By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Bears football is back! Well, sort of.
For the first time in just more than seven months, the team that wears your favorite colored laundry will play a game in which the score is kept this Friday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. Chicago and Philadelphia will tangle at 7 p.m. at Soldier Field.
For the Bears’ first-team offense and defense, this preseason game amounts to nothing more than a dress rehearsal. But it holds value for players in the middle and bottom-third of the roster. Teams must trim their rosters to 75 on Aug. 26, so NFL hopefuls must maximize every opportunity they’re presented.
The Bears have a top-heavy roster, and their depth is already being challenged on offense. There are several noteworthy battles underway, so here are five storylines to focus on during the game.
Backup running back
Competitors: Shaun Draughn, Michael Ford, Ka’Deem Carey, Senorise Perry, Jordan Lynch
For six seasons, the Bears have benefited from Matt Forte’s durability, versatility and productivity. In 2013, Forte accounted for 32 percent of the Bears’ total yards. Not only is Forte the bell cow in the run game, he’s relied upon as both a pass catcher and protector. If Forte were to become unavailable for any period of time, who would the Bears turn to?
Considering how much the Bears throw the ball in camp and the fact that there is no tackling, it’s been difficult to get a read on the competition. Thus, this job will be determined during preseason action with an emphasis on evaluating who performs best in pass protection, short yardage and special teams.
Competitors: Jordan Palmer, Jimmy Clausen, David Fales
Make no mistake about it, there’s no Josh McCown on the current roster. Inking Jay Cutler to a franchise quarterback-level contract has limited both the remaining cap dollars for the position as well as the practice repetitions. Cutler has been taking reps with not only the first team, but second and third as well.
While he’s listed as the second-stringer on the depth chart, Palmer hasn’t been impressive in camp. He lacks arm strength and has a hesitation about pushing the ball into intermediate and deep passing zones.
Jimmy Clausen, currently listed as the third-stringer, has a noticeably stronger arm than Palmer and has demonstrated more of a willingness to squeeze passes into closing windows down the field. Let’s see if his confidence carries over into live action.
No. 3 wide receiver
Competitors: Eric Weems, Josh Morgan, Josh Bellamy, Chris Williams, Michael Spurlock, Armanti Edwards, Dale Moss, Greg Herd
When you combine the Bears preference for running 11 personnel — 56 percent of snaps in 2013, per ProFootballFocus — with no definitive return date for Marquess Wilson (broken clavicle), the competition for the third wide receiver role has become one of the biggest storylines in camp.
The question now becomes, is the eventual third wide receiver currently on the roster?
Both Alshon Jeffery and Wilson have missed time in camp, and Eric Weems has been the next man up. Despite being a six-year veteran, Weems has only 27 career receptions and has made his mark on special teams. Weems has the most familiarity with the system but has been inconsistent in practice.
Of the remaining options, Josh Morgan and Chris Williams need to make the most of their extra opportunities. Morgan is just two years removed from leading the Redskins in receptions. Williams is just two years removed from finishing second among CFL receivers in touchdowns and third in yardage.
The Bears worked out both Santonio Holmes and Ben Obomanu this week, but no contracts were offered. It’s likely the Bears will wait to see if anyone emerges in the preseason. With cutdowns more than two weeks away, rosters are bloated, but the market will soon be flooded with free agents.
Middle linebacker (Mike), Strong-side linebacker (Sam)
Competitors: Jon Bostic, D.J. Williams, Shea McClellin, Christian Jones
Please note: Khaseem Greene is not mentioned, as he’s a weak-side (Will) linebacker.
All offseason, the focus was on improving the talent level along the defensive front and secondary. However, the linebacker position was just as unsettled.
Outside of Will linebacker Lance Briggs, there has been a shuffle at the Mike and Sam positions, involving Bostic, Williams and McClellin.
In their nickel package (subbing out a linebacker with a defensive back), Bostic looks to be entrenched alongside Briggs. In their base package (three linebackers), Bostic, Williams and McClellin have all rotated at both Mike and Sam.
Ideally, the Mike linebacker in base is a veteran who can get the defense properly aligned, so that points to Williams. But Bostic, who struggled as a rookie, looks to be playing with more confidence and better instincts.
McClellin is getting the most reps at Sam, but he’s still having issues against the run. Transitioning to linebacker, his reads and run fits are different, but his biggest problem remains disengaging from single blocks.
The wild card here is Jones, the undrafted rookie from Florida State. Jones is the most physically gifted of the group, but he’s green. Typically when a player plays multiple positions in college — as Jones did — that means football intelligence may be an issue. Locking Jones in at Sam and seeing how he responds is the right plan. Jones can also make an impact on special teams coverage units.
Competitors: Ryan Mundy, Brock Vereen, Adrian Wilson, Danny McCray, M.D. Jennings
General manager Phil Emery said the safety competition was “wide open,” and it certainly has been in camp. Rightly so. More than any position on defense, there has been a constant rotation of player combinations at safety.
“The jobs, to some degree, are interchangeable,” coach Marc Trestman said after the Bears Family Fest practice.
Accordingly, the Bears have used pairings with two strong safeties (known as a “big” safety package), as well as the traditional free and strong safeties and deployed them all as both single-high and box defenders.
Mundy looks to have an inside track to one of the starting positions. However, this week Wilson and McCray have run with the ones. The rookie Vereen started camp with the first team, so this is still a fluid situation.
Keep an eye on what pairings the Bears play and how defensive coordinator Mel Tucker deploys them.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin