JJ Stankevitz

How ex-Bears wide receiver Kevin White lives with being an NFL Draft ‘bust’

How ex-Bears wide receiver Kevin White lives with being an NFL Draft ‘bust’

Kevin White knows the word association that goes on with his name. You might be doing it right now. 

“When they think of Kevin White: Bust, injuries, we don’t know, question mark,” the 2015 seventh overall pick told me during a lengthy Zoom chat. 

Of the 500 top-10 picks from 1970-2019, only seven have played fewer games than White’s 14. Four of those seven players were drafted in 2019. 

And even the late Charles Rogers — the most infamous wide receiver “bust” in league history — had four touchdowns with the Detroit Lions. White reached the end zone once. 

In a preseason game. 

When no Bears starters were playing. 

White was a high pick who didn’t live up to expectations —the definition of a bust. But he’s able to cope with that label by knowing why he was a bust. 

“People can say bust or whatever the case may be, and it is attached to my name by default,” White said. “So I think for me, okay, you can say Kevin White’s a bust because it didn’t work out. Absolutely. 

“But you can’t say Kevin White can’t play this game or Kevin White can’t get open or Kevin White’s dropping passes. You couldn’t say any of that. Not at practice, not in the little bit of games that I did play. 

“You could say injuries, you know, held me back but you can’t say I was out there and just pissed it all (away) — you can’t say that. So that’s how I deal with it.”

White is not on an NFL roster right now. The Bears let him become a free agent after the 2018 season, and he was released by the Arizona Cardinals late last August. A tryout with the Detroit Lions in the fall went nowhere, as White said he wasn’t 100 percent following a Grade 3 hamstring tear suffered in Cardinals camp. 

White felt like he played at a high level in the NFL, even if he only had 285 receiving yards in those 14 games. Most of White’s healthy moments came in practice, though, either during non-padded OTA practices or training camp. But he still can project the kind of confidence teams want out of their wide receivers, even if he’s not currently on a team.

“If I was out there playing, healthy and I couldn’t get open, getting strapped every play or dropping balls — okay, I can take that and yeah, I didn’t do well, I haven’t been playing well and I’m a bust because of my numbers,” White said. “But with injuries and not being out there, I can’t do anything.”

A stress fracture in his leg sidelined White for his entire rookie year. Then, just as he felt he was starting to realize his potential, he suffered a severe ankle sprain and fractured fibula four weeks into the 2016 season. His scapula was fractured on a freak hit against the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter of 2017’s first game. 

Three serious injuries. Three grueling rehabs. In three consecutive years. 

It’s hard to fathom the mental and physical toll that can take on someone. 

“I got dealt bust cards and can’t cry about it, complain about it, but it is kind of a punch in the stomach,” White said. “It’s like, I got all the talent in the world, done it the right way. Like why, God? What am I doing wrong? What do you want me to see out of being hurt year after year after year?”

White still can say he was the seventh overall pick in an NFL Draft. He had a 1,000-yard season at West Virginia. He felt like he went about his career the right way both on and off the field, and just was the victim of horrible, brutal luck. 

MORE: Why Kevin White feels cheated by football

But White is also only 27 years old. He’s got a lot of life ahead of him. And while he’s still hoping to get another shot in the NFL, he’s also working to make sure being a bust doesn’t define his own life. 

Even if that’s what he’ll always be known for by everyone else. 

“You can’t let one thing in your life — okay, let’s say I never play a down of football ever again. I can’t let that consume the rest of my life,” White said. “That’s like a smidge compared to, hopefully, how long I’m gonna live. But it’s also a big part of my life so I do care about it, I do think about it but I’m not going to let it consume my life. 

“I wouldn’t let football consume my life. It’s other things to do, it’s life. You got one life, I want to enjoy it, do the best I can at whatever profession I’m doing. But I just try to be happy. I’m alive. A lot of people aren’t alive right now. 

“Why would I cry about what other people think or how my career has gone? A lot of people can’t say the things I’ve accomplished. 

“But yeah," White added, "just take it on the chin.” 

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Why former Bears wide receiver Kevin White feels cheated by football

Why former Bears wide receiver Kevin White feels cheated by football

Kevin White paused for a split second. He spent the last hour on a Zoom call from his car in Southern California detailing the unraveling of his NFL career. 

He had some things he needed to get off his chest, needed to let the city of Chicago know. More than anything, he wanted a chance to explain everything that happened after he became the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. 

