Matt Nagy
 Robert Deutsch | 2018 Dec 2
Matt Nagy Robert Deutsch | 2018 Dec 2

When your team was 12-4 and the NFC’s No. 3 seed in the playoffs — as the Chicago Bears were — and returns 21 of 22 starters on one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, meaningless exhibition games aren’t exactly appointment viewing.

But this year’s Bears may be just a little bit different.

This young Bears group is so talented that the battles for the last 10-15 spots on the 53-man roster are extremely competitive and could be very interesting over the next three weeks.

And we can’t understate the importance of the players who claim those spots, as last year’s incredible run of good luck in the injury department is almost certain to be unrepeatable. Some of the players who claim those spots may need to become key contributors sooner rather than later.

With that in mind, our game day preview for each of the Bears' four exhibitions will feature five players to watch on either side of the ball – besides the kickers, of course, who we assume you already have under the microscope.

This week I’ve got the defense.

Kevin Toliver II and John Franklin III: It is reasonable to assume the Bears will carry 10 or 11 defensive backs this season — most likely four safeties and six cornerbacks, plus Sherrick McManis, who can play either position.

Toliver II made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent out of LSU last season and even started a game for a dinged-up Prince Amukamara.

Franklin III was a quarterback and wide receiver in college who made the climb from tryout player at rookie minicamp to the practice squad last season while playing on the corner for the first time.

Toliver got off to a big start early in Bourbonnais and then started to blend in a bit after the first week while Franklin III has flashed regularly and even earned occasional practice reps with the ones recently.

Both players have excellent size for the position — Tolliver 6-2, 198 and Franklin 6-1, 196 — and what makes them unique is both could have futures as starters on the outside.

While Amukamara is playing the best football of his career these days, he is 30 years old and will have a $9 million cap hit next year with just $1 million in dead money.

Whichever of these two earns the No. 3 spot this year could be the heir apparent to Amukamara as soon as next year and will certainly be next man up should Prince or Kyle Fuller get dinged this season.

OLBs Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts: The Bears are loaded at outside linebacker with Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch, but you can never have enough pass rushers, and each of the big three was limited at times with injuries last season.

It is possible the Bears will only carry four at the position, but even if they carry five, Irving and Fitts are four and five right now and likely to be pushed by priority free agents Chuck Harris and Matt Betts.

Irving has shown some big-time pass rush ability but struggled to finish at the quarterback, while Fitts, quite frankly, hasn’t shown much at all yet after being drafted in the sixth round in 2018.

These two must show up in these exhibitions or one or possibly even both could be gone by Labor Day.

Joel Iyiegbuniwe: Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith may be the best pair of inside ‘backers in the league, but if one of them gets nicked the drop off to Nick Kwiatkoski and Iyiegbuniwe looks to be huge.

Iyiegbuniwe — or Iggy as he’s known to his teammates — is the key here because Kwiatkoski is just too limited in coverage, and the Bears used a fourth-round pick on “Iggy” last year believing he has similar athletic ability to Trevathan and Smith.

We saw little of it last year — in fairness to him because Trevathan and Smith were rarely off the field — but Trevathan will be a 30-year-old free agent next season, leaving the Bears with some tough decisions if Iyiegbuniwe isn’t the answer.

Thursday vs. the Panthers would be a great time to start proving he can be.