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Bears Camp Battles Change After Offseason

OTAs and minicamp made it apparent a reboot needed to be done on best training camp lineup or roster battles, and here's where the real competition figures to be whether it's a traditional  two-man competition or a "shuffle."

In 1985 the Bears famously recorded "The Super Bowl Shuffle."

This year they'll be doing the lineup shuffle at training camp.

While most teams come to training camp facing starting battles or roster battles, tbe most pressing issue for this rebuilding team is fitting several people into multiple slots with one or two going to the bench. It appears these situations offer greater intrigue and more actual importance than a few one-on-one battles for starting spots.

Earlier in the offseason, the Bears seemed to have more of these traditional battles but now everything has changed at several positions as a result of what transpired at OTAs, minicamp and possibly the police blotter.

Now some younger players could get a good shot at camp after what coach Matt Eberflus saw in offseason work.

"I would say that's true with any position but when I see a guy that has the talent, the movement skill and the talent and I see it at this time of the year I want to really get a thorough evaluation of him going in through training camp because I already know that he looks like the guys I've seen—starter-plus type players and I want to look at it," Eberflus said as minicamp ended.

Here are the best Bears camp battles and shuffles rebooted following all offseason work.

6. Stong Side Linebacker

Will Matthew Adams hold the same front-runner position on the strong side following Thursday's arrest on gun charges? He practiced in the No. 1 spot all offseason. It's a position they use mainly on early/running downs, but important nonetheless. If safety Dane Cruikshank ever gets healthy enough to practice after missing all offseason, then it's possible the actual strong side linebacker in this defense might play only 30% of the downs. Cruikshank has a reputation for shutting down tight ends and would be a good fit situationally as an extra DB/linebacker. 

There are intriguing undrafted players and others like Joe Thomas, Caleb Johnson and Noah Dawkins who could be considered here if Adams falls out of favor. It's innocent until proven guilty, however. And Adams can always show on the practice field that his place is on the field in games, as well.

5. Nose Tackle

The signing of Mike Pennel makes for a far more interesting battle at starting nose in training camp. Seventh-round 2021 pick Khyiris Tonga hardly seemed like a challenger for Angelo Blackson at starting nose due to inexperience. He has been on a field for only 216 defensive plays. Neither player is actually ideal for this spot. Both are two-gap linemen trying to fit into a new one-gap scheme. 

Pennel signed just before minicamp and is comfortable in any system. He played in a 4-3 with Kansas City in 2019 and 2020. It's ironic but Pennel failed to make the Bears roster last year in their 3-4, so he could become a player who failed to make the team and then returned a year later to start or at least play a major role.

4. Defensive End

This is a battle between Trevis Gipson and Al-Quadin Muhammad for the starting left end spot. Gipson and rookie Dominique Robinson enjoyed a monopoly on first-team snaps at OTAs and minicamp with neither Muhammad nor Robert Quinn practicing. However, the Bears signed Muhammad to a two-year contract at $8 million total and that's not necessarily the kind of money paid to a third defensive end. Gipson started after Khalil Mack's foot injury last year and appears ready in his third year now to be a full-time starter. Will it happen? Or will Muhammad initially be the second starter with Robert Quinn?

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3. Fifth and Sixth Receiver

This is a battle for survival and it's not entirely clear who the combatants will even be beyond Equanimeous St. Brown. Velus Jones will be the No. 3 at camp, and St. Brown has shown an ability to use his 6-5 height to pluck throws over the middle from Justin Fields during camp. However, he's not a lock for a roster spot as a $965,000 player. Even if he makes it, after him the Bears will need to have one or two other potential receivers on the roster in case of injuries and then some on the practice squad. 

The key to the fifth and sixth spots on the roster would be how much help those receivers can be on special teams and how versatile they can be. A player like second-year receiver Dazz Newsome might be favored over some of the veterans in the running, a group including Tajae Sharpe, Dante Pettis, David Moore and Isaiah Coulter. Another player like Newsome who is a jack of all trades is Chris Finke, the former Chiefs receiver. When camp starts these fifth and sixth receiver spots look unimportant but injuries make them critical spots for the team and, of course, the individual player seeking a job.

2. Starting Cornerback Shuffle

It's entirely unclear what the Bears plan at cornerback. Jaylon Johnson played right cornerback after he returned to the team in OTAs following a missed voluntary minicamp, and rookie Kyler Gordon initially played the spot but was unavailable with an injury later. This left Kindle Vildor at starting left cornerback all offseason after he had been benched last year. Would the Bears move Gordon or Johnson to slot cornerback? Would they move one of the two over to the left side and bench Vildor? They have veteran slot acquisition Tavon Young available if they want to keep either Gordon or Johnson on the left side, but neither of those two played that side in OTAs and minicamp. They also have fiery slot cornerback candidate Thomas Graham Jr., who seemed to quickly adapt to this role when put there with starters for part of the offseason work. 

Who is battling whom and who could wind up in the lineup won't even be known until they take the field for the first time at camp.

1. O-Line Shuffle

This one sounds much like the cornerback situation, but on a much lower level because the quality of players isn't high and the stakes might be higher. The need is to protect Justin Fields with inexperienced people. Will they take a risky route and start rookie left tackle Braxton Jones? If not, then the left tackle would appear to belong to second-year tackle Larry Borom. If they do, then it seems Borom is at right tackle. And if they don't think Jones is ready, is it Teven Jenkins playing right tackle with Borom on the left side. Then there is the right guard mess impacting all of this because they could move Jenkins there, even though he hasn't practiced as a guard with the Bears. He did play there some at Oklahoma State. Otherwise, it's Sam Mustipher battling rookies Zachary Thomas and Ja'Tyre Carter at right guard unless the Bears take the advice of their former standout center Olin Kreutz and play Mustipher at center while moving Lucas Patrick to right guard. Anything can happen with about any combination and nothing much should be known until Day 1 of camp.

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