The Bears open their preseason schedule against the Baltimore Ravens Thursday night in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Here are four storylines to watch:
(1) Which backup players will make the most of expanded playing time?
With most starters not expected to play much if at all, Bears reserves will get ample opportunities to impress in an actual NFL game for the first time in 2018. The Hall of Fame Game doesn't count in the standings, but it will serve as an important evaluation tool for Bears coaches.
"To me, the preseason—and training camp—is all about preparing your team for the season," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "Part of preparing your team for the season is making sure you pick the right 53 guys. We're heavy into evaluation in this game, more so than evaluating scheme. We want to see these guys play, see how they do, and then repeat that next week and get this team ready for the regular season."
Veteran backup quarterback Chase Daniel knows the importance of every preseason game rep.
"It means a lot for the twos, threes and fours, guys that don't really get to play during the season," Daniel said. "I've been here long enough to know—and we've told this to the younger guys—you're not playing for just the Bears, you're playing for 31 other teams, and guys take that to heart. Guys are out there for their livelihoods. It's a good challenge for us, and we're excited."
(2) How will draft picks Bilal Nichols and Kylie Fitts perform on defense?
The rookie defensive players—who were drafted to bolster the front seven—have shown flashes in training camp and will look to carry over those performances into game action.
Nichols is a 6-4, 290-pound defensive end who was selected by the Bears in the fifth round out of Delaware. Playing in a 3-4 defense for the first time last season as a senior, he was named first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association after registering 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks and one interception.
"For his size, he's athletic," general manager Ryan Pace said after the draft. "The toughness and rugged style he plays with stands out. We spent a lot of time with him up in Delaware, and we just feel like he has a lot of upside. He has a lot of upside specifically as an inside rusher, which we value too."
Fitts dropped into the sixth round due to durability issues at Utah. The Bears see the 6-4, 265-pound outside linebacker as an intriguing prospect who possesses excellent size, speed, toughness, instincts and character. His traits are evident on his game tape and helped him deliver an impressive performance in drills and tests at the NFL Combine.
(3) Who will step up on special teams?
Jobs are wide open on the punt and kickoff return and coverage teams, and Thursday night's preseason opener provides special teams coordinator Chris Tabor the first chance to evaluate players in live game action.
"It's going to be huge," Tabor said. "Sometimes [in practice] you can't get the full tempo all the time what you want. I'm going to be able to see guys who really are for what they are. I have an idea, but their tape is going to tell me if I maybe need to move them to a different spot. So I'm excited about it."
One player to watch on special teams will be undrafted rookie Ryan Nall. Although he's listed fifth on the depth chart at running back behind Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell, Nall has a legitimate chance to earn a spot on the 53-man roster if he shows that he can consistently contribute on special teams.
(4) How will officials enforce the new NFL rule prohibiting players from lowering their heads to make contact with an opponent with their helmets?
It's a penalty that seemingly could be called on every play given the nature of the sport, but no one knows how tightly NFL officials will enforce the new rule. The first opportunity to see comes Thursday night when the Bears and Ravens kick off the NFL preseason.
"We've been coaching it and I've been talking about it a lot in the meetings," Fangio said. "We have video that we show in the meetings. But we don't do a lot of live stuff [in practice] and I don't think most teams do. We're trying hard, but until they get put in game action or live action I don't think we'll know the answer to that. But we have been making them fully aware of it.
"I think it's going to be an extremely hard play to officiate other than the super obvious. We'll see. We don't know. I think what's been lost in it a little but is it's offense and defense. We had a live drill out here [in training camp] a couple days ago and I saw a few on the offense that could have been called."