Preseason Game One: A Few Things to Concentrate On

If there’s one thing that sticks out about the Bears entering the 2015 NFL preseason, its that youth is being served everywhere. Despite having a reputation for being reluctant to start rookies, it appears that Bears head coach John Fox is allowing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and, to a lesser extent, offensive coordinator Adam Gase to take a good, deep look at the younger players on the roster. Everywhere you look at the various position battles across the team, youth is being put forward over experience. Whether it stays that way will be largely up to the younger players, who are being given a chance to show that they can’t do it before hungry veterans waiting behind them to step up and win their jobs.

With that in mind, lets take a look at some of the things I’ll be particularly watching from the Bears perspective tonight.

  1. How will Shea McClellin and Christian Jones look at inside linebacker? Many fans and members of the media believed from the moment that McClellin was drafted that he would be the heir apparent to Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker. Previous coaching staffs disagreed and placed McClellin at defensive end and strong-side linebacker. This year is widely believed to be McClellin’s last chance to make an impact and many believe that he may have found a home on the inside in the 3-4.It’s worth noting that this competition has followed the theme of youth. Both McClellin and Jones have veteran Mason Foster looking over their shoulders. If they stumble on Thursday night, Foster will undoubtedly be in the starting line up against the Colts August 22.
  2. Who will win the competition at outside linebacker? There are literally a half a dozen men competing to start opposite Pernell McPhee at outside linebacker. It appears to me that Jared Allen might currently have a very slight edge but Bears fans will be watching closely as the names roll in and out all night.Though the position seems to be stacked with mediocre talent, it will be a disappointment if these men don’t show well against the Dolphins. The team is hurting badly at left tackle where starter Branden Albert is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and will not be playing. His immediate back up, Jason Fox didn’t play in last week’s intra-squad scrimmage and may be injured. That leaves the Bears linebackers up against third stringer Donald Hawkins. Don’t disappoint us, boys.
  3. Who will start on the defensive line? Fangio said last week that the defensive line is literally Jeremiah Ratliff and a bunch of other guys fighting for roster spots. Not starting spots. Roster spots. Once again, in line with the lean towards youth, the current starters look to be rookie Eddie Goldman at nose tackle with Ego Ferguson at one end and Ratliff at the other. These spots are wide open but it seems evident that the Bears would prefer that the younger linemen earn the job over options like run-stuffing veteran end Jarvis Jenkins. He’ll probably be the first option if either Goldman or Ferguson show that they can’t do the job.Having said that, one would hope that these players do perform well against a Dolphins offensive line that is hurting on the interior. Mike Pouncey is a Pro Bowl-quality center but right guard Billy Turner has been struggling badly as he tries to handle free agent signee Ndamukong Suh and, in fact, his back up, third stringer Jacques McClendon saw time with the starters this week in practice. Left guard is in arguably worse shape where veteran Dallas Thomas appears to be winning the job over fourth round pick Jamil Douglas. Neither has reportedly performed well. Edit: The “starters” in this entry were based upon media reports indicating who the first team was during the Bears recent scrimmage at Soldier Field. An unofficial depth chart released by the team after publication puts Jenkins at end and Ratliff at nose tackle ahead of Goldman.
  4. Who will win the competition at safety? How will Antrel Rolle look? Rolle is a free agent pick up and the only established starter but looked last year like he’d lost a step. He’s 32. Competing for the other spot are veteran Ryan Mundy, fifth round draft pick Adrian Amos and Brock Vereen. Once again youth is being served as Vereen appears to have the edge currently and is being given the chance to lose the job. But many still believe that the job will eventually still be Mundy’s.
  5. Who will win the competition to back up Matt Forte? Another wide open competition between free agent pick up Jacquizz Rodgers, Ka’Deem Carey and fourth round pick Jeremy Langford. This is the exception to the youth movement as Rogers currently has the edge. This may say more about Carey than it does about Rogers and it could be a very bad sign for him. Langford is unlikely to be cut so Carey, a draft pick under the previous regime, is fighting for his NFL life. This competition is not trivial as whoever wins it may see significant carries over the course of the season as a change of pace back. Special teams play looms large here.
  6. Related to number five, the Bears have talked big in the offseason about running the football and about their new “smash mouthed” style. This observer has his doubts after watching them struggle to block the run for some time. However, I’m willing to be wrong and if the Bears manage to run often and effectively against a rugged Dolphins defensive line, I’ll be very impressed. But I’m not holding my breath.
  7. And related to number 6, guard Kyle Long Vs. Suh promises to provide much entertainment for the quarter or so that both see the field. Suh is already arguably the best defensive lineman in the NFC, if not the league, and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Ratliff recently said that Long could eventually be one of the best ever.
  8. How will Eddie Royal look against one of the league’s best pass defenses? Chicago media have been raving over the performance of this free agent pick up but many in the national media believe that the Bears over paid for Royal at 3 years for $15 million with $10 million guaranteed. Quarterback Jay Cutler has shown very little proficiency when throwing to smaller slot receivers but he has a past with Royal from their days with the Denver Broncos. They reportedly have a rapport on the field that seems to be showing up at practice. We’ll see if it translates to game conditions.
  9. Finally, who will win the competition for the last tight end spot? The Bears will likely only carry three and, of course, Martellus Bennett is a lock. The versatile Dante Rosario also appears likely to make the roster with his special teams play factoring in the decision. That probably leaves bruising blocker Bear Pascoe competing with the athletic Zack Miller for the last spot. Fans will remember that Miller created a minor stir during the preseason last year with his evident ability catching the football. But he has had difficulty staying healthy throughout his career and, once again, got hurt last year.

