Chicago Bears: 5 Roster Battles to Watch Going Into Training Camp

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Training camp is the time when roster spots are won and lost. Many players come in with high aspirations, but only 53 can make the final roster. This is no different for the Chicago Bears. There are is a variety of competition throughout the roster, but five specific battles stand out.

1. Middle Linebacker: D.J. Williams vs. Jon Bostic

When the Bears chose not to re-sign future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, the team left a huge hole in the middle of their defense. Veteran D.J. Williams was signed as a one-year spot starter to temporarily man the position, but the Bears went a step further and drafted Jon Bostic out of Florida in the second round of the draft.

Williams comes into training camp as the starter, but his contract isn’t hefty enough to guarantee him a roster spot if the rookie overtakes him for the starting job. Even if Bostic wins the starting job, it is unlikely that the Bears would release him unless he requested it.

Prediction: Williams is the starter, Bostic is the backup.

2. Backup Safties: Brandon Hardin vs. Craig Steltz vs. Anthony Walters vs. Tom Zbikowski

Under Lovie Smith, the two Safety positions have been interchangeable, and new Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker has expressed his desire to keep things relatively the same. The Bears have typically kept only four safeties on the roster. Starters Major Wright and Chris Conte are locks to make the team — the other two spots are up for grabs.

Hardin was the team’s third round pick a year ago, but he was placed on injured reserve after a gruesome neck injury in the preseason. There are high hopes for him to become the third rotational safety and perhaps even nickelback. Steltz has been with the team is whole career as a backup and occasional starter. He is likely the favorite of the group to keep his backup spot.

Walters was an undrafted free agent signed by the Bears two years ago, and was on the practice squad before being elevated to the roster. He returned last year and was on the roster the entire season because of Hardin’s injury. Of the four in this battle, he appears to be the one with the most to prove.

The last of the four and the biggest wildcard is Zbikowski. He started 11 games for the Indianapolis Colts last season before suffering a knee injury, and he’s known for being a solid special teams player. However, there have been some questions about his dedication to football because of his professional boxing career.

Regardless, he still seems like a player who could make a large impact in the Bears secondary. Because of the injury histories of Hardin and Zbikowski, the Bears could opt to keep five Safeties. However, it’s impossible to know if they’ll have the extra roster spot available.

Prediction: Backups are Steltz, Hardin, and Zbikowski.

3. Center: Roberto Garza vs. Matt Slauson vs. P.J. Lonergan

This roster battle is a complicated one. Garza has been the team’s starting center the last two years, but his production dropped greatly last season. Pro Football Focus ranked him 30th among centers in 2012.  Many Bears fans were surprised to see the position unaddressed until undrafted free agent (UDFA) P.J. Lonergan signed.

Lonergan was a three-year starter at LSU, facing some of the toughest competition in college football, which is why many see great potential in the young center. Plus, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has experience making UDFA centers into starters, as he did with New Orleans Saints center Brian De La Puente. Still, it would be quite difficult for an undrafted free agent to unseat a 13-year veteran, all while trying to learn the ropes of being in the NFL.

The wildcard of the Center position comes from Slauson, who signed as a free agent. He was signed to play guard, but he has some experience at center from his time with the New York Jets. Albeit limited, it could still be enough to coax the team to move him to center if they are unsatisfied with their other options.

Another factor in his move is the development of guard James Brown. He was signed as an UDFA last season and started three games. If the team feels good enough about him being the starter, they could move Slauson to center in order to have the five best offensive lineman on the field, with rookie guard Kyle Long manning the other guard spot.

Prediction: Garza remains starter, Lonergan is backup.

4. Backup Wide Receiver: Earl Bennett vs. Marquess Wilson vs. Joe Anderson vs. Eric Weems vs. Devin Aromashodu

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have the number-one and number-two wide receiver spots, respectively, locked up. From there, it’s a mess. Bennett was the slot receiver last year while Weems, Anderson and Hester rotated in for the fourth, fifth spots. With Hester no longer taking offensive snaps, it leaves the backup spots more open then ever before.

