Last chance for backups to make a statement
In terms of excitement, the fourth game of the NFL preseason ranks right up there with a turtle race - unless you're one of the few players on the bubble, competing for your professional life.
Most of the starters aren't expected to play beyond the first quarter, which will give players fighting for a roster spot one long, final look before the roster has to be cut from 75 to 53 on Saturday.
The tightest race for the Bears could be the well-documented battle at wide receiver, where seven players are competing at a position where only six are likely to make the team. But there are also battles at linebacker and running back that bear watching, in addition to a secondary that has been in flux since the first day of training camp because of injuries.
"I'm excited about some of the players who haven't gotten a lot of reps as they get their last chance to make the 53-man squad," coach Lovie Smith said.
There has been intense competition at linebacker, a position that has more talent than any other on the team. The top backups are players who could be starters elsewhere.
Hunter Hillenmeyer has been a starter for most of the previous five seasons. Nick Roach, who missed the last two games with a concussion, started nine games at strong-side linebacker after Hillenmeyer was hurt last season. Jamar Williams, who missed the last game with a foot injury, has been a starter-in-waiting for the past two seasons.
Special-teams standout Darrell McClover was re-signed earlier in the week. That makes seven, not counting fifth-round pick Marcus Freeman, and last year the Bears had six linebackers on the opening-day roster.
The secondary has been a mess all preseason because of injured players, including cornerback Zack Bowman and safety Danieal Manning. Both are both expected to see their first preseason action tonight after missing valuable time with hamstring injuries. Cornerback Charles Tillman still hasn't returned to full practice after mid-June back surgery, so veteran Rod Hood was signed Tuesday, and he will factor into the final decision.
Smith has praised the performance over the past two games of cornerback Nate Vasher, but Trumaine McBride, who has been starting at the other corner, has not played well. Corey Graham started nine games last season and has the versatility to play corner, safety and nickel back. Fourth-round pick D.J. Moore hasn't established much of a presence, but the Bears hate to give up on draft picks.
At safety, rookie Al Afalava has impressed coaches, which might leave Craig Steltz and veteran starter Josh Bullocks fighting for one spot, although in '08 the Bears started the season with five safeties on the roster.
At running back, the Bears might not have the room for veteran Adrian Peterson and Garett Wolfe behind starter Matt Forte and backup Kevin Jones.
"That's something we've never discussed," Wolfe said, "especially with last year all four of us being here. It never even crossed our minds."
Peterson and Wolfe have both been exceptional on special teams, and the ability to excel in that phase has a huge bearing on the final few spots on the roster.
"There's a minimum number at every position," Smith said, "and then from there you just look at the best available player that you think will fit on the roster. Special teams come into play on a lot of those last picks. With (Nos.) 50 through 53, special teams come into it. I've (said) that if there's a good player, we'll find a way to keep him."