We've spent plenty of time here the last three-plus weeks discussing the big stories that lie ahead in training camp and how things will shake out. Let's mix it up this morning and go a different direction. Here is a list of eight players not expected to be in the starting lineup but worth watching during training camp and preseason. Some of them will need to perform well and against odds to land a spot on the 53-man roster. We chose only players who have never started a game in the NFL. A look:
Safety Al Afalava. The Bears went into the draft knowing they needed a free safety but with their draft position, they didn't identify any that would fill their need in what was considered a weak class. They wound up grabbing Afalava in the sixth round, and he's a strong safety although the Bears have said he can play both positions. He's a serious hitter and should provide some exciting moments late in some preseason games that are otherwise not exciting. It could be an uphill battle to make the roster and just being a thumper won't get it done for him. He needs to show instincts first. Missing the bulk of the offseason program because of the rules for schools like Oregon State that are on the quarter system didn't help him.
Cornerback Zack Bowman. He's got to be a candidate for the most improved player from last summer to now. Remember, Bowman didn't make the 53-man roster last September and started on the practice squad before getting a promotion. He did well for himself in shorts and a helmet this spring and needs to build off that momentum. The biggest challenge for the fifth-round draft pick from 2008 will be staying healthy. He's got to stay on the field.
Defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert. The real hit-or-miss nature of the Bears' drafts over the last five seasons makes you wonder about the current class of rookies. First-round pick Jay Cutler should look great. Ditto third-round pick Jay Cutler. The rest of the bunch is unknown and you might as well start with Gilbert, who was drafted to come in and help out a problem area for the defense on the line last season. They don't need him to be on the all-rookie team, and he doesn't have to start, but some meaningful contributions would help bolster the front seven.
Quarterback Caleb Hanie. All eyes will be on Cutler but Hanie's basically blank resume is going to make it imperative that he perform well in preseason. The Bears aren't going to panic if it looks sketchy behind Cutler, who has never missed an NFL start, but seeing some solid outings out of Hanie will make them feel pretty good about a potential No. 2 for a few seasons. You can be young and ineffective and hold down a job as a No. 3 a team is looking to develop. The backup needs to be able to come in and get a team through a game.
Wide receiver Johnny Knox. His blazing speed was something to see at times during OTA's. But as one keen observer noted, it's one thing to run fast in the offseason and it's another thing to run fast wearing shoulder pads and a helmet. He's making the jump from a small program at Abilene Christian, but his skill set would look good in the slot by, say, Sept. 13.
Defensive end Henry Melton. If Mark Anderson can't rush the passer on passing downs, someone needs to be a situational rusher. Melton was a project and that's what you've got to consider Anderson at this point for new line coach Rod Marinelli. We're not writing off Anderson, we're only pointing out if he can't do it would be convenient if Melton is a pleasant surprise.
Wide receiver Brandon Rideau. Watching Rideau get occasional time with the first team during the spring was a good sign. Watching him get time with the first team in camp will be a better sign. He deserves a legitimate chance to make the roster even though he lacks draft pedigree. The keen observer who is waiting for Knox to run fast in pads pointed out that Rideau could pick up some of the sideline routes that Justin Gage ran pretty well for the Bears at one time. Rideau has size and he's something different on this roster. The Bears need to find out if he has talent.
Running back Garrett Wolfe. It looks like veteran Adrian Peterson will be pushed for a roster spot but after seven seasons he isn't going to go without a fight. Peterson has been a security blanket for coaches. They know he can handle any situation at any time, and you can't put a value on what that means. Wolfe was better on special teams last season but has yet to find a niche on offense. He's going to need to step forward and a real case can be made that his opportunity has not come yet.