Under-the-radar players to watch this summer

The Chicago Bears kick off training camp in a couple of weeks, where there will be plenty of players fighting for a roster spot and looking to contribute in 2022.

There will no doubt be the big names everyone will be watching — including Justin Fields, David Montgomery, Darnell Mooney, Roquan Smith and Jaylon Johnson. Even top rookie selections Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker and Velus Jones Jr.

But there are a handful of players who will also be watching when Chicago kicks off camp — those players who will be competing for a roster spot and/or starting job.

While all eyes will be on some of the bigger names, here’s a list of some under-the-radar players to watch during training camp.

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For the first time since 2018, the Bears will employ a fullback on their roster, which indicates a commitment to the run game this season. Blasingame has been a solid run blocker during his time in Tennessee, and he’ll now be opening holes for David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert this season. With Chicago implementing a run-heavy scheme, the question is how much Blasingame will be utilized on offense.

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There’s no disputing that Montgomery and Herbert will be featured on offense, but there’s a chance for sixth-round rookie Trestan Ebner to carve out a nice role for himself. Ebner has been compared to former Bears running back Tarik Cohen, who proved to be versatile in three phases at running back, receiver and punt returner. The hope is Ebner can develop into a similar playmaker. But right now, look for Ebner to compete for a return specialist job with the potential for more in the future.

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There were high hopes for last year’s sixth-round selection Dazz Newsome. But he spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad. Now, he has an opportunity to earn a roster spot, where he could contribute as a return specialist and at receiver. The Bears have only four roster locks at wide receiver heading into training camp — Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle, Velus Jones Jr. and Equanimeous St. Brown. That leaves two roster spots up for grabs, and Newsome will be looking to stand out among the rest.

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A lot has been made about the starting tackle positions this offseason. But it’s easy to forget that Chicago also has a gaping hole at right guard, one that Sam Mustipher has been occupying during the offseason program. Mustipher started all 17 games at center for the Bears last season, but he was a liability at times. But even with Lucas Patrick taking over at center, Mustipher is still competing for a starting job at right guard. The starting offensive line is far from settled, and Mustipher will need a strong camp to lock it down.

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While Robert Quinn, Travis Gipson and Al-Quadin Muhammad will be the Bears’ top edge rushers, there will be plenty of competition behind them for roster spots. One player who’s already been standing out is undrafted rookie free agent Carson Taylor, who made plays during the offseason program. He’ll be competing with the likes of Dominique Robinson, Sam Kamara and Charles Snowden for a roster spot. Taylor is an explosive athlete who will have a chance to stand out in camp.

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The Bears defensive interior has undergone some changes this season as they converted to a 4-3 defense. Right now, it looks to be Justin Jones and Khyiris Tonga starting at three-technique and nose tackle, respectively. But Tonga could face some competition for that job from Mike Pennel, who makes his return to Chicago. Last summer, Pennel landed on injured reserve and was cut soon after. This time, he’ll be looking to earn a roster spot and starting job.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

The Bears landed a top undrafted rookie free agent in Jack Sanborn, who many were shocked wasn’t drafted. With not much in terms of depth behind Roquan Smith and Nicholas Morrow, Sanborn has a chance to lock down a roster spot with hopes of developing into a solid linebacker down the line. Sanborn was a solid downhill linebacker at Wisconsin, and he thrived in the backfield with 16 tackles-for-loss and five sacks last year. He’ll have a chance to stand out once the pads come on.

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Thomas Graham Jr. showed promise in his limited action as a rookie, where he appeared poised to compete for a starting role in 2022. If that’s to be, it’ll come at slot cornerback, where he’ll be battling veteran Tavon Young for the job. Graham has shown plenty of promise — and in such a small, incomplete sample size. But it’ll be difficult to best a proven veteran in Young, who appears to be the favorite to start in the slot. Still, a strong camp and preseason could work wonders for Graham, who’s already made it a strong competition.

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The Bears have their starting safeties set in Eddie Jackson and Jaquan Brisker, but there are some intriguing, under-the-radar names behind them. Newcomer Dane Cruikshank looks to be on track to be the starting strong safety behind Brisker, as well as a contributor on special teams. Cruikshank is a physical safety with a reputation for containing tight ends, including Travis Kelce and George Kittle. Training camp will provide our first look at what Cruikshank brings to the defense.

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For the first time in eight years, the Bears will have a new punter following the departure of Pat O’Donnell in free agency. Now, it’ll be rookie Trenton Gill getting the starting duties. Special teams isn’t the sexy option at camp — barring the kicker competition from years ago. But it’ll be the first time we see how Gill fares. Granted, it’ll be difficult to judge how the rookie adjusts to the speed of the game during practice. But, it’ll provide fans a first glimpse at O’Donnell’s replacement.

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