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Top 14 Chicago sports stories of 2014

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Top 14 Chicago sports stories of 2014

It was a whirlwind of a year in the Chicago sports world. Though no teams were crowned champions in 2014, there were a number of stories - both good and bad - that helped shape the landscape of each. Memorable games, stars arriving, legends departing all made up the year that was. Here's our take on the Top 14 Chicago sports stories of 2014:

14. Notre Dame suspends four amid academic investigation

THE STORY: With Everett Golson back in the fold and a number of key starters returning, Notre Dame had dreams of getting back to competing for a national championship. But those dreams were put on hold, at least momentarily, when DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams were suspended indefinitely for alleged academic violations. There was hope they would return to the team at some point, but that time never came. The Irish raced out to a 6-0 start with wins over Michigan and No. 14 Stanford and were ranked as high as No. 5 in the country, but the loss of the suspended student-athletes, specifically Daniels and Russell, ultimately caught up with them. An offensive pass interference prevented a last-second loss at top-ranked Florida State, setting in motion Brian Kelly's group losing five of their last six games.

THE QUOTE: "I think if you create an environment and lay out the expectations of your program and they’re not met, then they should be held accountable. That’s been the case every year I’ve been a head coach." - Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (August 16)

13. Kings top Blackhawks in overtime of instant classic Game 7

THE STORY: Game 7 of the Western Conference finals between the Blackhawks and Kings had a little bit of everything, much like the entire series. The Blackhawks, riding momentum from wins in Game 5 and 6, shot out to an early 2-0 lead behind goals from Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews. But the Kings answered with two goals in 51 seconds, and ultimately erased Blackhawks leads three different times. That sent the Game 7 to overtime - for just the sixth time in conference finals history - where an Alec Martinez shot deflected off Nick Leddy and past Corey Crawford, sending the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three seasons. And though it didn't end with a Blackhawks victory, the series as a whole has gone down as one of most exciting in recent memory.

THE QUOTE: “We were one goal away. That’s all it came down to. We had a feeling this game was going to find a way to go to overtime, come down to overtime, the way these two teams were fighting playing against each. We were just looking for that one lucky bounce and ran out of time. We didn’t get it.” - Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews (June 1)

12. Bulls trade Luol Deng, opening the door for Joakim Noah

THE STORY: Just one week into 2014 the Bulls produced shockwaves throughout the Windy City when they dealt longtime veteran Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Andrew Bynum's contract and three draft picks. After failing to agree on a extension, Deng, who had $14.3 million remaining on his expiring contract, had expressed the desire to test free agency in the offseason, forcing the Bulls to make a financial decision in dealing him on the cheap. It freed up cap space and got the Bulls under the luxury tax threshold, but it also meant that championship aspirations would be put on hold for yet another year in the wake of Derrick Rose's season-ending knee surgery. It also opened the door for Joakim Noah, who became the face of the franchise and willed the Bulls to 48 wins and a playoff appearance, both of which seemed impossible after Deng's departure. Noah wound up earning All-NBA First Team honors and was named the Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 80 games, salvaging a once-lost season.

THE QUOTE: “(Luol) has gone above and beyond anything we could have imagined, and we appreciate that and respect that. I want to convey from our organization to 'Lu,' publicly, what he’s meant to us and how difficult a decision to move him this has been." - Bulls VP of basketball operations John Paxson (January 7)

11. Jackie Robinson West captivates the city

THE STORY: What began as a nice story in South Williamsport, Pa., eventually took on a life of its own in the city of Chicago. The Jackie Robinson West baseball team, a group of 13 African-American boys from the South Side, fought their way through the Little League World Series, eventually becoming the first team from Chicago to win the United States title and qualify for the championship in nearly 50 years. Their magical run captivated the city, both the White Sox and Cubs expressed their support, the team was given a parade through Chicago upon their return and they made a trip to the White House to meet President Barack Obama.

