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Kevin White faces stiff rookie expectations from Bears, NFL

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Kevin White faces stiff rookie expectations from Bears, NFL

The NFL learning curve for wide receivers took on a great deal of relevance for the Bears and Kevin White as the rookie wideout went through his first NFL practice.

When Alshon Jeffery was selected in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft he was coming in as a reserve receiver initially. Devin Hester and Brandon Marshall were starters, and it took some weeks into the season for Jeffery to break into the starting lineup.

White comes to the Bears as the No. 7 pick of the first round, and virtually a given to be starting opposite Jeffery.

“I know there’s a lot expected of me,” White said on Friday at rookie minicamp.

[MORE BEARS: Bears agree to terms with draft picks Kevin White, Eddie Goldman]

The Bears’ franchise record for a rookie wide receiver is 45 catches, by Harlon Hill in 1954. That was enough to get Hill to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. The Bears are indeed expecting more, at least numerically speaking.

But those expectations also demand accelerated learning at a position that once rarely produced epic rookie seasons but now has seen rookie wideouts hit the ground running, really, really fast.

“I think in the past we have what we call ‘fail rates,’” said Bears head coach John Fox. “Everybody follows the quarterback just because that’s a visible position. Over time, years ago we did this study that the receiver position was right up there with the quarterback.

“I don’t know if people are doing a better job of evaluating guys and how they fit their systems, but I think that’s changed a little bit over the last couple of years.”

Last year the New York Giants got 91 receptions from rookie Odell Beckham Jr. Jarvis Landry caught 84 for the Miami Dolphins. Seven receivers totaled more than 50 receptions.

[MORE BEARS: For Kevin White, move to Bears, Chicago just another transition]

Beckham’s 91 tied Eddie Royal for second all-time on the NFL rookie reception list.

The proliferation of spread offenses has made drafting college quarterbacks and offensive linemen sometimes more problematic. But the spread game is producing receivers with dramatically increased impact in an NFL that has tilted toward the pass as well.

“Much like our game, the passing game has become, I don’t know, in vogue in college football as well,” Fox said. “If you watched our practice today, there was some issues with taking the snap from under center. That’s one thing I know that they’re not doing as much in college now. As far as the passing game, just like our game, there are more passes in college football, as well.”

White may be coming in more NFL-ready than receivers of a decade or two ago. But he has other orientation issues.

He played almost exclusively the right side at West Virginia. He won’t be doing that in Chicago under offensive coordinator Adam Gase.

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“Moving him around a little bit is going to be different for him,” Gase said, “but I don't think intelligence-wise we have any concerns with him. We brought him in for his interview and he was outstanding, picked up what we taught him very quickly and was able to bring it back to us. Coach [Mike] Groh had a really good feel for him, and I think he's going to fit in well with us.

"We really like what he brought to the table, and we look for specific routes, and when we see one or two things, we know they can do the entire tree, so his speed, his body control, the way that he bursts off the ball, all those things we really liked.”

White said he felt like a college freshman all over again. Coaches only presented a very small selection of plays but White found out very quickly that he wasn’t in Kansas (or West Virginia) anymore, Toto.

“Did a lot of movement, left side and in the slot on the right side, slot in the left,” White said. “So a lot different than college. Just trying to get adjusted. First day. So it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. But I’m learning the system and trying to get better each and every day.”

That would qualify as Expectation No. 1 from the Bears.

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

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Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.