Three questions for Bears WRs: Can Kevin White save his career?

Three questions for Bears WRs: Can Kevin White save his career?

Pre-camp depth chart
X (Outside)
1. Allen Robinson
2. Kevin White
3. Javon Wims
4. Marlon Brown
5. Tanner Gentry

Z (Slot/Outside)
1. Anthony Miller
2. Josh Bellamy
3. Bennie Fowler
4. DeMarcus Ayers
5. Garrett Johnson
6. Matt Fleming

Zebra (Slot/Outside)
1. Taylor Gabriel
2. Tarik Cohen

1. What can the Bears get out of Kevin White?

This isn’t the biggest question facing the Bears’ wide receiving corps — that would be the second one on this list — but this is the most fascinating one heading into training camp. What gradually stacked practices during OTAs and minicamps in April, May and June, looking solid (if not impressive) while running around in shorts and a helmet. 

At the least, he looked better this spring than he did at any time last year, when he was coming off his second consecutive season-ending lower body injury, to put it in hockey parlance. White missed all but three quarters of the 2017 season due to an upper-body injury (a fractured scapula), which while serious didn’t require him to re-learn how to run during the rehab process from it. As a result, White played fast during spring practices, and on top of that took the kind of mental approach Matt Nagy wanted to see. 

“He certainly grew in a lot different areas,” Nagy said in June. “And the one thing that I’ve noticed about Kevin, that I thought was neat, is that if there was a dropped ball, it was the next-play mentality for him. I kept a keen eye out for that to see how he was going to react to a play like that, and he’s done well. He’s been running routes well, he’s been catching a lot of footballs, he’s been focusing on what he needs to focus on and that’s a big advantage for this offense.”

White not only has to remain productive when the pads come on in Bourbonnais, but he has to prove that he can stay healthy throughout preseason play and then into the regular season. There’s a lot riding on this season for White personally, with the 2015 seventh overall pick becoming a free agent next March after the Bears declined his fifth-year option. If he puts together a full, productive season, he’ll earn a second contract; if not, his chances of sticking in the league don’t seem good. The best thing he can do during training camp is continue the slow build he began at Halas Hall from April to June. 

2. Will Allen Robinson live up to the hype?

Ryan Pace guaranteed just under $40 million to Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, and then traded back into the second round to draft Anthony Miller. It was hardly a surprise that Pace aggressively tried to improve what was a pitifully bad wide receiver group from 2017, but the question still remains: How good can this group be? And specifically, can Robinson be that true No. 1 receiver this team has lacked since letting Alshon Jeffery walk to Philadelphia?

Robinson competitiveness, instincts, size and athleticism made him one of the best receivers in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards with 14 touchdowns in 2015, then followed that with a relatively disappointing 73-catch, 883-yard, six-touchdown 2016 (only 10 times in Bears history has a pass-catcher hit those marks; the most recent guys to do it were Jeffery and Martellus Bennett in 2014).

“You can look at him and you just kind of get that feel of he has a great understanding of how to approach this game at this level,” wide receivers coach Mike Furrey said. “Obviously he’s been highly successful for a couple years with some big numbers, but he doesn’t act like that. He’s still hungry, he wants to learn, and I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder, which is a good trait to have too. So we’re excited about that.” 
That chip on his shoulder, likely, comes from Robinson tearing his ACL in Week 1 of the 2017 season. He only partially returned to practice during veteran minicamp in June, though the expectation has been for him to be fully cleared for practice by the start of training camp. If he’s cleared for full participation, he can start developing timing and chemistry with Mitch Trubisky that he wasn’t quite able to do during the offseason program. 

Torn ACLs aren’t as big a risk for wide receivers as they used to be, but any time a team guaranteed $25 million to an injured player, there’s risk involved. 

3. How will the versatility of this group show up?

One of the more exciting things we’ll get to watch in Bourbonnais will be the different ways Nagy uses a group of receivers the Bears feel is tailored well to their new spiced-up west coast offense. Gabriel is the primary “Zebra,” the position made famous by Tyreek Hill in Kansas City, and while he has prototypical slot size (5-foot-8, 165 pounds) expect the diminutive former Atlanta Falcon to line up all over the field. The same goes for Miller, who played both in the slot and outside in college. Expect to see a lot of Tarik Cohen split out wide in this group, too, as well as Trey Burton providing some versatility from the tight end position. 

The overall point here is this, though: The Bears’ offense, ideally, will be able to dictate mismatches in a way they weren’t close to being able to do in 2017. That can only benefit Trubisky, but these receivers still need to execute their routes and assignments to make sure the mismatches created for them actually can be taken advantage of. 

So on the practice fields of Olivet Nazarene University, you’ll see plenty of players moving around to different positions within the offense. If they quickly mesh with Trubisky, this offense could very well be effective from Week 1.

Three questions for Bears D-line: Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Three questions for Bears D-line: Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Akiem Hicks
2. Bilal Nichols
3. Bunmi Rotimi

1. Jonathan Bullard
2. Roy Robertson-Harris
3. Cavon Walker

1. Eddie Goldman
2. John Jenkins
3. Nick Williams

1. Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Hicks led the Bears with 8 1/2 sacks last year, and combined with his excellent work against the run probably should’ve been enough to get him to the Pro Bowl (it wasn’t). Still, 2017 was a feel-good year for Hicks, who signed a four-year contract extension a day before the season started and then turned in career-best production.