THE QUOTE: "Just being there was unbelievable. And then we got there and won our first game we were like, 'Yo, let's try to win the whole thing.' So the mood changed and we tried to focus on winning the whole thing. So being on that field, knowing that we were the No. 1 team in the United States of America is unreal." - Jackie Robinson West manager Darold Butler (August 24)

10. Cubs finally break ground on Wrigley Field renovations

THE STORY: For months in 2014 the Cubs and rooftop owners engaged in a legal battle over the proposed $575 million Wrigley Field renovations. And thought at times it felt as though a deal would never get done, two weeks after their season ended the Cubs finally broke ground. With commissioner Bud Selig and Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel in attendance, the Cubs began the first of four phases including altered bleachers, seven outfield signs and a jumbotron in left field. Delays temporarily halted the construction on the bleachers, and there are concerns it may not be ready by Opening Day, but breaking ground on the renovation was an accomplishment in itself and signaled another step forward in the Cubs' rebuilding.

THE QUOTE: “The fact is that there were a lot of days where I was concerned that we would never get to here. Absolutely. But ultimately the mayor stepped up and we worked it out. We found a way to make sure that we could get this ballpark saved.” - Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts (October 11)

9. Paul Konerko says goodbye to Chicago, White Sox faithful

THE STORY: Paul Konerko's final season in Chicago wasn't what he had hoped for, appearing in just 81 games while the White Sox struggled to an 89-loss campaign. But not even a down year could dampen the legend's final weekend at U.S. Cellular Field. During a 42-minute pregame ceremony Konerko, surrounded by family, friends, former and current teammates and special guests, was presented with gifts, a video tribute and a statue in the left-field concourse. Hawk Harrelson also announced plans for Konerko's No. 14 to be retired the following season. Konerko was replaced to start the 6th inning and walked off the field for the last time to a standing ovation, capping off a memorable afternoon for one of the South Side's greatest.

THE QUOTE: “This is way more than you ever dream could happen when you pick up a bat. You’re six years old and you find yourself here 32 years later with all this going on, it’s not something that you think is going to happen." - White Sox legend Paul Konerko (September 27)

8. Blackhawks lock in Kane, Toews with matching contract extensions

THE STORY: During the process of negotiating their respective contract extensions, Jonathan Toews said he texted Patrick Kane a few times to make sure they were on the same page. And like he had been on the ice for the first seven years of his NHL career, Kane was on the same page as his counterpart. So it was only fitting that the two signed identical eight-year, $84 million extensions in July, keeping them in Chicago through their primes as they work together for a third Stanley Cup. The duo's extensions don't begin until the 2015-16 season, but they've already gone to work on that goal; the Blackhawks enter 2015 with a 25-10-2 record and 52 points, sitting atop the Western Conference.

THE QUOTE: "We'll never deny the fact that we're part of a very special group of players that have enabled us to have a lot of the individual success that's been noticeable. So at the end of the day, there's that. And on the other side, we feel there's a number we deserve and are happy with. So far it's worked out and I'm sure as the game keeps growing, the Hawks will have a team that will be successful for years to come." - Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews (July 23)

7. The summer of Carmelo Anthony

THE STORY: Everything was in place for the Bulls to make a major splash in free agency this past summer. A state-of-the-art practice facility, trade assets in the form of two first-round draft picks and young and cheap prospects, the departure of Carlos Boozer's bulky contract and a healthy Derrick Rose returning to a championship contender had all the makings of Chicago being a prime destination for Carmelo Anthony, who had opted out of his deal with the New York Knicks. The Bulls were the first to officially meet with Anthony, with Joakim Noah and Rose acting as recruiters for the seven-time All-Star. The Melo-drama lasted weeks, with Anthony making stops in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and New York, all the while the Bulls being considered the frontrunner for his services. Anthony ultimately opted for the familiarity and cash in New York, re-signing with the Knicks on a $124 million deal. But that decision also allowed the Bulls to begin working on Plan B, which included signing Pau Gasol, bringing over rookie Nikola Mirotic from Spain and re-signing Kirk Hinrich to a two-year deal, among other deals. The Bulls didn't get their man, but at 22-9 they're in far better position than Anthony's Knicks, who are going nowhere at 5-28.

