It’s unlikely there is a cutdown-to-53 move that’s going to change the course of the Bears’ 2013 season. J’Marcus Webb was a fringe player by the time he was cut Friday. There is no current need for either Jordan Palmer or Trent Edwards. Armando Allen-or-Michael Ford was a wash. It’s possible Fendi Onobun could suddenly emerge as the Jimmy Graham-type downfield threat, but someone still has to teach him how to catch the ball first. He’ll probably get the chance to learn that skill on the practice squad.
While the bottom half of the roster was the focus Friday, the upshot of the Bears’ final cutdown is that the upper half of their roster is improved over last year. Webb was their starting left tackle at this time last season. Now it’s two-time Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod. Lance Louis was the Bears’ best offensive linemen at this time last year, and even that looks like a position upgrade with rookie Kyle Long. He’s not there yet, but he’s given every indication that he’ll be there sooner rather than later. Tight end Kellen Davis epitomized — even moreso than Webb — the Bears’ faith in hope and potential to solve holes in their offense. Martellus Bennett is the real thing. He’s not Rob Gronkowski, but he’s the real thing.
The Bears still have a ton of question marks heading into the 2013 season — from Marc Trestman’s game management to Jay Cutler to Jon Bostic to the rest of the Bears’ defense. All these supposed upgrades could be neutralized and then some if the 30-and-over defensive core guys like Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman start to show their age.
But from what we’ve seen so far, it’s hard not to be encouraged that the Bears are moving forward. Here’s a capsule look at how they stand as they cut their roster to 53 players:
1. J’Marcus Webb cut himself. Rarely do you see such a clear example of that age-old roster aphorism. After losing his starting job and having his salary cut in half, Webb had three penalties in two games — two false-starts and a holding call (Webb had no penalties in the first two preseason games). It showed exactly why the former seventh-round pick deserved to be cut — he was hounded poor focus and nothing could light a fire under him. Some guys just don’t have it.
2. The offensive line is the Bears’ biggest upgrade. Bengals linebacker James Harrison could make a mockery of the optimism about the Bears’ rebuilt line by halftime of the season opener next week, but on paper, Jermon Bushrod-Matt Slauson-Roberto Garza-Kyle Long-Jordan Mills is a big improvement over 2012.
2a. Of the five starters from last year’s line, only Garza is currently starting in the NFL. Webb (Bears) and Lance Louis (Dolphins) both were cut. Chris Spencer (Titans) and Gabe Carimi (Buccaneers) are backups. The Bears’ three reserve linemen last year were Chilo Rachal, Chris Williams and Edwin Williams. Rachal (Cardinals) and Edwin Williams (Bears) were cut Friday. Chris Williams is in the running to start at left guard for the Rams.
3. Cutting Jordan Palmer was an easy call. Palmer impressively picked up the Trestman offense in a week and played well against the Browns and might have given Josh McCown a run for the No. 2 job if he had been with the Bears from the start of training camp. But the Bears don’t have room for a No. 3 quarterback on their 53-man roster — it’s a good sign that Trestman, a quarterback guru who had five quarterbacks in camp last week, including injured Matt Blanchard, appears to realize he will have to live with two quarterbacks in the room in today’s NFL. The Bears surely have kept Palmer’s number just in case. But almost any scenario in which he returns will not be a good one for the Bears.
4. There haven’t been any real surprises in the Bears final cuts. Armando Allen is good enough to be the No. 3 running back. But rookie Michael Ford showed more in the preseason — though if Devin Hester is the kick returner, Ford will have to find another special teams role (where Allen excelled).
5. The Bears still like Fendi Onobun. They just can’t afford to have too many developmental players on offense. Marquess Wilson could be the No. 3 receiver if Earl Bennett is not ready to go. Ford is still a project as the No. 3 running back. And Jordan Mills and Kyle Long are still learning even as starters on the offensive line. Onobun, who showed off his big-play athletic ability on a 20-yard catch against the Browns, also had two drops, including a deflected pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
‘‘He’s very defined as a developmental player,’’ Bears general manager Phil Emery said on the Bears-Browns radio broadcast. ‘‘There are a lot of skills there. but a lot of thigns he has to get better at.’’
6. This coaching staff loves potential but prioritizes performance. That’s why Ford and Wilson made the team and Onobun did not. All three are big-upside players. But, while Onobun flashed potential, Ford and Wilson performed. The Bears are willing to take more calculated risks. Projects like Kellen Davis or J’Marcus Webb can still make the team under Marc Trestman, but are unlikely to play such a vital role. (If rookies like Jordan Mills or Wilson can’t cut it, it’s unlikely this coaching staff will let those situations linger. They seem to see the same game we do more than the previous coaching staff.)
7. You have to feel sorry for Brandon Hardin, the affable Hawaiian who looks like he will miss his third consecutive season of football. He previously had season-ending injuries prior to his senior year at Oregon State (broken shoulder) and his rookie year with the Bears (neck). He was making good progress in a transition from college cornerback to safety at the time of his injury last season (the second preseason game). But after a second consecutive year without football, he struggled to get back where he was. He was a candidate for the practice squad if he had not suffered the injury.
8. In case you missed it, Emery said on the Bears radio broadcast Thursday night that he is not concerned about wide receiver Brandon Marshall’s absence or his hip. ‘‘He’s on the squad. He’s made the 53-man roster,’’ Emery said in jest to play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak and analyst Tom Thayer. ‘‘We’re just excited about [the offense] and Brandon’s role in that. He’ll have a very big role.’’ Emery said Marshall’s concerns about his role and the injury were out of frustration. ‘‘Bears fans should not be concerned that Brandon Marshall is out,’’ Emery said.
9. Safety Tom Nelson is one of the less-heralded cuts who could return if he is not picked up by another team. Nelson, the Hersey High School product who played in 24 games (three starts) over four seasons for the Bengals and Eagles (2009-12), made a late push for a roster spot. If the Bears lose a safety to injury — it seems to happen in this defense — Nelson has the special teams skills and experience to be an ideal fill-in.
10. Center Taylor Boggs and wide receiver Terrence Toliver are hanging in there. With Earl Bennett still recovering from a concussion, the Bears might be considering keeping seven wide receivers. Joe Anderson figures to have the sixth spot. But Toliver, who had six receptions for 49 yards against the Browns, is still in the picture.
Friday’s cuts should mean that rookie running back Michael Ford and third-year tight end Kyle Adams have made the team (though cuts by other teams could change everything). The Bears have effectively cut their roster to 56, so they have three more players to cut by Saturday (pending additions of free agents cut by other teams). Players still on the bubble include Toliver, center Taylor Boggs; defensive end Cheta Ozougwu; defensive tackle Corvey Irvin; linebacker J.T. Thomas; and cornerback C.J. Wilson.