Fourth preseason game big for plenty of Bears
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To the handful of players fighting for their professional lives, Thursday night's fourth and final preseason game is anything but meaningless.
Most of the Bears starters won't do much more than get dressed and go through pregame warm-ups prior to the 7 p.m. exhibition against the Browns at Soldier Field. But that leaves plenty of playing time for backups who survived Sunday's first wave of cuts and hope to still be professional football players when the roster is slashed from 75 to 53 two days after the last preseason game.
Coach Marc Trestman and his staff may already know what their Opening Day starting lineup will be even before kickoff against the Browns, and they'll have all but a couple of the 53 roster spots determined. But at almost every position there are question marks about which backups will make it, providing interesting battles.
Numbers in parentheses represent players at each position the Bears had on their 2012 Opening Day roster.
Matt Blanchard has been groomed since the start of the off-season as the No. 3 behind Jay Cutler and Josh McCown. But his fractured left hand forced the Bears to sign veterans Trent Edwards and Jordan Palmer. Blanchard is still eligible for the practice squad, which is where he's likely to begin the season. Coaches then must decide which, if either, of the veterans they keep as insurance in case disaster strikes. The final game will be crucial, since Edwards and Palmer will split most, if not all, of the playing time.
Running back: (4)
Undrafted rookie Michael Ford has made the most of his opportunities to unseat last year's No. 3 Armando Allen, who has missed the past two weeks with a hamstring injury. The 5-foot-10, 216-pound Ford is bigger and stronger than the 5-8, 190-pound Allen, and he showed nifty skills last Friday night against the Raiders, rushing for 58 yards on 9 carries. A week earlier he had a 100-yard kickoff return. Tony Fiammetta is the only true fullback on the roster, and he has been impressive as a lead blocker.
Wide receiver (6):
Earl Bennett has missed three weeks with a concussion, leaving a void behind starters Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Joe Anderson had the best training camp of the contenders.
Veteran Eric Weems is a valuable special teams player and has some experience as an extra receiver.
Marquess Wilson was a seventh-round pick, which doesn't always guarantee a roster spot, but he's only 20 and has flashed exciting potential as a big-play option, so the Bears will make every effort to develop him, although he could land on the practice squad. The Bears like the size of 6-foot-5 Terrence Tolliver, but he's competing with Brittan Golden and Josh Lenz.
Tight end (3):
Starter Martellus Bennett is an every-down player, while the players jockeying behind him are more one-dimensional. Because blocking is likely to be valued more than anything else among the backups, the 6-7, 280-pound Steve Maneri seems safe. Versatile Kyle Adams is valuable as a special teams player, and the Bears love the athleticism of former basketball player Fendi Onobun, but his pass-catching has been a huge disappointment.
Offensive line (8):
No position is more clouded than O-line when it comes to backups. All indications are that rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills will start along with Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson and Roberto Garza, which would leave just three spots if eight are kept.
Versatility is essential for backups. J'Marcus Webb has started games at both tackle positions and Jonathan Scott can also play both, although he has yet to play in a game and has been out more than three weeks with a knee injury.
Veteran Eben Britton might be the most versatile of all the contenders, and Edwin Williams has played guard and center. If they decide to go with potential instead of experience, the Bears could opt to keep James Brown and/or Cory Brandon at the expense of the veterans. Taylor Boggs is the only true center, and Garza's age (34) has to be a concern.
Defensive line (10):
The top three ends -- Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin -- are set. So are the top three tackles -- Henry Melton, Stephen Paea and Nate Collins, although Melton remains sidelined with a concussion. Sixth-round pick Cornelius Washington and Cheta Ozougwu are the top contenders at end. Undrafted rookie Zach Minter looks like the best of the rest at tackle.
Veterans Lance Briggs, James Anderson, D.J. Williams and draft picks Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene are the top five, with Bostic likely to start against the Bengals in the opener for the injured Williams (calf). Special teams productivity will determine the backup spots, which means Blake Costanzo should be safe. J.T. Thomas, a sixth-round pick in 2011, played in all 16 games last season on special teams.
Defensive backs (10):
At least one corner and probably two will make it behind the top three of Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Isaiah Frey. Demontre Hurst, Sherrick McManis and C.J. Wilson have all flashed.
Safety is overcrowded and up for grabs after starters Major Wright and Chris Conte. Craig Steltz has played 61 games for the Bears and excels on special teams, as does Anthony Walters. The Bears are still trying to figure out what they have with 2012 third-round pick Brandon Hardin, who missed all of last season with a neck injury.
• Follow Bob's NFL reports on Twitter @BobLeGere, and check out his Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com/sports.
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