Bears offense glad to have Alshon Jeffery back but clouds linger

Bears offense glad to have Alshon Jeffery back but clouds linger

The over-arching story of the day may have been Alshon Jeffery, the franchise-tagged wide receiver who has trained elsewhere all offseason rather than with the team and new coordinator Dowell Loggains. But the play of the day did not involve Jeffery directly and represented what the Bears envisioned for their offense when they drafted Kevin White to bookend the receiver corps opposite Jeffery.

The moment came late in Tuesday’s first mandatory minicamp practice as White brought in a touchdown pass on a contested catch. The score sent the entire offense into mass celebration, something the group has had to endure the other way, with a whooping defense chirping away on myriad plays as the offense has lurched through its learning curve under Loggains.

The throw did not go to Jeffery but one critical concept within the offense is for Jeffery and White to prevent defenses from swarming to shut done one at the risk of leaving the other open. For that reason, Jeffery’s presence was a factor and teammates knew it.

“I was so happy to see him this morning,” said guard Kyle Long. “Even happier when I saw him in the huddle and we were calling passing plays, and even happier when I’m seeing him make huge catches in traffic. I told him, I said ‘Dude, it’s great to have you back.’ I understand he’s dealing with all of that stuff, and that’s none of my business, but to have him out here ... the defense has been celebrating too much, so to have our secret weapon out there was good.”

Jeffery has not been a “secret” weapon the past couple of seasons, given his production and Pro Bowl attendance. But he has been a secret, or at least an unknown because of his decision to stay away from Halas Hall for all voluntary sessions, even while being in Chicago to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for a Wrigley Field seventh-inning stretch.

“Me and my agent talked about it and felt it was best for me to train somewhere else,” Jeffery said on Tuesday. “I just felt it was the best situation for me.”

The organization would unquestionably disagree, beyond any casual slighting of the workout programs and facilities put together for players.

Jeffery has signed his franchise tag, guaranteeing him $14.6 million for the 2016 season. He and the Bears have expressed hopes for a multi-year pact, which would presumably pay Jeffery in that range for several years, and the two sides have until July 15 to conclude a long-term deal. At that point, the tag sticks.

Under the circumstances, the lack of that deal suggests that the Bears are comfortable with the money for this year, but less so the durability of Jeffery, who missed all of seven games and significant portions of two others last season.

For his part, Jeffery is downplaying any suggestions that injuries were even an issue in 2015.

“I just think injuries played a little part in that,” Jeffery said. “But overall, as a team, not just for me, we didn’t do well. We didn’t make the playoffs. That’s the main goal. To win the division and make the playoffs. So it’s not what I did. It’s overall as a team.

“I mean I did some things this offseason to prevent them, but overall with injuries, this is the game of football. There is a 99 percent chance you are going to get hurt.”

What the Bears are willing to risk financially on that math will remain a point of discussion for the next four weeks.

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. has a fond place in his heart for right guard Kyle Long. He's probably not alone in the Bears locker room with his feelings for the seven-year pro and three-time Pro Bowler.

Since being selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Long has ascended into a leadership role with the Bears both on and off the field. And while his play in recent seasons has been negatively impacted by a variety of injuries (Long's been limited to just 29 games over the last four years), he still offered an experienced voice in the huddle and an enforcer's mentality after the snap.

But we may have seen the last of Long in a Bears uniform after the team officially placed him on season-ending injured reserve Monday (hip). It was news that Leno struggled to embrace.

“It’s the tale of the league for you,” Leno said from Halas Hall. “He’s been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and that’s just how the league goes. You never know when that time is going to come. His happened so fast. So abrupt. It’s like, ‘Damn. He’s not going to be here.’ So it just sucks. That’s how I look at it — it’s just gonna suck.”

Long hasn't been great this season. His play was progressively getting worse, too. He has the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any player on Chicago's offense (38.0) and played his worst two games of the year in Weeks 3 and 5 (he missed Week 4 with the hip injury).

