By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Ready or not, the next time the Bears suit up for a game, it counts.
With most starters and key backups donning baseball hats on the sidelines, Bears’ roster hopefuls dropped the preseason finale against the Cleveland Browns by a score of 33-13 on Thursday night. The pressure is now on the personnel department and coaching staff to finalize the 53-man roster by 3 p.m. this Saturday.
At this point of the preseason, it’s a numbers game. A player’s versatility will be a key factor in determining whether they make the final cut, particularly their willingness and ability to play special teams. Those who aren’t starters or part of a rotation must alter their mindset and embrace being core special team players.
One player who shined on special teams Thursday was rookie linebacker Christian Jones, who threw a key block that sprung Santonio Holmes’ 30-yard punt return and followed it up with a tackle on the kickoff coverage team.
It’s never been a matter of athleticism with Jones. He was widely considered to be one of the top-three inside linebacker prospects this past May, but some character concerns and a reported failed drug test led to him going undrafted.
Every year, players go undrafted for reasons other than their ability to play football, and every year, teams reap the benefits of their calculated risks. That very well may turn out to be the case for Jones and the Bears.
Currently, Jones may be the most natural Sam-backer on the roster, but he needs time to learn how to play the position at the NFL level. In the meantime, he could potentially hold down a spot as a core “A-player” on special teams.
Fellow defenders David Bass and Cornelius Washington also made their case for a roster spot. General manager Phil Emery previously mentioned the possibility of keeping 10 defensive linemen, which would be a first in his tenure with the Bears. However, if they do, the Bears may end up keeping six defensive ends, which gives Bass and Washington a fighting chance.
Bass made plays both as a pass rusher and run defender. In the first half, he was able to bend the edge with a touch-and-go swim move and flashed some closing speed to get to quarterback Johnny Manziel and strip the ball in the process. Bass also showed strength to hold the point against the run — two-gap technique — and the lateral quickness string a play out against the run. The Bears also gave Bass some snaps at three-technique, showing he has versatility along the defensive front.
Washington, a sixth-round pick from 2013, turned in his strongest performance in what has been a consistent preseason for him. Washington is learning to convert speed to power off the edge and dictate the engagement with blockers. He showed violent hands to jar blockers, counter moves to disengage and burst to close. Earlier in the preseason, Washington was also used as a gunner on punt coverage. On a team that lacks high-end young athletes, Washington is an intriguing prospect with upside.
On offense, two receivers who weren’t in uniform — Marquess Wilson and Micheal Spurlock — still figured into the equation. Wilson’s status remains a mystery. Do the Bears reserve a spot for him on the roster, which would allow them to activate him at any point but force them to cut someone else? Or do they use their one injured reserve/designated for return exemption on Wilson? If they went that latter route, he would be eligible to return Nov. 9 against the Packers. Only the Bears know what his recovery timeline is, but he has a large impact on how the roster is shaped.
Under Emery, the Bears have twice kept six receivers to start the season. With the top four seemingly set — Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Josh Morgan and Santonio Holmes — and Wilson’s status up in the air, there’s a tough decision looming with the sixth spot.
Spurlock getting the night off was a curious decision, and surely he can’t be considered a lock to make the team. However, sitting Spurlock gave the Bears an opportunity to evaluate other receivers like Josh Bellamy and Chris Williams.
Holmes’ performance Thursday could serve as a confidence boost personally, as well as for the offense and special teams. Holmes flashed first-step suddenness and play-making skills, making decisive up-field cuts. On a third-down catch, Holmes was led back to the sidelines, where he evaded a tackler and sprint 32 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.
Bellamy had a huge first half, catching all four of his targets for 78 yards and also drawing a 37-yard pass interference call. Whether that performance was enough to get Bellamy on the roster remains to be seen. Williams was targeted four times, catching two balls for 14 yards, and had three kickoff returns for 81 yards.
Rookie quarterback David Fales started and finished the game in Cleveland. Fales was decisive and showed good ball placement in the first half, but his accuracy and decision making waned in the second half.
One can assume that by cutting Jordan Palmer and giving Fales the start, the Bears have a spot on the roster reserved for Fales. Make no mistake about it, Fales isn’t ready for live action, but he could be viewed as a developmental prospect who could be a reliable backup.
Quarterbacks are a scarce commodity in the NFL. Even with an up-and-down performance yesterday, the Bears would be taking a big gamble if the cut Fales and hoped he cleared waivers.
Clearly, the Bears didn’t answer all the questions about their team this preseason. Alas, on Sunday, Sept. 7 when the Bills come to town, the final score matters.
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