Three position battles — not counting quarterback — we’ll be watching when the Bears scrimmage at Soldier Field on Saturday:
Running back: Ryan Nall vs. Artavis Pierce
David Montgomery’s groin injury is expected to cost him weeks, not months. That might eliminate the need for a signing — and the attraction level for a potential free agent.
If the Bears carry their four healthy running backs into Week 1, then Pierce or Nall could be in line for carries. Tarik Cohen has carried the ball more than nine times only once under coach Matt Nagy, and Cordarrelle Patterson, a receiver by trade, has never had more than 11 rushes in a game.
More than anyone on the roster, Nall is hurt by the lack of preseason games. In nine exhibition games in his three seasons with the team, he has run 56 times for 358 yards and caught 14 passes for 80 more. Still, that earned him only two regular-season carries, both last year.
Last week, running backs coach Charles London praised Nall’s versatility, saying he played “a little H-back/tight end type role in college, he played fullback, he played running back.” The Bears might have a similar role in mind for him this year.
Pierce — another Oregon State alum — matches Montgomery’s versatility better than anyone else in the running backs room. The 5-11, 208-pound undrafted free agent led the Beavers with 873 rushing yards last season, averaging six yards per carry, and caught 23 passes for 169 yards.
This likely will be the most gamelike action for him in more than seven months, dating to his appearance in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl all-star game in January.
Cornerback: Jaylon Johnson vs. Buster Skrine
The Bears drafted Johnson to start at outside cornerback for at least the next four years. As Johnson ramps up his return from shoulder surgery in March, it’s fair to wonder whether it will happen in Week 1.
If not, Skrine, who was the team’s nickel cornerback last year, could start at the outside cornerback spot opposite Kyle Fuller. He said he has been taking reps there during camp.
“If they want me to play corner, I’ll play corner,” Skrine said. “They want me to play nickel? I’ll play nickel.”
Or he could play both. Skrine could play outside when the team needs only two corners and move inside to the slot — with Johnson taking the field to play outside cornerback — in nickel coverage. Skrine said he did exactly that in his third seasons with the Browns and Jets.
Johnson seems to have the edge over Kevin Toliver. The two started camp in a three-man competition, only for cornerback Artie Burns to tear his knee in the first week of padded practice.
Skrine said Johnson, a rookie second-round pick, is approaching the game the right way.
“He does things before practice, after practice,” he said. “I mean, he’s attentive in meetings. And every time he’s out there, he’s making plays on the ball, so he’s doing a good job with the reps that he’s getting.”
Safety: Deon Bush vs. Tashaun Gipson
There’s no more intriguing starting competition than at strong safety, where the Bears are pitting the incumbent Bush against Gipson, who has 23 career interceptions but has been cut by his team the last two offseasons.
Safety is a position best judged during game play. Saturday will be as close as the Bears get to that feeling before Week 1 against the Lions.
“I absolutely believe that I’m still a starting safety in this league, that I’m a productive starter in this league,” Gipson said. “So I would like to always bet on myself vs. anybody, no matter who I’m in competition with.
“And I’m sure if you ask Deon the same thing, he should say the same thing,. So obviously it’s what you do out there. I could sit and tell you all day, but it’s [defensive coordinator] Chuck [Pagano] and coach Nagy — those guys are the guys that make those decisions. So what we do out there is obviously going to determine that.”