THE QUOTE: "There was one point in time I was like, 'Oh, I'm going [to the Bulls]....You could see the culture they have over there. The seriousness they have, what they're about. It comes down to winning to me, and that's what they're about. That's what I like. They hit everything on the nail. That's hard to do." - New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (November 28)

6. White Sox rookie Jose Abreu takes the league by storm

THE STORY: Rick Hahn was adamant when the White Sox signed Cuban slugger Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal in March that the addition was made for the long-term, not just for a season-long boost in 2014. That may be the case, but Abreu certainly made his imprint on the White Sox in his first year in the bigs. The 27-year-old first baseman hit .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs and 107 RBIs in 145 games and was unanimously named the BBWAA American League Rookie of the Year, earning all 30 first-place votes. He twice won AL Player of the Month (April, July), was a major reason the White Sox made a 10-game jump in the win column in 2014 and felt comfortable enough this offseason to make major splashes in acquiring Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson and Melky Cabrera.

THE QUOTE: "I think we all felt he had the potential to be this type of player at some point during his White Sox career, but I don’t believe any of us would have told you with a straight face that we fully expected this to be in Year 1.” - White Sox general manager Rick Hahn (November 12)

5. Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux enshrined in National Baseball Hall of Fame

THE STORY: There was little, if any, doubt that Frank Thomas and Greg Maddux would be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on their first try. But that didn't dilute the scene in Cooperstown this past summer when both players made heartfelt speeches upon being inducted into baseball lore. A nervous Maddux, who received 97.2 percent of the vote (7th highest in history), thanked family, friends and teammates as well as his time with the Cubs, noting that "I learned how to pitch in Chicago." A tearful Thomas, who received 83.7 percent of the vote, thanked as many people as he could before breaking down speaking about his father, Frank Sr., who passed away in 2001. Thomas and Maddux were enshrined in the Hall of Fame along with Tom Glavine, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre.

THE QUOTE: "My dad was my everything. He pushed me day in and day out to go to practice and do all these things. He was just so proud of me all the time. I was just overcome with emotion. I’m sorry about it. But I’m not sorry about it because it is what I am and I’m proud to be here with these great legends.” - White Sox Hall of Famer Frank Thomas (July 27)

4. Joe Maddon makes memorable arrival in Chicago

THE STORY: A shot and a beer. Down the line Joe Maddon hopefully will be remembered for bringing a World Series to the North Side, but for now his electric press conference inside the Cubby Bear will go down as his highlight of 2014. Just days after he opted out of his deal in Tampa Bay rumors began surfacing that the Cubs were interested in bringing on board one of the game's top managers. And it didn't take long - 10 days, to be exact - for Theo Epstein to strike a five-year, $25 million deal with Maddon, subsequently ending Rick Renteria's one-year tenure with the ballclub. And at that press conference, Maddon reeled off a handful of memorable one-liners, talked about his enthusiasm for breaking the Cubs' 106-year long World Series drought and instilled yet another ounce of hope in the prospects of a championship on the North Side. The Cubs' offseason picked up steam shortly after that, but it was Maddon's hiring that got the ball rolling on the next phase of The Plan.

THE QUOTE: "I'm gonna talk World Series this year. I promise you. I am. And I'm gonna believe it. And I'm going to see how it's all going to play out. It's within our future, there's no question about that." - Cubs manager Joe Maddon (November 3)

3. The Derrick Rose roller coaster continues

THE STORY: Derrick Rose began 2014 the same way he began 2013: Sitting on the bench in a suit and tie, out for the year with a season-ending knee injury. This time a torn meniscus in his right knee had been the culprit, and there were real concerns that another knee injury, on the heels of a torn ACL in 2012, could cripple his NBA career. He watched as the Bulls won 48 games and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Wizards before deeming himself ready to compete with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. He looked fresh in Spain, and though his jump shot was non-existent he did enough to bring optimism of health for the upcoming season. And while he missed 10 games early in the 2014-15 season with ankle and hamstring injuries, Rose appears to have turned the corner. In his last eight games, the former MVP has averaged 21.9 points and 4.3 assists in 29.0 minutes, helping the Bulls to a 22-9 record and looking like the favorites in the East. It's safe to say 2015 will begin far different for Rose than 2014.

