CLEVELAND — The Bears have one decision remaining for their starting lineup when it comes to Week 1 against the Bills but no clues were available in the exhibition finale Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Who is the starting free safety to open the season? Danny McCray held the spot through the first three weeks of preseason before the majority of what will be the 53-man roster was given the night off.
The issue, which the Bears' decision makers have three or four practices to determine, is whether McCray or Chris Conte starts alongside Ryan Mundy. Conte got 22 snaps last week at Seattle before he was knocked out with a concussion but multiple sources indicate he likely will be cleared to return to football activities soon, perhaps in time for Monday's practice.
Conte had solid practices going into the game against the Seahawks and that, combined with 40 career starts the previous three seasons, makes him a real possibility after missing the entire offseason and training camp recovering from surgery to stabilize his right shoulder.
Sure, the Bears would have liked a candidate to take the free safety job and run with it this summer but that hasn't happened and this is the situation they find themselves in. McCray was signed as a depth player and primary special teams player based on his time working with special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis in Dallas. Conte has better speed and range to cover the deep middle.
Coach Marc Trestman said there is no such thing as a meaningless game and there are roster decisions on the back end of the 53-man roster that will be affected. It will be interesting to see what happens with veteran cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who sat out. The 31-year-old has been pegged as the backup nickel cornerback after missing all of last season with a torn hamstring.
But Hayden had a rough preseason, particularly last week at Seattle, and it's worth wondering how much he could offer to special teams as a fourth cornerback. Demontre Hurst also has been getting look as a nickel and he started. Like the previous three weeks there was good with the bad. Hurst made a nice play over the middle to break up a Brian Hoyer pass for Andrew Hawkins. Later, Hurst was miserably out of position and got called for a bad pass interference penalty.
Undrafted rookie Al Louis-Jean could enter into the discussion and has ideal size at 6-feet-1, 187 pounds. He forced a turnover, but the 20-year-old with limited college experience might be best served spending a year on the practice squad.
Figure the Bears will go heavy in the trenches. They probably will keep nine linemen on both sides of the ball and maybe 10, especially on defense. David Bass, who had a sack/strip and other solid rushes, Austen Lane, who also came off the edge strong, and Cornelius Washington are in a three-man race for what could be two jobs. Washington, who did little as a rookie a year ago, has come on in preseason.
With so many linemen sitting out — including draft picks Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, who probably could have used some experience in this game — Bass was able to slide inside to tackle. A little versatility could go a long way to helping him in a bid for a job.
One complicating factor is what general manager Phil Emery decides to do with wide receiver Marquess Wilson. Does he keep a spot for him on the 53-man roster, reducing by one the number of healthy bodies the coaches have to work with, or place him on injured reserve with the designation to return?
The Bears could look different Tuesday than they will Saturday after final cuts are due at 3 p.m. Emery surely will be looking to churn over the very bottom of the roster if he can find talent on waivers or the street. The Bears traded for cornerback Sherrick McManis on this weekend two years ago and he's the team's best special teams player right now.
Special teams have been too uneven in preseason and the Bears could have interest in defensive backs or maybe even linebackers if they see the right fit. There are decisions to be made.