First-and-10: A look at Piñeiro’s ‘competition’

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Eddy Piñeiro’s reserved, almost sheepish response to “winning” the Bears’ place-kicker competition with Elliott Fry belied what seems like one of his best assets — he’s got an edge to him.

Piñeiro not only had the stronger leg, but seemed the most likely to develop into the Robbie Gould-like headstrong kicker who thinks he’s the quarterback — the kind of attitude that comes in handy when you kick half your games at Soldier Field.

“You have to be mentally strong at that position. But that’s not the reason that [Piñeiro beat out Fry],” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “But it certainly helps to have somebody that … I like that. Our team kind of has a little bit of swag to us that we’ve always preached and that’s who we are. But you can only have swag when you make the kicks. That’s by no means a reason why [Piñeiro was the choice].”

Piñeiro’s approach when he met the media Sunday after the Bears cut Fry was an acknowledgement of reality — he hasn’t won anything yet. He knows the competition is down to him vs. Joey Slye, Dan Bailey, Matthew Wright, Chase McLaughlin and possibly Graham Gano, Chris Boswell, Stephen Hauschka and even former Bears kicker Cairo Santos among others in preseason competitions around the NFL.

Here’s a look at the key kicking battles to watch in the final two weeks of the preseason:

Panthers: Slye came in to hold the position as Gano recovered from a 2018 knee injury. But he’s 5-for-5 in two preseason games, with a 55-yarder against the Bears and a 54-yarder against the Bills and has to be giving the Panthers something to think about.

Gano, 32, is just now coming back and would be an option if he’s available — he’s 43-for-46 on field goals the past two seasons, 3-for-5 on kicks from 50 and beyond, including a 63-yarder last season.

Steelers: The veteran Boswell and undrafted free agent Wright are in a serious competition that figures to yield a legitimate option for the Bears. Wright hit a 46-yarder vs. the Chiefs on Saturday night. Boswell made 85-of-95 (89.5 percent) in his first three years in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl in 2017 before slumping last season (13-of-20, 65.0 percent).

Bills: Keep an eye on former Illinois kicker Chase McLaughlin (4-for-5 from 50-plus for the Illini last year), who is 2-for-2 in the preseason (38, 23) and is putting pressure on the veteran Hauschka, who is 1-for-3 in the preseason after a rough (6-of-11) finish to last season.

Vikings: After trading a fifth-round draft pick to the Ravens for Kaare Vedvik, it’s still possible the Vikings can keep Vedvik for punts and long field goals and Dan Bailey for short field goals. But the more likely scenario is that Bailey is cut. But after two subpar seasons he’s likely further down the list.

The other preseason competitions are the Browns (draft pick Austin Seibert likely to beat out Greg Joseph), Packers (Mason Crosby vs. Sam Ficken) and Buccaneers (draft pick Matt Gay a lock vs. Santos). Whatever happens, Piñeiro knows the pressure is still on. In fact, with a conditional seventh-round pick on the line if he’s on the roster for five or more games, Piñeiro likely has to clearly be the best option entering the regular season.

2. As recently as 1977, the Bears reported to training camp on July 17 — two months prior to their season opener — and had two-a-day practices without off days, but played seven (!) exhibition games.

Times have changed. With Nagy leading the way, the new wave has turned training camp and the preseason into one big slog — too many practices with little or no outside competition. Eventually, the NFL is going to have to adjust — eliminating at least two preseason games, and possibly shortening training camp. The current set-up — with too many practices and too few games — has become problematic.

3. With the Bears’ defense in mid-season form from the start of training camp, and Nagy keeping his starting offense on the sidelines in the preseason, Mitch Trubisky and the Bears’ offense has become the great unknown of the 2019 season.

But it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. The Bears’ offense figures to be above average, with moments of excellence. This is an offense that — even after extracting the defensive touchdowns — ranked 11th in the NFL in scoring last season (23.1 points per game). It’s unlikely the Bears got worse after offseason changes. Stand down.

4. After quarterback, tight end will be the position to watch entering the regular season. Trey Burton is recovering from sports hernia surgery, Adam Shaheen is an unknown with a back issue and Ben Braunecker’s dependable but not spectacular.

After that, it’s another series of question marks. Bradley Sowell is a converted tackle. Undrafted rookies Ian Bunting and Dax Raymond are intriguing and have a real shot to at least make the practice squad. Rookie Jesper Horsted is on the fringe of the roster.

From Burton’s health on down, the Bears have a lot to prove at tight end — especially considering how dependent the Andy Reid/Doug Pederson/Nagy offense seems to depend on not only quality but depth at that position.

5. The over-under total on Mitch Trubisky’s performance vs. the Packers in Week 1: 18-for-28, 207 yards, two touchdowns, one interception — for a 95.4 passer rating.

6. With the Bears’ starting lineup so set this season, the annual rite of falling in love with a bottom-half-of-the-roster guy has lost some of its luster. And the cutdown to 53 won’t be quite as lamented as it used to be.

But final cuts still can matter. Last year, nickel cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc was cut — presumably in favor of Marcus Cooper or rookie Kevin Toliver. Not only could the Bears have used LeBlanc after Bryce Callahan was injured, but he also helped beat the Bears in the wild-card game against the Eagles.

7. With that in mind, players to watch Saturday against the Colts: guard Alex Bars; cornerbacks Clifton Duck and John Franklin; tight ends Dax Raymond and Ian Bunting; defensive linemen Jonathan Harris and Jalen Dalton; wide receivers Jordan Williams-Lambert and Thomas Ives.

8. In previous years, linebacker James Vaughters might be creating a little more buzz after making plays in both preseason games. Vaughters recovered a fumble against the Panthers and had a strip-sack and fumble recovery against the Giants on Friday night. Vaughters, undrafted out of Stanford in 2015, has played the last three seasons in the CFL.

“This is my fifth year out of college, my fourth year as a pro — that was the best play I ever made,” Vaughters said of the strip-sack of rookie Daniel Jones. “We played behind guys that have a nose for the ball, so watching them practice every day and watching them play, you get a feel for how they look at it. It’s not just a sack, it’s a sack-fumble and scoring. Best play in football — sack-fumble-touchdown.”

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week Award: Raiders back-up quarterback Mike Glennon completed 11-of-14 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns without an interception for a perfect 158.3 rating against the Cardinals at State Farm Stadium.

10. Bear-ometer: 10-6 — vs. Packers (W); at Broncos (W); at Redskins (W); vs. Vikings (W); vs. Raiders in London (W); vs. Saints (L); vs. Chargers (W); at Eagles (L); vs. Lions (W); at Rams (L); vs. Giants (W); at Lions (W); vs. Cowboys (W); at Packers (L); vs. Chiefs (L); at Vikings (L).

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