“So that’s kind of, like, the story,” White said. “Unfortunate events happen to a good person, talented player.”

There’s so, so much more to White’s story than those two sentences, though. And he really wanted to tell it. 

2015: The Stress Fracture

White first felt something during OTAs, only a few weeks after he was drafted. He, head coach John Fox, general manager Ryan Pace and the Bears’ medical staff spent the next three months trying to avoid surgery on what turned out to be a stress fracture in his leg. 

Could White have played in 2015 if he had the surgery earlier? Probably. But that’s far too simplistic a way to look at what happened. 

“At the time, it was like, who the hell is getting surgery for the first option? I didn’t want that, they didn’t want that," White said. “… Whoever says oh they should’ve got surgery, it’s like, come on. No one wants that. No one wants that. Not the first option. But when we resorted to the last option that’s what we had to do.

"I was scared, crying, like, I didn't know what to do.”

As the Bears tried to get White healthy without surgery — which is not the primary treatment option for a stress fracture anyway — it led to a perception Fox was being not only vague, but dishonest in press conferences. Fox kept referring to White as “day-to-day” even in the midst of a seven-week absence from practice. 

Those early interactions didn’t help Fox ingratiate himself with folks outside Halas Hall — media, fans, etc. But it did help build trust between player and coach.

"I agree with how they handled it,” White said. “I think it was professional. I don’t think they were lying. I think they didn’t let the full story out until we knew for sure how it was going to play out. I think that’s the way you’re supposed to handle things but everyone’s going to have a different opinion.” 

2016: The Ankle Sprain and Fractured Fibula

All too often we fall into a trap when thinking about injuries in football: This guy will be back in three weeks, this guy needs four to five months, this guy is out for the year. And then we forget about that player until he’s getting close to a return.

“It’s an everyday battle,” White said, “mentally and physically.”

White had to fight that battle three times. 

The first one was tough, but White got through it. He felt he might’ve been able to play had the Bears made the playoffs in 2015. All while rehabbing, White was focused on getting on the field so he could actually start his NFL career. 

In 2016, It took a little while for him to get going. By the third week of the season — when he had six catches for 62 yards against the Cowboys — White looked like he turned a corner.

“That’s when it was like, it’s go time,” White said. “I’m gonna take off from here. I even prepared different, the swag was different in practice. It was just different. It was like, okay, I’m ready. Pace, Fox, everyone is just like, it’s time. This is what we drafted you for.”

A week later, White suffered a severe high ankle sprain and a fractured fibula after catching a pass from Brian Hoyer. He went on injured reserve, ending his season. Again. 

It left White feeling robbed by more bad luck.

“For it to happen, it was like there’s no freaking way,” White said. “There’s no way. There’s no way. And that was the killer, where it was like — I was on the rise where I felt good, the whole organization knew it, practice I was preparing well, and it was just unfortunate. Again.” 

2017: The Fractured Scapula

2017 had to be the prove-it year for White. The Bears would decide whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option after the season; a good year might’ve landed him a second contract. But the mental and physical toll from those two previous injuries was significant. 

White didn’t do anything notable that preseason except sounding upset with Zach Azzanni, his third wide receivers coach in three years.

But he was healthy to begin the season. He only made it to the fourth quarter of Week 1 before another injury. 

White fractured his shoulder blade when he was hit, awkwardly, on a slant. Per Football Outsiders’ injury database, it was only the seventh scapula injury suffered by an NFL player in the last 10 seasons. It’s an injury more commonly seen in car accidents, not football games. 

White blamed the rare injury on his issues finding properly fitting shoulder pads. He said he finally found pads that worked, but wasn’t able to get them until after Week 1. 

“Those shoulder pads that I had, I didn’t like them,” White said. “And that’s just kind of what happened. No one’s fault, I just wish I had the correct shoulder pads.

“… If we’d have been able to tackle the shoulder pads before Sunday’s game, I highly doubt that would’ve happened.”

But it did, and White had to bear the responsibility for playing with shoulder pads that didn’t fit tightly to his body. Back to injured reserve he went, left to make sense of why he was staring down his third season-ending injury in three years. 

“I think I would be able… I would be okay with the injuries if it was like, I knew I was BS’ing,” White said. “If I knew I was partying and getting drunk and smoking weed — like I don’t even smoke weed. If I was doing that I’m, okay, I deserve it. I deserve it. I see why the injuries happen.”

