Roquan Smith’s holdout casts a shadow over Matt Nagy’s debut in preseason opener
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It’s a virtual consensus that there should be fewer NFL preseason games rather than more of them. So the Bears-Ravens preseason opener in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio — the first of five exhibition games for the Bears — will be more like a glorified preseason finale than anything remotely close to the “dress rehearsal.”
Still, it’s football, it’s the NFL and it’s the Bears — three addictive elements that arguably will create more interest in Chase Daniel’s debut with the team than Cole Hamels’ debut with the Cubs on Wednesday night. Here are five things to watch when the Bears open the Matt Nagy era at 7 p.m. on Channel 5:
Barring a last-minute, Dexter Fowler-like entrance, first-round draft pick Roquan Smith will not be on the sideline — his contract holdout reached Day 17 on Wednesday.
In some circles, the Bears’ failure to unveil their prized inside linebacker on Brian Urlacher’s Hall of Fame weekend is an embarrassment that will derail general manager Ryan Pace’s rebuild. The reality is that the Bears don’t care about public perception and long have been impervious to embarrassment. The only bad optic that registers with this organization is empty seats at Soldier Field.
The Bears’ grand tradition of middle linebackers isn’t all rosy. The great Dick Butkus sued the organization for breach of contract with regard to improper medical care when he ended his career in 1974. Urlacher’s career ended on bad terms when he was lowballed by general manager Phil Emery in an unceremonious exit in 2013.
So the Bears aren’t going to fret about the “bad look” of Smith not being on the sideline for a preseason opener.
It’s all about the backups
Don’t expect to see Mitch Trubisky in this one — and in the unlikely event he does play, his appearance will be brief and likely as unfulfilling as it is unentertaining.
This game is mostly about evaluation and keeping your starters and regulars healthy.
So expect a heavy dose of backups and bottom-of-the-roster players, which could still be entertaining after seven months, two days, three hours and 57 minutes without a Bears game.
And, of course, the eternal debate of the preseason: If your third-team wide receiver beats their third-team cornerback on a throw from your third-team quarterback, did it really happen?
Players to watch
The preseason is rife with false positives, but not always. The Bears have had the usual impressive skill-position players in training camp. Rookie wide receivers Anthony Miller and Javon Wims and second-year receiver Tanner Gentry have made plays in practice. Tight end Adam Shaheen’s first game in the Nagy offense could be revealing.
On defense, outside linebacker Kylie Fitts has made an impact with Aaron Lynch missing most of camp with a hamstring injury. But he’s coming off an arm injury, which could affect his playing time. Undrafted rookie cornerback Kevin Toliver recently returned from a shoulder injury and is definitely a player to watch if he plays. Keep an eye on cornerback Michael Joseph, a Division III product (Dubuque) from Oswego who looks like he can play at this level.
But the pick to click seems to be running back Ryan Nall, an undrafted rookie from Oregon State with big-play ability. At 6-2, 237 pounds, Nall had touchdown runs of 89, 80, 75 and 66 yards in college.
Chase Daniel watch
Besides being a mentor for Trubisky, Daniel also is the Bears’ backup quarterback. And the Bears haven’t had a quarterback start all 16 games since Jay Cutler’s first season in Chicago in 2009.
So the preseason is pretty valuable for Daniel. He has started only two games and thrown 78 passes in the regular season in his eight seasons. But in 28 preseason games, he has a 90.9 passer rating (259-for-396, 65.4 percent, 2,859 yards, 7.2 yards per attempt, 20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions). His performance shouldn’t be ignored.
The Bears-Ravens game will be the first test of two major rule changes.
Lowering the helmet to initiate contact will be a 15-yard penalty and possible ejection. And the elimination of running starts on kickoffs is one of several tweaks designed to avoid high-speed contact on returns.
The officials will be the ones to watch on the helmet rule. It’ll be interesting to see how aggressive they are in calling penalties to set a tone for the season.
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