The cutdown to the 53-man roster will be the focus of this week, as most of the Bears’ key players are expected to make only token appearances if they play at all in the preseason finale against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday at Soldier Field.
But while the decision to keep either Fendi Onobun or Kyle Adams is critical to Fendi Onobun and Kyle Adams, the Bears’ have more pressing concerns near the top of their roster with the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals 13 days away. The availability of defensive tackle Henry Melton and wide receiver Earl Bennett — both recovering from concussions — is at the top of the list.
Here’s a first-and-10 look at where the Bears stand heading into the final preseason game:
1. Henry Melton is improving but still not back at practice. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle has not played or practiced since suffering a concussion early in the preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers on Aug. 9. Nate Collins has been more than adequate as a fill-in during the preseason, but once the bell rings on Sept. 8, the Bears certainly will miss Melton if he’s not there. He is getting better and was at practice Monday. But the Bears still don’t know if he’ll be ready to go against the Bengals.
2. Earl Bennett’s availability for the opener is in question. Bennett has not played or practiced since suffering a concussion on Aug. 3. While Melton will have no problem fitting into a defense that is basically the same as it was last year, Bennett’s return is complicated by the fact that the Bears are installing a new offense and blocking scheme under head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. He not only will have to get himself back in game shape, but he’ll be learning the nuances of a new offense.
3. Josh McCown isn’t as bad as he looks. McCown has not inspired confidence with a shaky preseason performance. He was 5-of-9 for 42 yards and an interception for a 28.2 passer rating against the Raiders. His passer rating for the preseason is 44.9 with no touchdowns and the one interception. But it’s not easy playing with the second and third units. Linebacker Jon Bostic and offensive linemen Kyle Long and Jordan Mills also have struggled with that second unit, but look like productive starters with the first team. Then again, I thought Caleb Hanie would ably fill Cutler’s shoes in 2010, based on the same premise. That prediction couldn’t have gone down in flames more disastrously than it did.
4. No big surprises in Bears’ firs cuts. There were some noteworthy names — Tom Zbikowski, Devin Aromashodu and Leonard Pope in particular — but the 14 players the Bears cut Sunday didn’t raise any eyebrows. The only surprise perhaps is that Zbikowski didn’t get much of a chance at safety and didn’t make a big impact on special teams after signing with his hometown team. In general, the Bears won’t have very many decisions in establishing a 53-man roster that will come back to haunt them.
5. The tight end situation remains in flux. Martellus Bennett will be a downfield threat and looked like a pretty good blocking tight end Friday night. Steve Maneri will play the Matt Spaeth blocking role. After that the Bears might have a big decision to make — do they keep Fendi Onobun, the former basketball player who has big-play potential in this offense but still is learning how to catch the football? Or do they keep Kyle Adams, who does a lot of things well but nothing great. Considering Jay Cutler needs to have as many players that he can count on as possible, don’t be surprised if Adams sticks again.
6. Marquess Wilson is a keeper. The 20-year-old rookie from Washington State was given quality first-team reps against the Raiders, was targeted three times and had one catch for 14 yards. With Devin Hester now a dedicated kick returner, the Bears have less room on their roster for projects (like Fendi Onabun), but Wilson has too much size and potential to pass up. And it’s way too risky to try and sneak a player of his caliber on the practice squad.
7. J’Marcus Webb is on the wrong side of the bubble. If the Bears are going to keep eight offensive linemen as they have indicated and Jonathan Scott is healthy, Webb is battling Eben Britton for the eighth spot. The first seven are starters Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, plus reserves Scott and James Brown. The normally effusive Webb has been turning down interview requests since his contract was cut in half last week. That salary cut might be enough to keep him on the roster, but this coaching staff seems to know when a player is more trouble than he’s worth.
8. The Bears offense believes. Judgments are difficult to make in the preseason, but one factor that is real is how much the key players in this offense believe in the coaching staff and each other. It makes a difference. Asked about Matt Forte’s success, Cutler couldn’t help but throw in a bouquet for Trestman. ‘‘I think Marc’s done a great job of getting him outside and finding nifty ways to get him touches outside the box,’’ Cutler said. And the low-key Forte’s excitement about his offensive line is palpable. ‘‘They get better every week,’’ he told me. ‘‘Especially the two rookies [Kyle Long and Jordan Mills]. They’re just learning right now. They want to learn and that’s the good part about it. They’re just getting better every week.’’
9. What can the Bears do with Michael Ford? The undrafted rookie has made an impact in the preseason as a kick returner and a running back. Unless that’s a mirage (Last year, Lorenzo Booker had a 105-yard kickoff return in the preseason and didn’t make the team), Ford figures to beat out Armando Allen for the third running back spot. The trick will be finding a way for him to contribute, with Hester as the primary kick returner and Forte and Michael Bush dominating the backfield carries. One thing is for sure: if he makes the team, Trestman will give him a chance to contribute.
10. Brandon Marshall bears watching. As good as he is, Marshall has a cloud hovering over his prolific career — he’s made the Pro Bowl four times with three different teams, but never has played in a playoff game. Last year he set Bears single-season records for receptions (118) and receiving yards (1,508), yet the Bears dropped from 24th to 28th in total offense — another red flag.
Marshall has overcome a lot of personal adversity to get this far, which is admirable, but there always seems to be something holding him back from team success. When Jay Cutler started throwing the ball to other receivers against the Raiders on Friday night, Marshall wasn’t just out of the picture. He suddenly looked like an average receiver — with two or three drops, including an inexcusable one on third-and-four in the first quarter. It’s as if his focus wanes when he’s not the center of attention, which could be a problem if Marshall’s numbers drop as Trestman’s diversified offense takes off.