White added: “I got dealt bust cards and can’t cry about it, complain about it,” White said. “But it is kind of a punch in the stomach where it’s like I got all the talent in the world, done it the right way, like why, God? What am I doing wrong? What do you want me to see out of being hurt year after year after year?” 

2018: Business or Circumstance?

The Bears couldn’t plan for White to be a starter. Not after three injuries, even if Pace and first-year coach Matt Nagy saw them as White did — the results of bad luck. 

So the Bears guaranteed nearly $40 million to sign Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in free agency. Anthony Miller was picked in the second round of the draft. White was still on the roster but played only one receiver position (the X, where Gabriel was ahead of him on the depth chart). He also didn’t play special teams. 

That meant while White was healthy, he was an odd man out as soon as players arrived at Halas Hall in April. 

When I asked White what went wrong in 2018, he sort of bristled at the notion I was looking for the answer to be about him. Instead, he repeated this word seven times: “Business.”

White felt like he was playing the best football of his career in 2018. It started with a good showing in a mid-April minicamp and continued into OTAs that spring. Nagy wanted White to stack practices; White did that. Coaches and teammates did what they could to build up White’s confidence and keep him engaged, even though he didn’t have a clear path to playing.

Early on, it worked. 

“Prince (Amukamara) was like, ‘Man, Kev, I don’t know what got into you but you’re different, White said. “‘Totally different.’”

White, though, mostly shined in non-padded spring practices. Those don’t mean anything to coaches, but the real test for a player comes when the pads go on in training camp and preseason games. 

“When the game comes, he’s got to make plays,” Nagy said that year. “When you do that, his confidence will slowly get better and better. The physical tools, forget about it. He’s got all that. It’s just a matter of him mentally, right now, seeing it happen and stacking them play by play in each practice."

Nagy, ominously, also mentioned drops and mental errors multiple times when answering questions about White during 2018’s offseason. Even though White felt he was practicing well, and at least during OTAs that was readily apparent, it seemed clear the Bears’ coaching staff needed to see a lot from White to trust him. 

So when White dropped a pass in the Bears’ first preseason game of 2018 against the Cincinnati Bengals, it couldn’t have helped engender much trust in him from his new coaches. Before that game, Nagy said he was looking for White to — among other things — not have any drops. 

White said the drop happened because he tried to duck away from a hit on the shoulder blade he broke a year prior, and said he was “good” after that. But a drop is a drop when you're fighting for playing time. 

White scored his only touchdown with the Bears a few weeks later on a well-executed stop-and-go route against the Kansas City Chiefs at Soldier Field. But that White was even playing in that preseason game — the first one in which Nagy benched almost all of his starters — wasn’t exactly an encouraging sign for how the Bears viewed him. 

When the regular season began, 40 of White’s first 70 snaps — covering the first five games of the year — were running plays. While White held supreme confidence in his abilities and how he was practicing, it didn’t appear to be shared by the Bears’ coaching staff. 

“I would go on scout team and go against the first team just to show, like, you wanna see it again? I’ll show it again,” White said. “So I didn’t see anything coming from it so I would kind of shut down sometimes. Like, man, y’all got it. I don’t know what else you can do. I’m preparing like I’m about to go out there and get 10 (catches) for 100 (yards). 

“And then I get to the game and it’s on the bench. Nothing. Nothing.” 

Part of that was “business,” sure. The Bears guaranteed Gabriel a lot of money. But a much larger part of it was how well Gabriel played. His hands were sticky, his routes were clean, and his coaches and quarterbacks trusted him. 

Gabriel played 830 snaps that year (77 percent), more than any other wide receiver and second only to Trey Burton among running backs/receivers/tight ends. He was targeted 93 times, second only to Robinson's 94. His only two drops came in a cold, rainy game against the New York Giants. 

Gabriel wouldn’t have been used so much if he isn’t doing something right. A lot right. 

And yes, that Gabriel signed a four-year, $26 million contract in the offseason didn’t hurt when it came down to playing time, either. 

White, though, saw his lack of playing time through a much more political lens. 

“Once I seen how it was played, I was like okay, I get it. I get it,” White said. “Because those players are getting paid under a new coach. Those players are getting paid 26 (million) or whatever the numbers was where it was like okay, Kevin’s getting paid four (million), this player’s getting paid seven (million) or whatever the case may be. 