Previewing the Dolphins Game: “I Tell ‘Ya I Get No Respect. No Respect at All.”

There were 11 people in the Dolphins photo when Ndamukong Suh signed his contract. And none of them was named Joe Philbin. After playing a game of “Where’s Waldo” the press finally spotted Philbin in the room. Philbin was in the audience and, as Dan Hanzus at put it, “probably next to some schlub columnist who calls for his firing on a weekly basis. It’s just a matter of time before Joe’s desk is in the basement.”

This is the life of Joe Philbin, the Rodney Dangerfield of pro football. What kind of job Philbin is doing in Miami depends upon who you ask. This debate between veteran Dolphins beat writer Omar Kelly and Chris Perkins at the Sun-Sentinel is typical. Kelly argues that the Dolphins consistently play below their talent level with Philbin as head coach while Perkins claims that he believes that this isn’t true and the Dolphins play exactly to their talent level, though they never overachieve.

This is how you know that you are the NFL coaching fraternity’s version of a JAG. Your critics argue that you suck while your defenders passionately object by claiming that you are mediocre.

Joe Philbin is on a seat that is beyond hot. It’s scorching, perhaps the hottest in the NFL. Ownership spent lavishly in the offseason on Suh and there are signs that they are about to spend more on guard Evan Mathis. Even given that, the weakest link on the team is the offensive line, the unit that is supposed to be former offensive line coach Philbin’s specialty. Not a good look.

It is against this back drop that the Dolphins visit Soldier Field on Thursday. It’s fairly clear that the Dolphins are all in and the indications are that Philbin’s going to have to at least make the playoffs or he’s out. If the team underperforms significantly, even in a preseason game, there will be howls from the fan base led by members of the press like Kelly.

Miami Rookies to Keep an Eye On

The Miami draft class is led by wide receiver DeVante Parker, chosen 14th overall out of Louisville. Parker has his flaws but his most important attribute is that he’s a legitimate vertical threat because he can create late separation with his good top-end speed, length, body control and leaping ability. The Dolphins have been heavily criticized for their poor deep passing game and Parker is being counted on to help improve on that weakness this year.

Unfortunately Parker is currently out with an injured foot. He had surgery last year to put a screw in and he had to have that screw replaced in June. Two weeks ago, Philbin sounded fairly confident that Parker would be ready to play in the regular-season opener, saying he just didn’t know if the rookie would be available for 30 snaps or maybe 60 snaps. That is probably still the case but he hasn’t sounded so sure that Parker will be fully recovered in his more recent comments.

The Dolphins second round pick was defensive tackle Jordan Phillips out of Oklahoma. He is a massive, wide-bodied nose tackle prospect that might have been a good fit for the Bears had things fallen that way. He moves well but he was unreliable at Oklahoma in terms of his on-field effort, particularly on passing plays. But he’s definitely got the potential to help the Dolphins defend the run, something they had their share of problems doing, especially late in the year. Phillips will fit in well with the Dolphins but his effort will be worth keeping an eye on Thursday night.

The Dolphins fourth round pick was offensive guard Jamil Douglas from Arizona State. Douglas reportedly struggles with speed-to-power off the edge and his below-average arm length raises concerns about his ability to prevent NFL speed rushers from turning the corner. That makes him a poor tackle prospect but a good fit for the Dolphins at guard. He has the frame, size and enough foot speed to provide depth there in a zone-heavy scheme. Douglas is currently in a competition with Dallas Thomas. Thomas is currently slightly ahead and no one is comfortable with the situation. Douglas will bear watching.

The Dolphins also took runningback Jay Ajayi in the fifth round. Ajayi is a big back from Boise State who reportedly has good overall vision, patience and agility. He is also a natural pass-catcher.

Ajayi came to the Dolphins in the last draft with the promise of being a physical, hard-knocking, capable pass protector who offers a bigger alternative to what the Dolphins have on the roster. Unfortunately reports out of camp have indicated that this has not been the case. He also reportedly needs to work on his blitz pick up.  Ajayi has no been practicing with a hamstring injury and we may not see him Thursday night.

Also drafted in the fifth round, Tony Lippett, a wide receiver out of Michigan State, is long and tall and was supposed to have had good ball skills. He’s on the leaner side so he was known to get pushed around at times. Lippett has reportedly looked good in camp and he may be a surprise on the field this year. Both Bears and Dolphins fans will be looking forward to getting a good look at him Thursday.

One last prospect worth keeping an eye on is fifth rounder, Bobby McCain, a cornerback from Memphis. McCain reportedly lacks ideal length and doesn’t have great overall range and long speed. However, he has been making a name for himself so far in camp and Dolphin fans and media members have been extremely impressed and it will be interesting to see what he can do.