that area if needed. Tonight’s game will help clarify how much of a competition is going on there and how valuable Ford could be to this team.
OT Jordan Mills – The fifth-round pick from Louisiana Tech has received some valuable reps alongside Kyle Long with the second team. Mills has shown flashes of potential at right tackle, but still needs to improve his footwork. He could potentially become the fourth tackle on the 53-man roster and should receive a good amount of playing time tonight as the coaches find out what they have with him.
DE Cornelius Washington – The sixth-round pick from Georgia has had a quiet training camp and that’s not usually a good thing for a defensive lineman, especially when you consider the lack of depth the Bears have the position. Of course, Washington hasn’t looked bad either and the defensive linemen can’t really rush 100 percent in practice. He should play a lot against the Panthers and it will be interesting to see how he grades out.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.