“But that was my initial — I’m the seventh pick, getting paid too, fair shot. It should be a fair shake. 

“But I’m not saying it was never no drops or never an error. No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying, if you compare who I was competing with, I win all day.”

White did finally get an extended opportunity in October. It coincided with Robinson being limited and then inactive with a hamstring injury in Weeks 7 and 8 against the New England Patriots and New York Jets. White’s career highlight came then — the Hail Mary he caught one yard short of the end zone against the Patriots — and he played a then-season high 29 snaps against the Jets a week later. 

Robinson was still inactive in Week 9. But so was White. 

“Nagy talked to me,” White said. “And it was kind of like, Nagy, man, I’m done with y’all. It’s whatever. Y’all got it.”

Something happened between the lead-up to the Jets game and when the Bears’ plane touched down in Buffalo for Week 9. White didn’t have a drop against the Jets, but there could’ve been mental errors (a wheel route on which it looked like Trubisky overthrew him felt like a possible culprit). And mental errors are usually a one-way ticket to the bench. 

But, clearly, the way White viewed himself didn’t sync with how the Bears viewed him. So he checked out. 

"So that was kind of like ah man, y’all trippin’,” White said. “Y’all crazy. And then eventually it was like, well, why am I about to bust my ass every day in practice and I’m getting done like this?"

White has his own version of the events of 2018; the Bears’ actions while winning the NFC North that year don’t necessarily support them. 

Nagy never really found a role for White in the Bears’ offense, outside of one Hail Mary and a bunch of early running plays. It stands to reason that if White were truly playing as well as he felt he was, he would’ve at least had a few plays designed to utilize his athletic frame and natural talent.

“Business” — the business of winning — would’ve dictated it. 

2019: The Last Chances?

White’s final true opportunity came with the Arizona Cardinals. He signed there on an inexpensive one-year, prove-it contract, hoping to finally show the league what he could do. That he connected with Kliff Kingsbury — who coached against White while at Texas Tech — helped. 

“Head coach, Big 12, he was the one that was dying for me to get there,” White said. 

White felt like he got off to a good start in Arizona, playing well while learning Kingsbury’s wide receiver-oriented playbook. But then he got hurt in training camp. It was a grade 3 hamstring tear — the first soft tissue injury of his career. 

“I’m under a microscope,” White said. “So every little thing is kind of like, here we go again. And like I said, I get it. I get it. It’s just unfortunate.”

With that injury, White didn’t even make it to cut-down day with the Cardinals. That does help prove the Bears right in how they handled his last year in Chicago — they didn't let a talented player go only to see him flourish somewhere else. 

White had a tryout with the Detroit Lions in the fall that didn’t go anywhere. He wasn’t fully recovered from his hamstring injury at that point. He knew it and the Lions knew it. 

“They were like, we want seventh pick Kevin White,” White said. “If we get you we want Kevin White. And I’m like, I can’t be that. I’m hurt.”

White hasn’t been on an NFL roster since August 2019. He hasn’t given up on his career, though, and hopes to get another shot at proving he can play. He still heeds his former coach’s advice — Fox will text reminders telling him to “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”

It might be easier if there were one person or one thing to assign blame for the unraveling of White’s NFL career. There’s not. Bad luck was followed by bad circumstance. Unfortunate, random things happen to people. 

It means White has to live with never being able to give fans something to remember him by except the word “bust.” 

MORE: How Kevin White lives with the "bust" label

Sure, he made more money in four years than most people will make in their lifetimes. But it’s the lack of that moment, or that season, or that one thing on the field that makes White feel cheated by football. 

And that’s why White has so much to get off his chest.

“I want the thing that’s gonna last forever, like man, you remember Kevin White against Detroit when he did (that)?” White said. “Or a little kid that wants to play football that’s like man, I look up to Kevin White.”

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Why Bears tight end Cole Kmet could break the rookie mold in 2020

Why Bears tight end Cole Kmet could break the rookie mold in 2020

There’s a lot of hype around Cole Kmet here in Chicago. There also aren’t a lot of tight ends who put up big numbers as rookies.

It can be a little hard to square those two things, then, with an eye on how much Kmet — the 43rd overall pick in last month’s draft — can actually help the Bears’ offense in 2020.

“You see the personality, the size, the strength, the makeup, how do you not get excited about that?” coach Matt Nagy said. “I am, and I’m looking forward to his future.”

Another bit of insight to heighten those expectations: What former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long told me his message to teams was when they inquired about Kmet last year.