THE QUOTE: "My confidence level is very high, like it’s always been. My goals are still the same: stay healthy, keep stringing ‘em out, and win games.” - Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (December 12)

2. White Sox trade for Samardzija, Cubs sign Lester to open free agency

THE STORY: Baseball season in Chicago went quietly in 2014, with the Cubs and White Sox each losing 89 games. But the offseason couldn't have been louder for the two organizations, and in the span of 24 hours each made big moves that should yield major dividends in 2015 and beyond. The White Sox began by acquiring Jeff Samardzija in exchange for a handful of prospects, adding a veteran right-hander to an already impressive starting rotation. Less than a day later the Cubs received word that Jon Lester had accepted their six-year, $155 million offer to become the ace on the North Side. Both teams made additional moves in the hectic offseason, but adding frontline starters created a mutual buzz on both ends of town that hadn't been felt in quite awhile.

THE QUOTE: "I want to win regardless of where I'm at. That's something we talked about extensively when we met. I believe in the plan that they have in place right now for the future of the Cubs." - Cubs ace Jon Lester (December 15)

"It's just what I remember growing up, so there's a very distinct intangible feeling I get when I'm around (Chicago) that is a comfort level because it's the same exact atmosphere that I grew up with playing in the parks. It has a lot to do with it.” - White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija (December 16)

1. Endless mistakes snowball in disastrous Bears campaign

THE STORY: Where to begin? A team with Super Bowl aspirations under second-year head coach Marc Trestman became the laughing stock of the NFL in a matter of weeks. From Lance Briggs' Double Nickel-gate, to back-to-back humiliating defensive efforts against the Patriots and Packers, to Aaron Kromer telling Ian Rappaport the Bears had buyer's remorse on Jay Cutler's contract extension, to three straight nationally-televised losses to the Lions, Cowboys and Saints, and Jay Cutler's $22.5 million salary being benched in Week 16, rock bottom was reached in arguably the franchise's most embarrassing season in 95 years. It ended with Trestman and general manager Phil Emery being fired on Monday. Where the Bears go from here remains to be seen, but what is clear is that this debacle of the season was Chicago sports' top story of 2014.

THE QUOTE: “We've been through a lot over the last six months. Certainly every day's a challenge handling the adversity that we've had and the minimal success we've had and it's been a challenge, something you've got to absorb and embrace along the way and try to be as consistent as you can wit the football team getting them ready each and every week." - Bears head coach Marc Trestman (December 25)

Just missed the cut:

- Javier Baez and Jorge Soler make memorable debuts for Cubs
- Duke-bound Jahlil Okafor leads Whitney Young to state title
- Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman both injured in possible final season in Chicago
- Jimmy Butler rises to stardom early in 2014-15 season
- Tim Beckman leads Illinois to bowl game, retains job
- Northwestern football players win bid to unionize

 

Order of Top 14 list determined by Comcast SportsNet Chicago staff

Photos courtesy USA TODAY SPORTS IMAGES

 

How Bears are adjusting to loss of Eddie Goldman: 'We're missing a key part'

How Bears are adjusting to loss of Eddie Goldman: 'We're missing a key part'

Asked Thursday to give an example of how linebacker Roquan Smith can take his game to the next level, Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano pointed to the first two plays of the 2019 season, including a tackle for loss on the first snap.

“They run a play to our right, their left. He sees an opening. He shoots through and gets a tackle for loss,” Pagano said.

It was a great play. It showed Smith’s speed and recognition. It set the tone against the Green Bay Packers in a game the defense played very well.

