CHICAGO — In the Bears' 23-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field Thursday night, four starters on the defense played — five plays on the opening possession of the game. That was it for the NFL’s reigning No. 1 defense.
Some were a bit surprised when Mitch Trubisky and his entire starting offensive line minus Kyle Long came out to start the game on offense along with Mike Davis at running back, but after a 3-and-out they were all done as well.
Likewise, cameos from the Panthers first units were almost impossible to spot and watching this one was much like heading to Knoxville to watch the Cubs AA Tennessee Smokies take on the White Sox AA Birmingham Barons.
A lot of kids can look like stars and then you wake up a few years later and realize they never even made it to the bigs.
The most you can take from these scuffles is focusing on individual players that have caught your eye in training camp and on how what you think you’ve seen in practice has translated to live game action.
Much as he showed at the end of last season, when Deon Bush started the final two games and the wild-card game in relief of Eddie Jackson, the Bears are in really good shape at safety, at least three deep.
But Bush is reasonably assured of a roster spot, while young corners Kevin Toliver II, John Franklin III and Michael Joseph are not.
Unfortunately for Toliver, an illness kept him out of the Panthers game, allowing Franklin and Joseph to start, and while he did nothing spectacular, Franklin — who has only been a cornerback for one season was solid in everything he did — looked like he grew up playing defense and also looked like he is going to be difficult to keep off the 53-man roster.
Nick Kwiatkoski was the Bears' third inside linebacker last season and a valuable special teamer, a thumper who will make the occasional big hit versus the run but struggles in coverage.
After getting the start and over-running a couple of plays early, he was replaced by veteran free agent Kevin Pierre-Louis, who looked much more comfortable and made several plays similar to those Kwiatkoski missed.
Similarly, the Bears hope that another inside ‘backer, last year’s fourth-round pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe is ready to be more than a special teamer.
But after he did little beyond running around and chasing, Josh Woods — who is extremely undersized for the position — nonetheless came in and made plays, including forcing a fumble as the Panthers were driving near midfield early in the second quarter.
The spots behind Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan are going to be position battles worth watching, especially with Trevathan a free agent at the end of this season.
The most intriguing player on the field vs. the Panthers had to be undrafted rookie free agent tight end Ian Bunting.
At 6-7, 255 pounds, Bunting has been impressive catching the ball in Bourbonnais, and head coach Matt Nagy singled him out about a week ago before adding that now he has to see if Bunting can seal the edge.
Bunting continued his impressive production, with three catches for 77 yards on four targets, but he also had a fumble, a false start and whiffed in pass protection, causing Chase Daniel to take a big hit on a seven-yard sack by Panthers first-round pick Brian Burns.
Whether the kid did more to help or hurt his chances of being a Bear, only Nagy and Ryan Pace know for sure.
Another kid who looked good was sixth-round running back Kerrith Whyte, totaling 6-35 rushing, including a nifty 23-yarder, and a seven yard reception, but all his work was clearly done vs. the junior varsity squad.
With just 13 first downs on offense and eight penalties for 85 yards, this was clearly not the start Nagy hoped for, but it is also nothing to worry about.
Mostly it is a three-hour feature film Pace and Nagy will memorize and take from it one more set of notes as to which of the youngens is closest to taking the next step.