One of the underrated tasks general managers must address each offseason is the process of compiling a deep bench.
In 2018, Ryan Pace achieved this to some extent but in other ways he just got extremely lucky.
For instance, he found depth to survive Kyle Long’s foot injury for half a season when they seemed to lack it, but the Bears went through the entire season with only undersized third-down back Tarik Cohen, undrafted rookie Taquan Mizzell and veteran Benny Cunningham backing up running back Jordan Howard. They were fortunate to avoid any significant running back injuries.
They thought they had plenty of depth at tight end with Ben Braunecker, Dion Sims and Daniel Brown backing up U-tight end Trey Burton and Y-tight end Adam Shaheen, although none were ideal for the U besides Burton.
They were fine with this grouping with Burton healthy, but when he came up lame for the playoffs they had no one to pull coverage away from the wide receivers and Cohen. They lacked athleticism to run the shovel pass to tight ends the way Nagy liked to do, and had Y-tight end Shaheen trying to do it to no good ends.
The tight end fiasco grew even worse in 2019 and proved part of their offense’s undoing.
Last year Pace failed to cover the inside linebacker spot and running back adequately and, sure enough, both returned to haunt them.
They had no one with experience to replace Roquan Smith in the playoffs when he was injured, and they tried getting by earlier in the year with return man/wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as their top backup running back. It didn’t work when Cohen went out with a torn ACL, and the other inexperienced, less talented backups were Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce. This contributed greatly to a loss against Minnesota when David Montgomery sat with a concussion and there was no one with ability to start.
Pace’s task in building depth this year is all the more critical because of the NFL’s general stupidity. Actually, let’s categorize that as complete stupidity.
They’re trying to keep roster sizes at 53 men while adding a 17th game to the schedule. Depth will become even more critical and most likely insufficient in many positions for numerous teams because of the extra game.
There will be a feeding frenzy on the waiver wire after the final cuts this year as teams scramble to cover their bare bench spots with players who are cut loose.
The rules of roster size have changed. Although teams can carry 90-man training camp rosters, they have to cut to 85 three days after the first Bears preseason game, to 80 three days after the second exhibition and then to 53 men by Aug. 31, three days after the last preseason game.
However, with a fourth preseason game eliminated and the regular season to start still in the second week of September, there will be plenty of time for teams to peruse castoff players and fortify depth. Benches might get built then. But those who have done it already will be far ahead of the game because, in a year when depth becomes so much more important, their subs will already know their offense and defense.
How has Pace done at this so far?
Deepest Bears positions
Guard/center: Last year COVID-19 and injuries forced them to discover they had Sam Mustipher on the practice squad and now he’s looking like the starting center. James Daniels is lining up at right guard for the first time and Cody Whitehair at left guard but both have been centers in the past. When you factor in Alex Bars, practicing with the second team at right guard and with playing experience at left guard, and three of their right tackles can also play guard—Germain Ifedi, Elijah Wilkinson and Larry Borom—this is about as well fortified as a team can be at a position.
Running back: After witnessing last year’s fiasco, they have built an army of subs behind Montgomery with Damien Williams, Cohen back from a torn ACL and rookie Khalil Herbert. Pierce and Nall remain, but it’s going to be difficult for both to stay on and the best they might hope for is the practice squad.
Quarterback: How many other teams have a former Pro Bowl starter with 10 years experience, a backup who was Super Bowl MVP and a first-round rookie who is supposed to be better than both of them at some point?
Wide Receivers: There will be a daily grind at this position for one or maybe two roster spots. Players like Riley Ridley and Javon Wims could get shoved off the roster, or Anthony Miller traded because of the signings of players like Damiere Byrd and Marquise Goodwin. Or maybe they rise up and keep the interlopers off the roster. It’s deep, but they’d have to prove they’re talented enough to survive and injury to their main two, Allen Robinson or Darnell Mooney.
Safety: This is a position where four or five will be retained and six of quality are available. Marqui Christian and Jordan Lucas appear to be vying for the fifth safety spot.
Inside linebacker: A sore spot last year but it’s now fortified with former Bear Christian Jones returning and with Austin Calitro added to challenge Josh Woods and Joel Iyiegbuniwe, two backups to injured Smith who weren’t good enough last year, requiring practice squad pickup Manti Te’o to start in the playoffs when he hadn’t played a down all year. This situation isn’t like when they had Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis as the backups and both were good enough to be starters, but it’s not bad if the backup plays only in short increments.
Adequate Bears depth
Outside linebacker: Getting Jeremiah Attaochu was a coup because he’s the best pass-rushing outside linebacker backup they’ve had since they acquired Khalil Mack to start. They don’t really know what they have in Trevis Gipson and James Vaughters has flashed on a few plays. This appears to be sufficient depth as long as starter Robert Quinn performs at least somewhere close to his better years. If he’s invisible again, they could be short on sufficient rush talent.
Defensive line: They need six for a five-man rotation and have this number, though one is untested seventh-round rookie Khyiris Tonga. With Bilal Nichols, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman backed up by Mario Edwards Jr. and Angelo Blackson, the only thing they were lacking was that massive nose backup. Tonga could be this.
Better Get to Work Ryan Pace
Cornerback: Too much confidence is being placed with often-injured veteran Desmond Trufant and younger, largely unproven Duke Shelley and Kindle Vildor. Now, rookie Thomas Graham is in the mix, as well. They need to have a nickel cornerback from among the young players, which might not be sufficient. Trufant might not work and one of the younger players would need to be a starter at the left side. This is a situation crying out loud for another experienced cornerback.
Tackle: There are bodies. There are plenty of massive bodies. The problem is none of them are left tackles. Second-rounder Teven Jenkins will be the starter and obviously hasn’t played in the NFL yet. It’s true he played seven games in college at left tackle and was supposed to start a season there before an injury elsewhere forced him to be moved. They gave Elijah Wilkinson first-team snaps in OTAs at left tackle while still getting Jenkins exposure to the offense, but Wilkinson is a right tackle. He’s started at right guard, as well, but never at left tackle. Morgan Moses is the rumor after he visited Halas Hall this week. This is a free agent with one start at left tackle.
Tight End: It’s hard to believe after the misfortune of 2018 and 2019 but the Bears are thin at this spot again. They’re counting on Jimmy Graham as U-tight end for the second straight year. He’ll turn 35 this season. Counting on a healthy 35-year-old tight end is like anticipating you’ll be winning the lottery. Good luck with that. Their next-best option is Jesper Horsted, who spent all last year on the practice squad and is not ideal size to be an NFL tight end. He was a wide receiver converted to tight end. They have a basketball player in Darion Clark and a few undrafted free agents who could amount to nothing.
Get ready for 2019 all over again unless they find an adequate third tight end who can play the U spot. They have an adequate emergency backup at the Y with J.P. Holtz.