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But often overlooked on plays like that is the “opening” Pagano referenced. Smith had an unblocked gap to run through because of his defensive linemen. And as Smith ran through the open hole, nose tackle Eddie Goldman was directly to the linebacker’s left, locked head-to-head with Packers center Corey Linsley. With the Packers’ entire offensive line moving to their left at the snap, the center would typically try to get inside leverage on the nose tackle and get to the linebacker at the second level. Linsley had no chance to touch Smith on this play, mainly because of Goldman’s quickness.

RELATED: Danny Trevathan considered opting out, explains why he didn't

“He has very good foot speed, which puts him in position to win blocks,” Bears defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “He's got very good upper body strength and he stays in really good balance (too). Those are things that Eddie's been really good at. And because of all those traits, he's always in a dominant position. So when he takes on blocks, he's able to get off blocks.”

Or he’s able to stay on them, allowing his linebackers to run free. It just depends on what his job is on any given play. Those tend to be the moments that go unnoticed while his teammates make the tackle.

And that’s why the loss of Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the 2020 NFL season because of COVID-19 concerns, is such a significant loss.

“Man. Eddie’s a huge part. Huge, huge, role to this defense,” inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said Friday. “To have him not here, we’re definitely missing a key part. But I think the guys that they brought in are going to have to step up. They’re going to have to step up and it’s our job to push them each day to get to that level of play. Because it’s going to be a key factor.”

The trickle down effect of losing Goldman reaches the entire defense. Akiem Hicks will get even more attention than he usually does. It will be easier for opponents to focus on blocking the edges, where Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn await. And if Trevathan and Smith see more blockers in their face at the second level, it could lead to big runs up the middle that this Bears defense doesn’t typically allow.

The good news is, every player mentioned in that last paragraph is pretty good at football. The unit as a whole can rally to fill Goldman’s void.

“Our guys are more than willing to step up and pull the rope harder,” Bears outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “When you have a good player like Eddie, it’s hard to not see him out there, but it’s become part of our reality, just like all the rest of it.”

Football coaches are used to adapting and that has never been more important than in 2020. Fortunately for the Bears, Rodgers is one of the best defensive line coaches in the game and the team hasn’t even taken a single practice rep with pads on yet. At least the team knows the reality now, instead of losing a player like Goldman mid-season.

While no one can completely replicate what Goldman brings to the table, the Bears do have experienced players across their defensive line, starting with Hicks, who can line up anywhere and eat up multiple gaps if necessary. At this point, Bears fans know what he can do.

But what about the other options? Here’s a look a few key players:

Bilal Nichols – 6-3, 313

Nichols doesn’t trail too far behind Goldman in size and has been trained at the nose. After a very promising rookie season, Nichols took a small step back in 2019 while also dealing with injuries. Has the former fifth round pick reached his realistic ceiling or can he develop into a consistent starting caliber player? Nichols is still only 23 and we're about to find out.

“He’s done a tremendous job. Young, gifted, hungry,” Trevathan said Friday.

Roy Robertson-Harris – 6-5, 292

Already converted from outside linebacker, it’s asking a lot for Robertson-Harris to play the nose, but this will likely be a rotational plan and he does have versatility.

“He obviously has played a lot of three-technique or what we're calling inside-one technique in our sub defenses,” Rodgers said. “He has never played a nose position in base defense, but that's OK. You're playing in the A-gap once you get into your sub world.”

Translation: Robertson-Harris has experience playing the gap between the center and the guard, but he’s not your traditional two-gap defensive lineman who’s out there to eat up space. I wouldn’t expect Robertson-Harris’ role to change too much, but he’s still only 27 and could be an ascending player, so if he continues to improve, it will certainly help the line overall.

John Jenkins – 6-3, 327

Jenkins, 31, is suddenly a very important player for the Bears because he has the most experience at nose tackle and previously played in this defense in 2017.

“I think any time you bring a player back, you had a really good experience with him before,” Rodgers said. “He has size. He has length. He has power. He's got really good foot speed. He loves to play the game of football. And he's very coachable.”

