4 Underdogs That Could Start Week 1
As with everyone, it is in with the new, and out with the old. The Chicago Bears were fairly active in both free agency and the draft, and will likely sport lots of new faces for the 2021 season. They also are returning some rookies and second year players they really like as well. Key departures have left some starting positions to be filled, and there will definitely be some battles to pay attention to come training camp.
Below, I give you four players that could surprise and end up being the full time starter when the season rolls around.
#1 – Tre Roberson
Tre Roberson is a very interesting prospect. Last offseason the Chicago Bears signed the cornerback to the largest deal a CFL player has signed since Cam Wake made the jump for the Dolphins in 2009. Unfortunately, Roberson suffered a broken foot in July, and it caused him to miss the entirety of the 2020 season.
Now a broken foot is obviously no walk in the park, but the forecast for recovery is fairly promising. Roberson will very likely come into camp this year at 100% health and I think he will turn some heads.
Admittedly, it will be an uphill battle. Kindle Vildor showed some really nice traits last season at the outside corner positon last season. He was instinctive in run support and held his own in coverage. I believe he will win the starting job opposite Jaylon Johnson come September.
That leaves just the slot cornerback position left to fill. Roberson will have to outperform Duke Shelley and Thomas Graham to win the spot, but I think he can do it.
#2 – Sam Mustipher
This one may not come as a surprise to those who have been paying attention all offseason, but it looks as though Sam Mustipher has really carved himself out a role in this offense. Mustipher filled in at center for the Bears in 2020 when James Daniels went down with a torn pec in October, and did a very solid job. He wasn’t perfect, but he very rarely made mental mistakes, got better each week, and was always there for his teammates.
Knowing all that, its not crazy for Mustipher to be starting come 2021. What is crazy, is that he could very well be doing so instead of James Daniels. James Daniels entered the league as a second round pick in 2018, and has developed to be one of the Bears most talented lineman. Mustipher, on the other hand, went undrafted in 2019.
Going into 2020, the talk was that Daniels was primed to break out. Unfortunately, the pectoral injury he suffered in Week 5 would cause him to miss the remainder of the season. With Daniels injured, the Bears signed Mustipher off their practice squad, and Sam never looked back.
Now, as the start of the 2021 season approaches, it really looks as though Mustipher will begin training camp as the starting center, whether or not James Daniels is ready to go.
That isn’t to say that Daniels will be moved to the bench. The Bears will almost surely find a spot for Daniels at RG, and honestly, this could be a really good thing. Daniels already has RG experience, and the Bears saw enough out of their undrafted center to feel comfortable moving their highly drafted center to RG. I reckon that’s a win.
#3 – Khyiris Tonga
I think it’s time that we officially sound the alarm on Eddie Goldman. The standout DT opted out of the 2020 season citing concerns surrounding COVID-19. Despite that, there didn’t seem to be any reason to doubt that he would be back come 2021.
Now there is.
Matt Nagy explained to the media that Eddie Goldman has not reported, and his absence, for both OTA’s and minicamp, have not been excused.
That’s not good. Sure, it could be nothing; Nagy went on to explain that he still expects Goldman to show up. But it’s not a good sign. Especially considering how vague the Bears had purposefully been about the topic for the last couple months. Could Eddie Goldman be mulling over retirement? I doubt Goldman is unhappy over his contract, having signed himself a nice extension in 2018, so what could it be?
Whatever it is, its cause for concern. Eddie Goldman plays the 1-tech/0-tech for the Bears, and when he was out last year, his presence was sorely missed. Especially against the run. Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols can help to carry the load, but neither actually play the same role as Goldman does. As I mentioned, Eddie Goldman plays the 1-tech/0-tech position, while Hicks and Nichols are best used as 2/3-techs in the Bears D. Hicks helped to fill Goldman’s role at times in 2020, but it wasn’t his forte. When Goldman was out, it was obvious that the Bears had a massive hole to fill.
Enter Khyiris Tonga.
The former BYU Cougar is 6’2, 320 pound and also happens to play the 0-tech/1-tech role. If Goldman ends up doing something other than football in 2021, the Bears could lean heavily on the rookie to be the anchor in the middle of their defence. Sure, its not often that a 7th round pick ends up starting week 1, but I have a feeling the Bears slightly saw this coming.
You could tell there was doubt in the organization about Goldman all offseason. They way the topic was discussed in press conferences felt fishy. Knowing what we know now, the Tonga pick could very well have been made expecting Goldman not to be around in 2021. And if that is the case, the Bears could be looking for Tonga to contribute early and often in 2021.
#4 – Justin Fields
This just had to top the list, didn’t it?
The Bears made waves across the NFL in April, when they traded 2-first round picks to move up 9 picks to draft Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
Bears fans were almost universally elated. And for good reason. Justin Fields is for real.
Despite this, when Ryan Pace addressed the media following the first round’s conclusion, it took him less than one minute to remind everyone that Andy Dalton would still be the starter. 53 seconds to be exact, unprompted.
It was a little deflating. It was like driving by a Dairy Queen and your parents telling you there is already some ice cream at home. It just wasn’t the same.
Now since the draft, Matt Nagy has been on a bit of a media tour. He has been doing interviews and podcasts way more than he ever has before, and has been sharing more and more insight into the plan for Justin Fields going forward.
He has stayed firm that Dalton is the week one starter, but things seem a little less definite.
Nagy made a point on the Cris Collinsworth podcast to say that anything can happen between now and opening day. He also mentioned that in-game experience is the most important developing factor for a young QB, and that he is excited to see lots of Justin Fields in the preseason.
Look, very likely Andy Dalton will start Week 1 this year. Even if Justin Fields does play slightly better all training camp, I’d assume Nagy will defer to the veteran in a tight race. But I don’t think anything is guaranteed. It feels as though Nagy has left the door open just a bit, in case Justin Fields goes ahead and blows those same doors clean off the place in the preseason.