Bennett was a teammate of quarterback Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt, and he followed him to Chicago where they reconnected and formed a bond.  Despite this scenario, his production has steadily declined, causing many Bears fans to hope he would be replaced. As it stands now, it is likely that Bennett keeps his spot as slot receiver, but it is in no way guaranteed — especially if the team’s younger receivers step up.

Marquess Wilson, the Bears’ 2013 seventh-round pick, is the biggest question mark entering camp. In college, he set Washington State’s all time receiving record, and he was a projected first round pick entering the 2013 college season. However, he left the team, citing allegations of abuse by head coach Mike Leach.

What remains to be seen is whether his immense talent will translate to the NFL and whether he is too problematic to keep on the roster. If he gets it together, he could challenge Bennett for that slot receiver spot.

The other young, prominent Bears wide receiver is Anderson. Signed as an UDFA, he was on the practice squad most of last season before being elevated to the 53-man roster. Although he made no catches, he impressed on special teams, a characteristic that will greatly increase his chances of sticking with the team.

Word out of minicamp was that he was impressive and his continued special-teams play makes him a likely member of the 53-man roster.

Next up in the battle is Weems who signed with team last year after a five-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons. The only “speed” receiver on the team, he’s never been a major offensive threat, with most of his notoriety coming from his kick returning.

With Hester back at full-time special teams, Weems is finding himself to be the odd man out. There are very few returning snaps left for him, so he must show more receiving threat and better special teams tackling ability if he’s going to stick around.

The final piece to this wide receiver puzzle is Aromashodu. Signed only recently — the tenth of June — he returns to Chicago after a two-year stint with the Minnesota Vikings.

He reportedly had great chemistry with Cutler back in 2010, and many have speculated that Cutler was the reason he was re-signed. He has never shown a whole lot as a wide receiver, but Bears fans may recall a spectacular game-winning, overtime touchdown against the Vikings in 2009.

He’s also known for his great blocking ability, making him more useful on special teams. Whether that is enough to keep him on the roster remains to be seen.

The Bears have traditionally only kept five wide receivers on the roster, but with offensive guru Marc Trestman running the show, they could opt to keep six or seven. The team has come along way from Smith declaring they have five number one receivers.

Prediction: No. 3 receiver – Earl Bennett, No. 4 receiver – Marquess Wilson, No. 5 receiver – Joe Anderson, No. 6 receiver – Devin Aromashodu.

5. Defensive End Rotation: Shea McClellin vs. Kyle Moore vs. Turk McBride vs. Cornelius Washington

The Majority of the time last season the Bears went with a four-man defensive end rotation with Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, Corey Wootton, and Shea McClellin. This year, Peppers and Wootton are the starters, but they have a group of guys competing to rotate in.

McClellin was the team’s first-round pick last season, but he underachieved and battled injuries, surmounting only  2.5 sacks in 13 games. Many fans hope he makes great strides this season and justifies his first-round selection. If he doesn’t, he could fall in line with many of the Bears recent first-round picks as a bust.

Moore and McBride were signed as free agents this offseason, hoping to join a defensive line that generated 38 of the team’s 41 sacks last season. Moore comes from the Buffalo Bills were he was able to generate three sacks and 14 tackles off the bench. McBride is a low-impact player who has the versatility to kick inside to tackle when needed, but his lack of production makes his a long shot for the roster.

Washington is another player with some question marks. He played 3-4 outside linebacker in college, but showed great pass-rushing ability. Many believed he was out of position in the 3-4, and apparently Emery did too, when he drafted him in the sixth round this year.

He has a lot of potential but has little experience at the 4-3 defensive end position. If he finds comfort in his new position, he could prove to be an excellent pass-rusher and find himself some snaps along this defensive line. It is worth noting that the Bears have typically kept five defensive ends.

Prediction: third defensive end – Shea McClellin, fourth defensive end – Kyle Moore, fifth defensive end – Cornelius Washington.

These roster battles, along with many others, loom over training camp. This competition typically brings out the best in players, and it should be fun to watch and see who steps up and who cracks under pressure. As they say, competition breeds excellence.