Job squeezes will intensify as Bears move into preseason games


Job squeezes will intensify as Bears move into preseason games

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – With an actual preseason game (vs. a 36-play full scrimmage) looming this Thursday vs. the Miami Dolphins in Soldier Field, a depth chart is expected to be coming out. But it obviously won’t be binding and also will be subject to significant change over the next couple weeks going into game three at Cincinnati.

Understand that every practice does count, and scrimmages like Saturday’s in Soldier Field count a little more. But those are all quizzes, vs. games, which are “tests” and count considerably more.

But observations are possible on both sides of the football, with particular focus on a couple of spots:

Wide receiver

Kevin White has been a story line this training camp by virtue of being the No. 7 pick of the draft and not on the field yet. That will move to a different phase this week, and no one expects White to have health problems as the regular season unfolds.

Eddie Royal projects to be the best No. 3 receiver since Bobby Engram was the depth behind Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham back in the Dave Wannstedt era. And a triad of White, Royal and Alshon Jeffery, on top of Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte, should be the equal of any five “skill” players in the NFC, possibly the league as a whole.

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But the falloff after Jeffery, Royal and White is concerning, because Marquess Wilson does not appear to have the confidence of quarterback Jay Cutler or the hoped-for upside the Bears saw in him. Wilson has had route-running issues and too many drops for a top-three receiver, and he is of no value on special teams.

It would surprise no one if the Bears secured an upgrade at No. 4 once cuts start coming later this month.

Defensive line/linebacker

The chances of Willie Young securing a roster spot have become increasingly problematic as camp has gone on and he is still unable to participate fully in practice work.

The issue, apart from the obvious Achilles rehab and comeback, is that he’s a true ‘tweener on a team that clearly values position flexibility but right now has too many players who do that better than Young. He has been a 4-3 rush end, as was Jared Allen before this year.

But Allen has flashed impressive playmaking as an edge rusher/linebacker in a two-point stance. And while Lamarr Houston is himself coming off a season ending knee injury, he has done that exact hybrid job as an Oakland Raider.

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Add to that a simple numbers squeeze: Ego Ferguson, Eddie Goldman and Jeremiah Ratliff have had strong camps auditioning for the starting “3” in 3-4. Jarvis Jenkins can play either five-technique spot (Young cannot), and Cornelius Washington bulked up to 285 pounds has been a camp factor and is a proven force on special teams. Allen can be counted among the linemen as well, and undrafted nose tackle Terry Williams has had moments.

Linebacker has the four current starters (Acho, Jones, McClellin, McPhee) plus Jonathan Bostic and Mason Foster capable of playing inside. That’s six, and DeDe Lattimore has contributed on special teams (Young does not).

And special teams are very much a tipping point.

“Typically most rosters are 25 [offense, 25 [defense], and three [special teams],” coach John Fox said. “It can always vary. We’re way too early to try and pick the best. A lot of it will come down to fourth-down [special-teams] guys. But we’ll keep more linebackers now because the outside guys are like defensive linemen.”

Offensive line

Kyle Long has taken some drill reps at tackle but coaches have given no indication of plans to move the two-time Pro Bowl guard. Jordan Mills has remained the right tackle, with occasional struggles.

Coaches were pleased with what they saw from Charles Leno, but Leno has not been consistently proficient working primarily at left tackle, and unless the decision is that Vladimir Ducasse is a better guard than Mills or Leno is a tackle, which could move Long to tackle in a five-best-will-start scenario, a shakeup on the offensive line would be a mild surprise.

Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

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Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

As the Bears set their foundation for training camp during OTAs this month, one part of that is beginning to identify each player’s strengths and weaknesses on which to build in Bourbonnais. 

Designing an offense to Mitch Trubisky’s strengths was one of the reasons why Ryan Pace hired Matt Nagy, who then hired Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator. Easy is the wrong word — but it wouldn’t have made sense for the Bears to not build an offense around their second-picked quarterback. 

But as Nagy and Helfrich are installing that offense during OTAs and, next month, veteran minicamp, they’re also learning what Trubisky’s weaknesses are. And the one Helfrich pointed to, in a way, is a positive. 

“Experience,” Helfrich said. “I think it’s 100 percent experience and just reps, and that’s kind of what I was talking about was knowing why something happened. As a quarterback, he might take the perfect drop and be looking at the right guy in your progression, and that guy runs the wrong route or the left guard busts or something. The defense does something different or wrong, even. And trusting that is just a matter of putting rep on top of rep on top of rep and being confident.”

