BOURBONNAIS - Rarely does a preseason opener provide top-notch competition between the opposing teams, but there's more than enough competition within the 2009 Bears to make tonight's exhibition vs. the Bills must-watch TV.
Starting with the 6 p.m. kickoff in Buffalo (Channel 32; WBBM 780-AM), position battles will be won and lost at nose tackle, strong-side linebacker and left guard. Playing time and roster spots are also up for grabs at all positions among untested rookies and veterans on the bubble.
Because of injuries to cornerbacks Charles Tillman (back), Zack Bowman (hamstring) and free safety Danieal Manning (hamstring), the picture in the defensive secondary hasn't yet come into focus. The pecking order at wide receiver beyond starters Devin Hester and Earl Bennett hasn't been established, although Brandon Rideau has the early lead as the No. 3.
"You would like for there to be a lot of competition every year," Bears coach Lovie Smith said, "We have some legitimate battles going on this training camp, and that's what makes it fun every day. Competition takes everything up a notch, and guys are ready to compete for those roster spots. We have a lot of guys here, but they know 53 stay, and every time you get a chance you need to prove you belong."
At nose tackle, Anthony Adams, Dusty Dvoracek and Marcus Harrison are all listed as starters. Adams has looked best in camp, Harrison has youth and potential on his side, and Dvoracek played the most last season, starting the first 12 games. But his lengthy injury history could make Dvoracek the odd man out if he doesn't play well in the preseason.
The Bears also list three players as No. 1 at strong-side linebacker, but Pisa Tinoisamoa appears to have an edge over Nick Roach and Jamar Williams, both of whom are valuable special teams players and still young enough to guarantee themselves roster spots and be seen as future starters.
On offense, the focus will be on quarterback Jay Cutler in his Bears debut, but of greater importance will be which receivers Cutler favors with his passes.
"We've got to have depth," Cutler said. "We've got to have guys that can step in there whenever we want to go (with) four wide (receivers), or when Earl and Devin get banged up a little bit or need a break. We've got to have some quality guys to step in there and take some of the weight off their shoulders."
Hester and Rashied Davis are the only receivers on the roster who have started more than one NFL game. But Davis is in danger of being passed up by Rideau and Devin Aromashodu, and rookie draft picks Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox are virtual roster locks. So Davis could be the loser in a numbers game, even though he is an excellent special-teams player. The 6-foot-3 Rideau and 6-2 Aromashodu also provide much bigger targets than the 5-9 Davis.
Protecting Cutler is a priority, and the offensive line is set with the exception of the left guard spot.
When the Bears spent $14 million to sign unrestricted free agent Frank Omiyale, they expected him to start. But left guard Josh Beekman isn't giving up the spot where he started all 16 games in '08. He has been the better player than Omiyale throughout camp, but preseason performance will determine who lines up against the Packers on Sept. 13 in the regular-season opener.