CHARLOTTE, NC - AUGUST 09: Fendi Onobun #84 of the Chicago Bears drops a potential touchdown pass in the end zone against the Carolina Panthers during a preseason NFL game at Bank of America Stadium on August 9, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Updated: August 30, 2013 9:50AM
Picking the Bears’ 53-man roster is a fun game but an inexact science. It seems like there’s only room for Kyle Adams or Fendi Onobun at tight end, but maybe not if the Bears don’t want to keep a fullback, who presumably is ‘‘starter’’ Tony Fiammetta. Even Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer claim to not know which way the Bears will go on that one.
Those roster “battles” are all we have to watch in tonight’s preseason finale against the Cleveland Browns, but we don’t even know just where the battles really are. Is it J’Marcus Webb vs. Eben Britton for the final offensive line spot? Or have the Bears already given up on Webb, who had two penalties against Oakland last week after having his salary cut in half?
You never really know what they’re thinking. In 1998, the Rams supposedly chose Kurt Warner over Will Furrer as their No. 3 quarterback — a decision that arguably changed the course of NFL history. The Rams, though, claim Warner was never in danger, that Steve Bono actually beat out Furrer for the No. 2 quarterback spot on the roster. And they said that even before Warner became the starter the following season and made NFL history by winning the Super Bowl.
The toughest part for the players participating in tonight’s game is that they don’t even know if it will make a difference. Making a play might not be enough. Last year, cornerback Greg McCoy, a draft pick no less, returned an interception for a touchdown against the Browns and still got cut. Brittan Golden scored a touchdown off a blocked punt and still got cut. Running back Armando Allen did just about everything a player can do in a final preseason game — catching a touchdown pass, breaking off a 49-yard run and even forcing a fumble on special teams — and still got cut. Only because the player who beat him out — Lorenzo Booker — suffered a concussion in the same game did Allen eventually make the team.
We’ll find out soon enough, as the Bears don’t plan to waste any time cutting their roster to 53 on Friday. Until then, let the speculation begin. Here’s a First-and-10 look at the supposed roster battles heading into Thursday night’s game against the Browns.
1. WIDE RECEIVERS — This is clearly the most interesting position for the Bears heading into the regular season because of the state-of-flux at the top — Brandon Marshall has a bum hip; Earl Bennett has a concussion — and the fact that none of the candidates to support the starters has emerged as a sure thing. Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Bennett are locks. Eric Weems is presumed safe because of his special-teams value. With Bennett’s concussion, six receivers is the likely number. Seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson, with his size and obvious potential, might have to be on the 53-man roster to stay with the Bears and looks like a keeper. Joe Anderson probably leads Brittan Golden and Terrance Tolliver, with Josh Lenz on the outside.
2. TIGHT ENDS/FULLBACK — Martellus Bennett is a lock. Steve Maneri looks like the blocking tight end. If the Bears keep a fullback, where Tony Fiammetta is ahead of Harvey Unga, there’s likely room for only one more tight end. That’s an interesting decision between Fendi Onobun, who has big-play potential and Kyle Adams, who has versatility and does the little things right. Onobun has been targeted five times in the preseason, but has no receptions, including three drops. Though many decisions already are made, Onobun could be in a make-or-break situation against the Browns. No matter how good he is in practice, he likely has to show something in a game that gives the Bears a reason to keep him.
3. DEFENSIVE BACKS — If the Bears keep five cornerbacks and four safeties as they did last year, most of the spots are taken. Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, nickelback Isaiah Frey and special-teams ace Sherrick McManus are locks. Zack Bowman looks like a lock but is currently injured. Impressive rookie C.J. Wilson should be on the practice squad. Demontre Hurst is a long shot. The real battle could be at safety. Anthony Walters has been playing ahead of Brandon Hardin throughout the preseason and has the lead for the fourth spot behind veterans Chris Conte, Major Wright and Craig Steltz. Tom Nelson, the former Hersey star, is a long shot, but has survived these battles before.
4. OFFENSIVE LINE — Does J’Marcus Webb make it or not? That might be the roster decision more Bears fans are paying attention to right now. Webb was the starter at right tackle but was quickly replaced by fifth-round pick Jordan Mills after the first preseason game. Now it appears he’s battling Eben Britton for the “swing tackle” spot on the line. There’s little intrigue elsewhere on the line, with Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, rookies Kyle Long and Mills the starting five. James Brown and Jonathan Scott presumably are the top reserves at guard and tackle. Unless Scott’s injury is a problem, that leaves one spot open for Webb or Britton, with Edwin Williams, Cory Brandon, Taylor Boggs or Derek Dennis. Brandon, Boggs and Dennis are eligible for the practice squad.
5. QUARTERBACK — Jordan Palmer and Trent Edwards are battling for a No. 3 quarterback spot that might not even exist if concerns at wide receiver force the Bears to go with two quarterbacks. And even if the Bears keep three quarterbacks, neither Palmer nor Edwards might not get that job if a younger, development quarterback emerges on the free agent market after other teams make their cuts. Like Steve Bono and Will Furrer with the 1998 Rams, Palmer and Edwards are better candidates for the No. 2 spot, which Josh McCown seems to have a lock on.
6. RUNNING BACK — A big decision supposedly looms here with Armando Allen and undrafted rookie Michael Ford presumably battling for the No. 3 running back spot behind Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Allen was productive in a limited role last year but has missed the last two weeks with a hamstring injury. Ford has produced as a running back (58 yards on nine carries including a touchdown against the Raiders last week) and on special teams (a 100-yard kickoff return against the Chargers in Week 2). Ford is eligible for the practice squad. Allen, who played in 15 games last season, is not.
7. DEFENSIVE END — Not a lot of intrigue here, with Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin a solid three-man rotation no matter who else makes the team. Cheta Ozougwu presumably has a hold on the fourth spot. The big question is sixth-round draft pick Cornelius Washington, a supposed hit-or-miss player who has at least shown why many NFL teams were intrigued by his potential. Aston Whiteside and rookie Josh Williams are long shots. Whiteside and Williams are eligible for the practice squad.
8. DEFENSIVE TACKLE — Pro Bowler Henry Melton is recovering from a concussion but could still start against the Bengals. Stephen Paea is the starter at nose tackle, with undrafted rookie Zach Minter making a big push for a roster spot with impressive play throughout the preseason, with Corvey Irvin and Christian Tupou on the outside. If Melton is good to go and the Bears keep eight defensive linemen, Minter might be on the practice squad.
9. LINEBACKERS — Most of the seven or eight spots appear to be taken — by Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams, James Anderson, rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene and special-teamer Blake Costanzo. J.T. Thomas appears to lead Jerry Franklin for what could be the final spot, but Thomas has been out this week with a hamstring injury. Franklin is eligible for the practice squad. Thomas, who played in all 16 games last year with the Bears, is not.
10. SPECIALISTS — There has been speculation that Devin Hester’s roster spot might be in jeopardy, but it’s unlikely the Bears would let him go without seeing what he can do as a dedicated kick returner. Rookie Michael Ford is an interesting option there, though. Robbie Gould has been perfect in the preseason. Adam Podlesh is set at punter. Long-snapper Pat Mannelly has missed the last two preseason games with a rib injury but is expected to be ready for the season opener.