It'd be a concern if the Bears thought Trubisky lacked the necessary talent to be great, or had a lacking work ethic or bad attitude. Experience isn't something he can control, in a way. 

This isn’t anything new for Trubisky. His lack of experience at North Carolina — he only started 13 games there — was the biggest ding to his draft stock a year ago; while he started a dozen games for the Bears in 2017, the offense was simple and conservative, designed to minimize risk for Trubisky (and, to be fair, a sub-optimal group of weapons around him). 

But even if Trubisky started all 16 games in an innovative, aggressive offense last year, he’d still be experiencing plenty of things for the first time. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made this point back in September that still resonates now with regard to Trubisky:

“I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks,” Roethlisberger said. “In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

So the challenge for Nagy and Helfrich is to build an offense that accentuates Trubisky’s strengths while managing his lack of experience. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles succeeded in those efforts last year with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. 

For Helfrich, though, one of Trubisky’s strengths — his leadership qualities — are already helping mitigate his need for more experience. 

“He’s still in the mode of learning and doing things out here,” Helfrich said. “We might have run one play 10 times against 10 different defenses, you know? And so his response to every one of those 10 things is brand new. And so, you see his reaction to some of those is good. Some of those things you want to improve upon and then keep your chest up and lead because we need that.”

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame


Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

There wasn’t a single game Harry Hiestand coached while at Notre Dame — 77 in total — in which he didn’t have a future top-20 pick starting at left tackle. 

Zack Martin (16th overall, 2014) was followed by Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), who gave way to Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018). Hiestand also developed Quenton Nelson, who went on to be the highest interior offensive lineman drafted (6th overall, 2018) since 1986. Nelson and McGlinchey became the first pair of college offensive line teammates to be drafted in the first 10 picks since 1991, when Tennessee had tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis go seventh and eighth. 

“It wasn’t surprising because the kind of guys they are, they absolutely did everything the right way, the way they took care of themselves, the way they trained, the teammates that they are and were,” Hiestand said. “They just did it all the way you wanted them to do it. So it was. It was a good moment.”

Hiestand said he had a sense of pride after seeing his two former players be drafted so high, even if he wasn't able to re-unite with either of them. The Bears, of course, didn’t have a chance to draft Nelson, and had conviction on using the eighth overall pick on linebacker Roquan Smith (as well as having tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in place for the 2018 season). 

Anecdotally, one former Notre Dame player said (maybe half-jokingly) that Nelson and McGlinchey were fighting each other to see who could get drafted by the Bears to play with Hiestand again.

“There’s nobody that I’ve been around in this game that’s more passionate about what he does,” McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said of Hiestand at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. “There’s really only two things that are important to him, and that’s his family and then his offensive linemen. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

“In this game, everybody’s always trying to work an angle to up their own career — he doesn’t want to do anything but coach O-line, and that’s what really sticks out to us as players. He cares for us like we’re his own. Obviously he coaches extremely hard and is very demanding of his players, which I loved — he pushed me to be the player that I am.

“I’m standing in front of all you guys because of Harry Hiestand. But the amount of passion and care that he has not only for his job but his teaching abilities and his players is what sets him apart.”

Hiestand could’ve stayed as long as he wanted at Notre Dame, presumably, given how much success he had recruiting and developing players there. But six years at one spot is a long time for a position coach, especially at the college level, where the grind of recruiting is so vital to the success of a program. It’s also not like every one of the blue-chip prospects Hiestand recruited to South Bend panned out, either. 

So Hiestand knew he wanted to get back to the NFL after coaching with the Bears under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. It’s a new challenge for him now, not only to develop second-round pick James Daniels but to continue the growth of Cody Whitehair and Leno while getting the most out of Kyle Long, Massie and the rest of the group (back during his first stint with the Bears, Hiestand had the luxury of coaching experienced, more ready-made offensive lines). 

As one of the more highly-regarded offensive line coaches in the country, though, Hiestand could’ve jumped back into the NFL whenever, and nearly wherever, he wanted. And for him, coming back to the Bears was the perfect fit. 

“That’s an awesome, awesome place, a great franchise,” Hiestand said. “It was something, I always wanted to go back, I didn’t know where I would get the opportunity. So I’m just very fortunate it just happened to be back at the same place that I was before. There are a lot of things that are different but there’s also a lot that’s the same. 

“But it’s one of the — it is the greatest organization. Historically, this is where it all began, and being part of it — and the other thing, and I told those guys when I got here, when we get it done here, you guys are going to see this city like you’ve never seen it. And I remember that. That’s what we’re after.”