Skip to main content

Familiar Depth Issues Still Plaguing Bears

Only training camp remains for the Bears but some thin spots on the roster still remain since before the start of free agency and GM Ryan Pace hasn't solved them.

GM Ryan Pace left a few holes on the Bears roster last year when training camp approached and it came back to haunt him.

Pace appears to have solved those depth issues lingering from last season but as Jerry Glanville told every one, "NFL stands for Not For Long.'

Things change from season to season and the scenario facing the Bears as training camp approaches now is different. There are different holes to plug to ensure the team has sufficient depth to make it through a season.

Pace's failures last year included running back and linebacker.

The Bears lost a game at home to the Minnesota Vikings largely because they lacked a sufficient backup running back behind David Montgomery. They went into a playoff game without an adequate replacement for Roquan Smith at inside linebacker.

Pace solved those issues with the free agent signing of linebackers Christian Jones and Austin Calitro, and also running back Damien Williams. He also drafted running back Khalil Herbert.

Problems for this year have also been addressed to some degree by Pace. It's not as if he ignored all of them.

The real question is whether he sufficiently solved the depth at four spots. Here are the depth concerns the Bears have with training camp a month away, a few of which have lingered since before free agency even began in March.

4. Tight End

The signing of Jake Butt as a possible third tight end after minicamp failed to properly address this situation.

The Bears need a third tight end who can catch passes.

It's not that Butt lacks ability. He has had three torn ACLs, four knee surgeries and a season-ending hamstring injury in five years. Players eventually do get healthy, but that's a big assumption considering his past.

Some comparisons have been made of Butt to former Bears tight end Zach Miller because of his injury past, but those are entirely irrelevant.

Miller had 45 receptions over three years in the NFL before his real injury issues began. Before any real serious injuries in his first two full seasons, Miller had 41 receptions. The Bears knew he could play if healthy.

They don't know this about Butt. Beyond some production he had in college at Michigan, he has only 10 NFL receptions and played in only eight games. They've had almost that much playing time from practice squad player Jesper Horsted.

Even if healthy, it's not really an ideal situation because of Butt's position fit.

The Bears are more in need of a U-tight end or move-tight end player because Jimmy Graham is the U-tight end. Graham is turning 35 during this season. The chances of a 35-year-old tight end playing a big role in an offense and staying healthy through an entire NFL season are flimsy at best.

Last week former Bears tight end Greg Olsen was taking some shots on a podcast at Pace and coach Matt Nagy for grilling him when he was a free agent and getting his hopes up about finishing his career with the Bears. They then told him they didn't have the money but signed Graham instead for more money than Olsen wanted. This was basically the crux of Olsen's whining.

Pace was right. They didn't have the money to spend—on a tight end who missed big chunks of the season over his last four years due to injuries, anyway. Olsen missed 23 games his last four years with injuries. He missed five games or more three times. That's not uncommon for aging tight ends in the league, but Graham has been able to maintain his health and that's who they had more money for rather than someone who wasn't available. The best ability is availability, as Pace often says.

Now, taking a chance on Graham another year older at 34/35 is really inviting trouble. They got away with it last year. And their replacement is Jake Butt, who hasn't been healthy or even proven he's an NFL player?

Consider also, Butt was labeled a "classic in-line tight end" by former Denver personnel boss John Elway when he was drafted by the Broncos. That's not even the position Graham plays. Butt plays Cole Kmet's position, the Y-tight end or in-line tight end.

Beyond Butt, they'd be counting on practice squad types or undrafted rookie Scooter Harrington as Graham's replacement.

3. Slot Cornerback

The Bears are no better off at slot cornerback than before offseason work, as no one was added and it appears they're set on starting training camp with Duke Shelley there after he played it with the starters in minicamp.

They've talked about Kindle Vildor playing it some, and rookie Thomas Graham Jr. was told he would learn the outside and slot cornerback spots but so far the answer appears to be Shelley. At minicamp, they lined up former Chiefs safety Jordan Lucas in the nickel spot Shelley plays during red zone drills with backups. So this could be an option they're considering, as well.

The positive here is they've found young players in the past to play this position effectively. Bryce Callahan was an undrafted rookie who outbattled Cre'Von LeBlanc to play it, and although LeBlanc eventually lost the battle he wasn't bad, either.

The nickel cornerback position is said by coaches to be a starting position because teams are in nickel coverage more than base defense in today's NFL. The Bears have treated this position like it's still less important.

2. Left Cornerback

Depth isn't the problem—lack of quality is.

Desmond Trufant is a proven NFL player but can't stay healthy. Vildor hasn't proven anything. The rest of the group consists of waiver-wire types like Michael Joseph, Artie Burns, Xavier Crawford and former CFL player Tre' Roberson.

Vildor could very well be the ultimate answer and the coaches heaped praise on him at minicamp.

"When you're anticipating, when you're playing within the defense, when you're playing with confidence you're making plays on the ball, which he's always had ball skills, you play faster and the game slows down and we're seeing that," Nagy said. "And we need that from him."

Nagy said the solution at the two cornerback spots for depth if not starters is competition.

"I was talking to one of the coaches today right towards the end of practice with special teams and one of the coaches, they said to me 'man, it is really clear that there's one thing that has really stood out this year in these brief days that right now there's a lot of competition at a lot of different positions with this team,' " Nagy recalled. "And when you have that luxury that means that guys are really going after it and they're competing and they're trying to make a roster spot and a name for themselves and as an organization you want that. You don't want to be quote/unquote stuck with somebody at a position because you don't have anybody else. And we feel good with where we're at."

We'll see if they feel confident or stuck at cornerback or slot cornerback when pads come on at camp.

1. Left Tackle

They went into offseason work with rookie Teven Jenkins as the starter and no one knew what they had behind him.

They exited offseason work with Jenkins the starter and no one knows what they really have behind him.

They courted but missed signing Morgan Moses, who has almost no left tackle experience, anyway.

The real problem with this is they don't even know if Jenkins can handle this critical position as a rookie, because it wasn't his primary spot in college.

During OTAs it was Elijah Wilkinson playing the left tackle spot with starters and he's never been an NFL left tackle. He's a right tackle. 

Second-year, seventh-round draft pick Lachavious Simmons lined up there with backups, behind Jenkins and Wilkinson. Undrafted Badara Traore dabbled at left tackle in college. Rookie Larry Borom has played the position in college a little, as well.

There is no one on the roster who has started an NFL game at left tackle, including the starter.

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven