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Looking back – and ahead – at Bears offseason: LB competition

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Looking back – and ahead – at Bears offseason: LB competition

In the first of a three-part series 'Looking Ahead' to training camp, CSNChicago.com Bears Insider previews the linebacker competition that lies ahead in Bourbonnais.

The minicamps, OTA’s and strength-and-conditioning sessions wrapped up last week, leaving virtually the exact same questions that were in place back in April with the first minicamp: the offensive line, Jay Cutler and the new offense, linebackers, sufficient linemen for the forming 3-4 and so on. Those questions will remain in need of definitive answers all the way into mid-September when the Green Bay Packers come to Soldier Field.

Roster decisions, starters, “these guys understand that they pick the team,” said coach John Fox. “It's how they perform. How they practice. How they're evaluated. It's what to do, how to do, do it under pressure.”

[MORE BEARS: Several new Bears teammates making impressions on Eddie Royal]

Evaluations of either line will wait until training camp. Three of the Bears’ six draft choices were linemen, and they aren’t allowed in pads or each other’s kitchens until training camp.

But a few observations are in order in the quiet before Bourbonnais. CSNChicago.com looks at three areas in particular:

Linebacker competition will be extreme

The top priority from the outset of free agency was linebacker, specifically outside pass-rush threats. Sam Acho and Pernell McPhee were signed and are ensconced on the edges of a defense that coordinator Vic Fangio is committed to making as unpredictable as the Bears’ 4-3 had become the opposite.

After that, matters become both uncertain and very interesting. Jared Allen was first-alternate on the outside, appeared to both grasp and enjoy the new role, regardless of him not being a starter for the first time since he began his rookie season (2004) as a backup and on special teams. Lamarr Houston and Willie Young are going to be pressed to find snaps as they return from season-ending leg injuries. Acho and McPhee were not signed to be situational pass rushers.

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But it is inside where four players are head-to-head for two jobs, something that was never the case in the time of Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Jonathan Bostic needed injuries to D.J. Williams to slip into the starting lineup; now Bostic is coming off an offseason spent watching from the sidelines with what is believed to be a back issue. Like Houston and Young, Bostic has an uphill battle for a spot in either the base or sub packages this preseason.

The Bears signed Mason Foster from Tampa Bay, where he was a 4-3 middle linebacker who did not have a place in Lovie Smith’s system. Whether he has a prominent one in Fox/Fangio’s is far from assured.

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The “starters” at the end of the pre-camp offseason are Christian Jones and Shea McClellin. Do not dismiss McClellin, looking at his third position in three years, and Jones has added muscle up to 250 pounds. Jones in particular has impressed and if he does not secure one of the inside-linebacker spots, it will be a camp surprise.

“I think McClellin and Christian Jones have some talent and they should be able to find a spot in our defense somewhere,” Fangio said. “[Jones has] got good size. He’s got good athletic ability. He’s a young, eager guy and football’s important to him. I think he’s got a bright future if he can develop.”

Coming Tuesday: The nose nobody knows

Coming Wednesday: Offensive line decisions loom at multiple spots

Kevin White, Bears focusing on the present and not his unlucky past or uncertain future

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Kevin White, Bears focusing on the present and not his unlucky past or uncertain future

Kevin White had little interest in engaging with reporters on Wednesday, the first time he was made available to the media since suffering a season-ending broken scapula in Week 1 of the 2017 season. His answers weren’t combative, but they were short and terse. 

Then again, how was he supposed to handle yet another round of questions — none of which were unfair — about his star-crossed past or his uncertain future? He did offer up this quote-worthy line when asked what he’s learned about himself after all the adversity he’s faced since being drafted with the seventh overall pick in the 2015 Draft:

“Built Ford Tough.”

If White would rather live in the present than in the past or future, that’s fine. It’s actually ideal if the Bears want to get something out of him in the final year of his rookie contract. And it’s also the mindset preached to him by wide receivers coach Mike Furrey, his fourth position coach in four years in the NFL. 

“We sat down from Day 1 and I said listen, I don’t know anything about your past, I don’t want to know anything about your past,” Furrey said. “From here on out it’s just going forward and just doing everything that we can control day in and day out and that’s it. I won’t talk to you anything about tomorrow, I’ll only talk to you about what we’re doing today and how we’re building today.”

If the Bears hope to get anything out of White in 2018 — and if White hopes to revive his career without job security beyond this season — that narrow mindset is a good starting point. It’s even more important during OTAs here in late May, with there still being about two months until the Bears’ first padded practice and two and a half months before preseason play begins. 

The Bears insulated themselves from needing White to produce this year by adding targets for Mitch Trubisky in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Anthony Miller over the last two months. The spotlight is off White, in a sense, and he’s okay with that — “I don’t need attention,” White said, “I just come here and do my job.”

But in another sense, there’s an immense amount of pressure on White to prove himself worthy of a roster spot not in 2018, but in 2019. Not many receivers with White’s numbers — 21 catches on 40 targets, 193 yards, no touchdowns in five games — are able to hang around the league for long without being a special teams ace (like Josh Bellamy, for instance). Neither the past nor future for White is particularly rosy. 

So that’s why White said he doesn’t have any specific goals for the season: “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “As long as I’m out here.” 

All White can do is show up to Halas Hall and, eventually, Olivet Nazarene University ready to practice with a narrow mindset on that day, and that day only. If he sticks with that approach — and doesn’t suffer another horribly-unlucky injury — eventually, he’ll arrive at Lambeau Field in September for the season opener, finally given the opportunity to prove himself. 

But that’s a long ways away. For now, White’s well within his rights to not want to entertain any thoughts about what happened in the last three years or what lies ahead. 

“I don’t know the past and I don’t want to know the past,” Furrey said. “Everything from here on out is going to be everything in the future. We’ve kind of established that and that kind of allows him to relax a little bit and not be judged and to have all these things said about him — because I don’t know. I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t even want to know. 

“All I want (is for) him to be comfortable and be able to learn a new system and be able to learn it as fast as he can so he can go out there — and everybody sees it, he’s very gifted. He’s very powerful, lower body powerful. He can run, he’s got a great catch radius. He has all those intangibles and that’s exciting, but it’s really what you do with those every day. So we’ll just continue to have the daily routine and hopefully get better every day and then be able to put it together when we gotta go.” 

NFL Anthem policy won’t keep Sam Acho, others from standing up for what they believe in

NFL Anthem policy won’t keep Sam Acho, others from standing up for what they believe in

By a 31-0 vote, NFL owners on Wednesday approved a policy addressing player protests of the National Anthem that became a political flashpoint last fall. The rule removes the requirement that all players be on the field for the Anthem, but any team and league personnel who are on the field “shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”

If a player is on the field and does not “stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” his team will be fined by the NFL. Teams will be allowed to develop their own rules regarding their personnel who “do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” as well.

The NFLPA was not consulted in creating this policy, and collectively sent a strongly-worded statement about the “policy” on Wednesday afternoon.

Sam Acho is the Bears’ union representative and spoke Wednesday about the policy change.

“Obviously, from the beginning, no one’s intent and I think that no one’s purpose was to disrespect the flag,” Acho said. “Everyone’s purpose, starting with Colin Kaepernick, Michael Thomas, Eric Reid — who still doesn’t have a job — was to protest police brutality against people of color. I think that still stands, right? You’re going to find a way to stand up for people who are being unjustly treated, find a way to stick up for justice in whatever way, shape or form you can possibly do it.”

The Bears did not have any player kneel for the National Anthem last year, and as a team decided to lock arms a day after President Donald Trump tweeted, among other things, that teams who have players who knelt should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” But just because the Bears didn’t have a member openly protesting during the National Anthem didn’t mean no one was working to raise awareness of injustice and police brutality against people of color, Acho said.

So that players, effectively, will not be allowed to kneel for the National Anthem anymore won’t prevent anyone from continuing their activism for causes in which they believe.

“Was I okay with the ruling? Well I don't know, I guess people make decisions and it's up to you to either stick with them or find a different way to stand up for what you believe in,” Acho said. “So to ask if I'm okay with the ruling I don't know if that's the right question to ask. I think the right question would be well what do you do now? And I think about me and I think about what guys on this team are doing. Like we're already in the community, we're already finding a way to protest police brutality against people of color.

“We're working with the police, we're working with people of color and we're doing it. I think protesting is a great avenue to do that, to bring awareness. Obviously protest has brought a ton of awareness to the abuses of power that are going on in our country and I think that was a great method to start a conversation. Now what we're seeing is we're seeing action.”

Acho added that he and some of his teammates, during a bible study Wednesday morning, focused on a passage from James 2: “Faith without works is dead,” which underscores the importance of players continuing to use their platform to stand up for what they believe in however they can.

“It's one thing to have faith and say you believe in something and it's a total different thing to actually do something about it,” Acho said. “That's why I salute Kaep, I salute Eric Reid, Michael Thomas, all these guys who have from the beginning stood up for injustice. And some of them don't have jobs right now right? Colin Kaepernick right now is not in the NFL. Eric Reid is not in the NFL, they're paying the price, right?

“But I think that their, martyrdom is a strong word but, I just use that term now, their martyrdom is actually paying huge dividends for people with no voice. They're speaking up for the voiceless and as a Chicago Bear, as an NFL player I'm going to continue to do that in any way, shape or form.

“As you all know last year we didn't have guys taking a knee. We locked arms, we stayed together, we were unified as a team. That's what we are, we're a team but just because you're not protesting the National Anthem doesn't mean somebody can keep you from standing up for those that are being treated unfairly.”

Whatever the Bears do in 2018, they’ll do as a team — Mitch Trubisky said he believes he and his teammates will all be on the field for the National Anthem — but, despite today’s policy change, that won’t keep players like Acho from continuing to further their message.

“I don't think anything really changes at this point, right?” Acho said. “Obviously, the NFLPA goes back and says, 'OK, what do we do now? As a union, what do we do? How will we respond?' But, to be honest, I think a lot of players are happy about the conversations that are happening. So the protest served their purpose.

“If guys still want to protest, obviously the ruling is if that if you don't want to stand for the anthem, according to the owners, you can stay inside. You may see a whole team stay inside like Pittsburgh did in Week 3. I'm not Nostradamus, so I don't know what happens next, but I will say we continue to do what we're doing, speak up for those who can't speak up for themselves.”