Durkin: Bears Bubble Watch
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By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Traditionally, the preseason finale sees starters on the sidelines watching a field full of NFL hopefuls making their final case for a spot on the final 53-man roster, which will be finalized this Saturday by 3 p.m.
Given their poor performance against the Seahawks and the fact that positions remain unsettled in all three phases, one could make a solid case for Bears starters getting work in Thursday night against the Browns in Cleveland. If history is any indicator, the starters will rest.
With 75 players currently on the roster, 22 players will have their fates decided over the course of the next few days. From that point of view, here are some players on the bubble who need to make a positive final impression.
Wide receiver Chris Williams
At the outset of camp, Williams was thought to have the inside track as the primary kick and punt returner and be a contributor in four-wide personnel groupings. Williams flashed suddenness and quickness as a route runner and had a splash play in the preseason opener against the Eagles, but he pulled his hamstring in the process.
After missing the last two games, Williams needs to make an impact both on special teams and as a wide receiver to secure a spot on the roster. As a returner, special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis singled out ball security as the primary factor, which puts pressure on Williams, who muffed a few punts during camp.
Offensive linemen Michael Ola, Dennis Roland and Taylor Boggs
The Bears will dress only seven offensive linemen on game day. Early in camp, the rotation seemed to be fairly clear, with the five starters (Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long, Jordan Mills) and guard/center Brian de la Puente and guard/tackle Eben Britton.
Injuries to starters (Long, Mills) and backups (Britton, de la Puente) quickly challenged the depth of this group and could force the Bears to keep 10 offensive linemen to start the season, something they haven’t done under general manager Phil Emery.
With Mills and Britton on the shelf, the Bears have been given an extended look at players like Ola and Roland. Ola has been praised by coaches and teammates for his footwork, which is a boon for his pass protection sets, but has looked overmatched at times.
Roland, who has 30 career starts, has had a steady preseason and earned the right to be considered as a backup at right tackle.
Boggs was active for all 16 games 2013, but the Bears brought in de la Puente to be the swing player on the interior this year and likely take over as the starting center in 2015. However, de la Puente’s knee injury has made evaluations difficult, leaving the door cracked open for Boggs.
Defensive ends Austen Lane, Cornelius Washington and David Bass
Emery mentioned the possibility of keeping 10 defensive linemen in 2014, which would be a first, as he kept nine on his first two rosters.
When Nate Collins was released, that assured rookies Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton will be active every game. With Sutton and Ferguson backing up starters Stephen Paea and Jeremiah Ratliff, the Bears may go into the season with only four defensive tackles. The caveat here is Lamarr Houston has the ability to play inside, so he could be considered the fifth defensive tackle.
Either way, the Bears are likely to keep five — perhaps even six — defensive ends. This puts players like Lane, Washington and Bass under the microscope heading into Thursday’s game.
Lane is a five-year veteran who spent two years with Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker in Jacksonville. Lane hasn’t done much as a pass rusher, but he’s been stout at creating a hard edge against the run.
Washington, a 2013 sixth-round selection, has also been strong against the run in the preseason. Against the Eagles, he was even used as a gunner on the punt team. Versatility is key for bottom-of-the-roster players, so a few standout plays on special teams could boost Washington’s stock.
Bass was claimed off of waivers before the start of last season and ended up logging over 300 snaps. However, the new additions the Bears brought in along the defensive line pushed him down the depth chart. In the Seahawks game, Bass logged only eight snaps, so he will have to make the most of his opportunities against the Browns to keep a spot on the roster.
Linebacker Jerry Franklin
Three games into the preseason, the Bears are still searching for their core special teams players. Along with cornerback Sherrick McManis and safety Ryan Mundy, Franklin leads the Bears with three special teams tackles. Linebacker Jordan Senn was brought in to anchor the special teams, but he’s since been cut.
In 2012, the Bears kept seven linebackers. In 2013, they kept six linebackers. With the top five seemingly intact (Lance Briggs, Jon Bostic, D.J. Williams, Shea McClellin and Khaseem Greene), Franklin has a legitimate opportunity to win a roster spot with another strong special teams performance.
Cornerback C.J. Wilson
The Bears released cornerback Isaiah Frey on Tuesday to get down to the 75-man limit. In doing so, the Bears are now down to only two draft picks — McClellin and Alshon Jeffery — from Emery’s first draft class. Additionally, they created an opportunity for Wilson, who has two preseason interceptions and has played on kickoff coverage and return teams.
Both years, Emery has kept a total of 10 players in the secondary; he’s just used different combinations or cornerbacks and safeties. In 2012, he kept five of each. In 2013, he kept six cornerbacks and four safeties. Looking at the roster now, it appears the Bears will enter the season with four safeties, which potentially leaves a spot for Wilson.
The preseason finale may only appeal to the most hardcore Bears fans, but for the personnel department and coaching staff, many tough decisions may become easier based on how these bubble players perform.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.