MORE: How coronavirus uncertainty, Zoom are changing Bears' quarterback competition

“It’s one of those deals — you’re going to regret not taking him and you’re never going to regret taking him,” Long said. “Very rarely have I been around kids that check all the boxes off like he does in every aspect of his game, off the field, that you’re getting.

“I think he’s an absolute steal for where they got him in the second round.”

But then there’s the reality that tight ends picked in the first two rounds of a draft in the last decade have averaged, as rookies, 27 catches for 306 yards and three touchdowns. That feels like less than the kind of production the Bears need from Kmet as their top “Y” tight end in 2020.

So what are fair expectations for Kmet?

Let’s maybe narrow our focus here a bit. Only 10 tight ends — Kmet included — have weighed at least 260 pounds and ran a sub-4.7-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Meaning: Kmet’s size and speed is rare.

Let’s take five of those tight ends to see what a best-case rookie year for Kmet might look like:

Jermaine Gresham (21st overall, 2010): 52 catches, 471 yards, 4 TDs

Rob Gronkowski (42nd overall, 2010): 42 catches, 546 yards, 10 TDs

Jason Witten (69th overall, 2003): 35 catches, 347 yards, 1 TD)

Ben Troupe (40th overall, 2004): 33 catches, 329 yards, 1 TD

Jimmy Graham (95th overall, 2010): 31 catches, 356 yards, 5 TDs

Gronk is, of course, the outlier here with touchdowns. But it’s not impossible to see Kmet having somewhere between 40-50 catches for 400-ish yards and four or five TDs — a lot better than the overall top-picked rookie tight end average.

But there are four guys we left out of the group above, none of whom made a significant impact as a rookie: Vance McDonald (55th, 2013), Schuylar Oordt (undrafted, 2011), Brad Cottam (76th, 2008) and old friend Kellen Davis (158th, 2008). Oordt never played in the NFL, so let’s leave him out of this.

McDonald (8 catches, 119 yards, 0 TDs), Cottam (7 catches, 63 yards, 0 TDs), and Davis (no catches) didn’t make an impact in the passing game as rookies. Those guys, then, are the absolute worst-case for Kmet in 2020.

As long as Kmet is healthy, it’s unreasonable to think he’ll have a reception total in the single digits. Adam Shaheen he is not — he’s way more polished than the last tight end the Bears took in the second round.

But that doesn’t mean Kmet isn’t still a project of sorts. After all, his attention at Notre Dame was split three ways between football, baseball and academics.

“His potential hasn’t even been tapped,” Long said. “I think that’s the good thing. You’re getting a first-round talent in the second round and a guy who I think his football is still way ahead of him just with his youth and whatnot. Being able to devote all that time to one aspect. Schooling was obviously a very big ordeal, and baseball. Now he strictly gets to focus on football and training, and it’s just — I can’t wait to see how far he progresses.”

This could be a good or a bad thing. It’s a good thing if focusing only on football allows Kmet to quickly reach his potential. It’s a bad thing if he’s more of a project than the Bears might’ve thought because he had other commitments in college.

(I tend to think it’s more a good thing than a bad thing.)

How Kmet assimilates to the NFL as a blocker, too, will drive how much playing time he gets. The Bears like Kmet’s upside in that area, which is notable here in that they didn’t draft an offensive lineman until the seventh round. Having a reliable blocker at the “Y” would be a major boost to the Bears’ run game.

And just getting Kmet on the field will be critical for the overall health of the Bears’ offense. The Bears were in the bottom five of 12 personnel (two tight ends, one running back, two receivers) usage in 2020; both the Eagles and Chiefs were in the top 5. Having the right players in Kmet and Graham would help add a dimension to this offense it’s been missing since Nagy’s arrival.

MORE: Matt Nagy confirms Bears starters will play in 2020 preseason games

So that’s the bare minimum for expectations for Kmet in 2020: Just be able to be on the field. Of course, getting on the field means holding his own as a blocker and being a threat as a receiver.

It’s not easy. Not many have done it as rookies. But Nagy is convinced Kmet can be one of the few.

“The ceiling for him is so high,” Nagy said. “Because, No. 1, he wants it. All these (Hall of Fame guest) speakers that we talk to and listen to, that are really great at the positions they played in different sports, the one thing is they’ve got that ‘want.’ They got that little different thing that makes them great.

“He has that.”

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