5 reserves to watch after Chicago Bears pull starters Sunday against Vikings
The minds of Bears fans wandering in Week 17 (or much earlier for that matter) to next season is hardly new.
But the Bears already having clinched their division and likely the No. 3 seed, allowing their fans’ minds to wander — temporarily — to next season while also preparing for next week’s playoffs to begin certainly is both new and refreshing.
So here we are, Bears fans. Your squad is likely to be resting its starters by halftime or sooner Sunday in Minnesota, where the Vikings will be fighting for their postseason lives. That should create an interesting viewing experience for fans, who’ll get extended looks at a number of younger players who could be vying for bigger roles in the Bears’ NFC North title defense season in 2019.
You hopefully know by now that PFW will have all of your playoff preview needs met — and exceeded — very soon. Meantime, let’s focus on 5 Bears who should play a lot more than usual Sunday and how their performances might influence their future with the club.
5. WR Javon Wims
The seventh-rounder out of Georgia, who led the NFL in preseason receiving yardage, has played all of nine snaps as a rookie, when he’s been a healthy scratch 12 times, including in every game since Week 8. The Bears’ top three receivers are locked in for 2019, but Kevin White almost certainly is on the way out and WR4 Josh Bellamy also will be a free agent. Allen Robinson is dealing with sore ribs, only further enhancing the likelihood of Wims getting the call at some point against the NFL’s No. 3 pass ‘D’ and a secondary boasting three former first-rounders and nickel Mackensie Alexander, selected No. 54 overall three years ago.
4. LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Looking up on the depth chart at one of the NFL’s best ILB pairings, the fourth-round rookie from West Virginia has been relegated to 11 snaps on ‘D.’ But he’s flashed on special teams, where he’s a “core-four” player, logging nearly 74 percent of the total snaps and pacing the Bears with six special-teams tackles. Nick Kwiatkoski has shown he’s a try-hard guy with clear limitations in the passing game; can Iyiegbuniwe be Roquan Smith’s potential partner in crime in time? Any opportunities to cover red-hot Dalvin Cook and Kyle Rudolph would represent terrific on-the-job training.
3. Kevin Toliver
The Bears’ boundary corners would seem to be entrenched through at least next season, but obviously there’s no such thing as too many able cover men and the Bears got a scare Sunday with Kyle Fuller on the heels of losing Bryce Callahan. Off the hoof, Toliver is impressive, and he’s acquitted himself fairly well in 123 spot snaps on ‘D,’ save for a few minor issues late against Arizona. Sunday can provide a key staging point potentially on two levels: How would Toliver hold up against a pair of complete receivers in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen; and might he be a slot consideration with Callahan’s Bears future unclear?
2. OL Rashaad Coward
The Bears will have a decision to make at right tackle this offseason, when solid but unspectacular Bobby Massie’s contract expires. Is it possible the minds of Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy are already made up? They have spent the season watching their first-year player and pet project, Rashaad Coward, work behind the scenes at practice, but fans haven’t caught a glimpse of the 6-foot-5, 320-pound converted D-lineman from Old Dominion since August. Perhaps that changes Sunday, when Danielle Hunter (13.5 sacks) and Anthony Barr are attempting to heat up the right edge guarded by Massie for all but five snaps this season. The Bears are no strangers to converting athletic D-linemen to the other side of the ball — see: Williams, Big Cat; and Bortz, Mark — and Sunday could be a good opportunity to see the fruits of Coward and renowned O-line coach Harry Hiestand’s labor.
1. Isaiah Irving
Irving’s fellow outside backer, rookie Kylie Fitts, is a better prototype for the position. Still, Irving consistently has made plays when called on in the preseason and should hear his number much more Sunday, when Aaron Lynch likely will be out again and few players on ‘D’ could benefit more from rest than Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd. He logged a QB hit in Week 16 among his seven snaps and tallied his first NFL sack earlier in Buffalo. It might sound crazy in light of how strong he’s come on over the past month-plus, but Leonard Floyd’s 2020 option decision looms in May and Pace picking it up isn’t a fait accompli. We’d expect Lynch to be a priority re-signing, but it’s possible the Bears covet cheaper edge alternatives with Khalil Mack occupying $70 million in cap space from 2019-21. Irving is an exclusive rights free agent next season, when Fitts enters Year 2 of a negligible rookie deal, and one or both of them showing out against Minnesota’s leaky O-line would be a promising development.