With the Bears’ pass rush having the most questions of any segment of this team coming into training camp, Vic Fangio will have to hope Hicks not only doesn’t take a step back in 2018, but improves off what he did a year ago. 

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said he wants to see Hicks play with greater consistency in 2018 — and if he does that, it would allow him to find that extra gear in his play. 

“Consistency with technique, consistency with production,” Rodgers said. “More opportunities to get in on tackles. I think his solo tackles were really high as compared to previous years, I’d like to see his assists go up, which means that he’s finding ways to get to the ball even faster. All those things you take into consideration when you’re evaluating a guy and seeing a guy if he gets better from Year 1 to Year 2 to Year 3.” 

2. When will Eddie Goldman get his second contract?

Goldman’s place in the Bears’ defensive line isn’t in question, even if his surface-level numbers (27 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) aren’t exactly eye-popping. What Goldman primarily succeeds at — pushing back two interior offensive linemen weighing about 600 pounds — doesn’t show up in a box score, but it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by his coaches and teammates. 

“He’s a beast, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “I’m glad to have him in front of me. He’s not a guy who’s rah-rah, but when he’s out there, he’s out there making plays. It doesn’t show up on film but he’s the key, he’s a vital part of this defense. He’s wrecking stuff in there. As a linebacker, that’s my best friend. 

“The more he can wreck, the more I can make plays and we all can make plays. It shows to us, and probably not to the public as much, but to us we know what his game is and we know what he brings to this defense. He’s definitely making us better.”

Goldman and Hicks played off each other well last year, and with Hicks (and Fangio) sticking around for a while, it would only make sense for Goldman — who’s entering the final year of his rookie contract — to be Ryan Pace’s top priority to sign to an extension during training camp. It seems like a matter of when, not if, that deal will be reached. 

“I don’t know about you all, but I don’t put any of the highlight reels on (that are on) national television,” Rodgers said. “I have a highlight reel in my room. And if I see him knock people back and make a play, or knock another guy back on his way to the quarterback that affects the pocket, that’s a highlight in my mind.”

3. Who emerges opposite Hicks as the starting DE?

While the consistency achieved across Fangio’s defense has been a point of praise for the Bears, at least inside Halas Hall, the impact of the departure of defensive end Mitch Unrein may have flown under the radar. Coaches and teammates praised how well Unrein fit a role on the Bears’ defensive front last year, with his consistency and knowledge allowing Hicks and Goldman to play faster. Consider what Rodgers said about Unrein last fall:

“Mitch is the glue that kind of holds it all together,” Rodgers said. “…When he’s out there on the field with those guys, he allows those guys to play fast. And if they know what’s coming their way, then they can play even faster.”

Unrein signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March, and the Bears didn’t make a move to replace him in free agency. So that means there will be a relatively open competition for the third starting spot on the defensive line come training camp between, primarily, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols. 

Each player has his own strengths and weaknesses. Bullard, a 2016 third-round pick, showed flashes at times last year but only has two sacks and 33 tackles in 30 career games. The Bears believe Robertson-Harris is an ascending player with pass rushing potential, but he’s only entering his second year playing 3-4 defensive end and would need to make significant strides in training camp. Nichols is a fifth-round pick who the Bears see as having some pass-rushing potential, too, but expecting a guy who played defensive tackle at Delaware to step into a primary role on an NFL defensive line is a little lofty.

One other note here, though: Even if the Bears have a true “starter,” expect there to be plenty of rotating with the spot(s) opposite Hicks and Goldman. For all the praise Unrein received last year, he didn’t even play half of the Bears’ defensive snaps, so having at least two other defensive linemen emerge as viable options would be beneficial for this group. 

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

USA Today

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

Jordan Howard has accomplished some pretty amazing things to start his career. Most notably, he's the only running back in Chicago Bears franchise history to finish his first two seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,313 yards as a rookie, good for a team rookie record.

Still, Howard has been the target of criticism this offseason because of his questionable set of hands. He was plagued by a case of the drops last season and he's been labeled as a guy who can't catch the ball heading into 2018. Combine that with the player nipping at his heels -- Tarik Cohen -- and the overwhelming theory advanced by analysts is that he'll give way to Cohen on passing downs.

This presumption has made its way into the world of fantasy football, too. Howard is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the first running backs that should be drafted this summer and in a recent player vs. player showdown on Pro Football Focus, 49ers starter Jerick McKinnon was selected as a more appealing fantasy starter in 2018.

It’s close, but I give the nod to Jerick McKinnon. Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year. Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.

McKinnon, a career backup, was signed by San Franciso to be Kyle Shanahan's feature running back. He has a real chance to be a stud in fantasy circles, but should he be valued over a guy like Howard who's proven to be a contender for the NFL's rushing crown?

All of this offseason chatter will serve as great motivation for Howard who has to prove, first and foremost, that he can be a three-down back for coach Matt Nagy in the Bears' new offense. If he has a consistent training camp as a receiver and carries that momentum into the preseason and regular season, those fantasy players who draft McKinnon or another less-proven player over Howard will long for a redo.