The NFL came into the start of training camps with officials from numerous teams and league office saying they have the advantage of learning from other sports about combatting COVID-19.
What they've seen from baseball's opening is it's going to be very difficult once games are being played and there is travel and competition. Coronavirus outbreaks led to problems for the Philadelphia Phillies, Florida Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.
Especially in a contact sport like football, the key will be depth if a team is to continue playing under current public health conditions. It's usually important in any NFL season because of the large number of injuries, but never more so than this season.
The Bears' depth this season is in real question. A year after they squandered one of their deeper teams by finishing 8-8, the Bears have only spotty depth on this 80-man roster.
There are too many positions where the depth is a rookie or a very inexperienced player.
It's little wonder coach Matt Nagy said getting rookies quickly up to the task is one of the key goals of the installation periods for offense and defense.
"If somebody shows the game is slow to them mentally and they can play fast, that'll show us a lot, that'll tell us a lot about that rookie for instance," Nagy said. "Could be limited reps for some of them, but we just need to be really good as a coaching staff when practice is over and we come in here to the facility and we start watching practice. It can't just be blowing by these plays and we'll notice it over time. No. Every rep is gonna count."
GM Ryan Pace sees depth but also the need for it.
"I feel like we do have a lot of depth and competition at important areas and we are going to have to get creative," Pace said.
There are positions with depth like safety and wide receiver. It's ironic, but the depth mostly exists on offense where they are perceived as weak overall and most of their danger positions are on defense where they have a strong group of starters.
The Bears are going to need to be creative because there are positions where there aren't real, proven NFL-caliber players in place to carry them throughout the threat of the COVID-19 season.
1. Inside Linebacker
As the Bears started to cut down from 90 to 80 players to start camp, one of their first cuts was veteran Devante Bond. Considering they were already counting on inexperienced players as backups to Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, cutting their most experienced non-starter at inside linebacker seemed a curious move.
If Smith or Trevathan suffers an injury or COVID-related absence, it's going to be either Joel Iyiegbuniwe or Josh Woods replacing them. Iyiegbuniwe was a fourth-round draft pick in 2018 but has seen only 26 defensive snaps in regular-season games. Woods, an undrafted free agent who converted from college safety to NFL linebacker, has never been on the field in an NFL game on defense after coming to the Bears in 2018. He spent the first year on injured reserve and last year played special teams in nine games. There are two undrafted rookies, Rashad Smith from Florida Atlantic and Keandre Jones from Maryland. Both are underweight at 220 pounds to be inside linebackers in the NFL and will need to bulk up some. Inside linebacker went from the deepest Bears position to the thinnest in one free agency period when they lost Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis.
2. Slot Cornerback
If Buster Skrine is out of the lineup, the Bears are either relying on faith. The backup slot cornerback is Duke Shelley, who got on the field last year for eight defensive snaps. Six of those came in the first two weeks. Beyond him, there is rookie fifth-round draft pick Kindle Vildor, who didn't even specialize at playing the slot in college. The only thing preventing this from being their worst depth situation is a slot cornerback is used only about 60% of plays, and if worse came to worst they could always ask safety Sherrick McManis to do it. The 33- last played there in the playoff loss to Philadelphia after the 2018 season.
3. Running Back
Much like at inside linebacker, the Bear started their training camp by getting rid of one of the competitors at this thin position, Napoleon Maxwell. As a backup to David Montgomery, they have Ryan Nall and his two NFL rushing attempts, and undrafted rookie Artavis Pierce. At least Nall has been through two seasons with the team, even if he hasn't actually been carrying the ball in games. The other two options are playing Tarik Cohen or Cordarrelle Patterson at the position. In both cases, they severely limit the play caller because they're not capable of being a running back for every type of play out of every formation.
4. Nose Tackle
Eddie Goldman's opt-out means John Jenkins is their only legitimate nose tackle. When Jenkins was briefly on Reserve/COVID-19 for a brief period, it really displayed their lack of depth at this position. Jenkins has plenty of experience, but isn't a high-level player. After Goldman there is no one at this position. The Bears can move players from defensive end in their three-man line to the nose, and they only really need the nose tackle on the field about half the defensive snaps. Bilal Nichols has the size to be a replacement nose at 313 pounds, but is more of a 3-4 end. The other 3-4 ends are either lighter than 300 pounds or right at it and not ideal substitutes.
5. Tight End
How can a team have no depth at a position where they had 11 players? The Bears found out last year at this position that just because there are players at a position on your roster doesn't mean they can play the game. They have seven now and one of those is Darion Clark, who didn't even play football in college. The top three players each have questions. Cole Kmet is a rookie, Jimmy Graham considered too hold by many and Demetrius Harris has never been anything more than a third tight end. Beyond that they have J.P. Holtz, whose real value is he can be a fullback or H-back besides tight end. There is converted wide receiver Jesper Horsted and Eric Saubert, who just got off of Reserve/COVID-19 and has played 255 snaps in three seasons elsewhere. This is a spot where there are bodies, but lower quality.