It was time to shut him down. Maybe for good.

“This is his words — he said he’s a Bear for life,” Leno said of his conversation with Long. “[Those are] the words I remember him saying. That’s how he wanted to end things.”

That certainly doesn't sound like a player who expects to ever wear a Bears jersey again. It's a shame, but it's also the reality of professional football for an offensive lineman. No position absorbs as much wear and tear as the big uglies up front, and Long is a perfect example. He was once considered the most promising young interior offensive lineman in the NFL just a few years ago. Now, it's anyone's guess if he'll ever play another snap.

“When he was healthy and he was on, he was a dominant football player," Leno said. "I told him plenty of times, ‘Get back to that [2013, 2014, 2015] self.’ It just sucks because so many times he would try to get back to it and had to take a step back. When injuries compile, it’s just really [unfortunate].”

The Bears will look to fill Long's starting role with either Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen or rookie Alex Bars. And while one (or all) of them will provide an upgrade on the field, none will be able to replace Long's larger-than-life presence everywhere else.

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

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The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

The Bears returned to Halas Hall with a flurry of injury updates, most notably involving Kyle Long and Mitch Trubisky

And while the starting quarterback for Sunday's game against New Orleans is still TBD, wide reciever Taylor Gabriel will be back out there. Gabriel technically announced his return via Instagram on Sunday night, but confirmed to reporters on Monday that he's been cleared to play. 

"It’s just good to be back, to be around the guys," he said. "To be on the sideline just watching what’s been going on, I’ve been hungry to get back on the field... I probably practiced the hardest I’ve ever practiced in my life. I just had fun, and am glad I’m back." 

Gabriel suffered a concussion in the second half of the Bears' win in D.C., and dealt with the lingering effects of it up until last week. 

"I just woke up and I felt like myself," he said. "It was just a blessing. You always hear about concussions and all the crazy things. The athletic trainer, they did a great job with the whole process. I’m glad that I’m back."

Gabriel was coming off the best game of his Bears tenure: a six-catch, 75 yard performance that included three first-half touchdowns. The third touchdown – a 36-yarder featuring a highlight-reel catch – showcased the type of wrinkle that the Trubisky-Gabriel connection can bring to the offense. 

"The one thing that Taylor brings is he has that one element of downfield speed that helps out," Matt Nagy said. "So you’re able to take the top off of some defenses with him. And then he’s one of those wide receivers for us, like Allen Robinson, he’s got experience. So there’s a calming in the huddle that you understand that he knows what to do versus certain coverages. He’s coming off a pretty good game in Washington, and unfortunately got hurt, but there’s a calming element to him and then being able to take the top off.”

The Bears also had good news regarding second-year defensive tackle Bilal Nichols. Nichols returned to practice for the first time since breaking his hand during the Week 2 win in Denver. It's especially good news considering the team expects to be without Akiem Hicks sidelined for the foreseeable future. 

"[I] felt good today," Nichols said. "Just trying to continue to keep moving in the right direction and we'll see where it goes." 

Nichols wouldn't commit to playing on Sunday, and plans to see how he feels after a full week of practice. Nagy indicated that, at this point in his recovery, it's more about getting back into playing shape. 

"He’s been out a couple weeks, so now it’s just the ability for him to show probably more conditioning than anything," he said. "He has that cast on him, but he has the fingers that he’s able to use. Again, if you’re able to be out there and you’re able to suit up and go out there, then to me, let’s go.”

If Nichols is able to play against New Orleans, he'll do so wearing a club for extra protection. This was the first hand injury he's ever suffered, and Nichols admitted that playing with the cast takes some getting used to. Leonard Floyd wore the same type of club during the first half of last season, and has talked with Nichols about how to deal with it. 

"He's giving me a lot of insight and what to expect," Nichols said. "And things that he did that helped him out a lot. You know, we'll see. I'm going to try some things out."