Jenkins has been a rotational player for most of his career, but actually played a similar amount of snaps as Goldman last year and Rodgers has a knack for maximizing veteran talent.

Abdullah Anderson – 6-3, 297

A former undrafted free agent out of Bucknell, Anderson is now in his third year with the Bears and saw 106 snaps on defense last season. He’s still a developmental player, but Goldman’s absence provides a big opportunity for the young defensive tackle.

“He's got really good size, he's got really good quickness and he's got really good hands,” Rodgers said. “He's very sneaky with his hands. You saw some glimpses of him in the Indianapolis preseason game when he got to play a lot of snaps in a row.”

But those glimpses didn’t always translate to the regular season. It will be interesting to see how much the limited offseason impacts Anderson as he’ll have a limited window on the field in training camp to prove himself.

Brent Urban – 6-7, 300 

Urban has never played nose tackle, but is now getting trained there, according to Rodgers. The 29-year-old veteran was claimed off waivers from Tennessee in the middle of last season and acclimated himself well to Pagano’s defense. At 6-7, Urban probably won’t translate well to the nose tackle position, but he does provide dependable veteran depth elsewhere on the line, which will be important.

“At the end of the day, what you'd like to have is the best two, three, four guys out there on the field that you could possibly put out there with the ability to substitute when you need to and not have any drop-off,” Rodgers said. “So we're going to continue to train everybody at every position, and we just have some options right now, especially at this part of camp.”

Typically, the Bears would already be a week into padded practices in training camp. Instead, they have to wait until Aug. 17 to put the pads on. At that point, they’ll essentially have three weeks of competition before jumping into game-week to prepare for the Detroit Lions.

And while the defensive lineman use that abbreviated time to compete, Trevathan and Smith will get used to life without Eddie Goldman in front them.

“Me and Ro just need to adjust our game a little bit to get a feel for those guys,” Trevathan said. “So it’s just to get that little vibe. I’ve played a little bit with them.”

He's about to play a lot with them.

 

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Bears rookie watch: 5 early thoughts about 2020 draft class, and Ledarius Mack

Bears rookie watch: 5 early thoughts about 2020 draft class, and Ledarius Mack

Bears coaches, over the last few weeks, got a better sense of what kind of players and people they have in 2020’s crop of rookies. While practices don’t begin until the week of Aug. 17, rookies have been able to participate in on-field walkthroughs at Halas Hall, allowing the Bears to get their first look at these guys since April’s draft.

With that in mind, here are five things we learned this week from talking to those Bears coaches about everyone from Cole Kmet to Ledarius Mack:

Jaylon Johnson is in a stiffer competition than we might’ve thought.

Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said Johnson has been “a little bit limited” because of his shoulder (Johnson underwent a procedure on his shoulder in March). I wouldn’t be too concerned about Johnson’s shoulder right now, although it’s something to monitor when practices are expected to begin in about 10 days.

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But even if he’s full go in a week and a half, Johnson is not a lock to win the competition to start at corner opposite Kyle Fuller. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if he isn’t on the field Sept. 13 in Detroit, with Kevin Toliver II or Artie Burns getting the nod over him.

This is where 2020’s pandemic-altered offseason hurts Johnson. He didn’t have rookie minicamp and OTAs to get his feet under him with his assignments, and he won’t have the benefit of a few preseason games to adjust to the physicality and speed of the NFL. And guys with experience in the league might be first in line come September. 

Johnson, no doubt, will be a starter for the Bears soon enough – probably early in the 2020 season – but I continue to get the sense he might not be one immediately. Although that sense could always change once practice actually starts up at Halas Hall this month.

“The good thing is it’s not like he has to come in and he has to be the No. 2 or No. 3 guy right now,” Pagano said. “Now, once we get going and we start practicing if he beats those guys out and he wins that third spot, second spot, whatever that is, then great. … We missed the whole offseason. They’ve got a lot of catching up to do and make up, but again, we’ve got a lot of time with him so we can be patient at that position.”

The early returns on Cole Kmet are encouraging.

The first words tight end coach Clancy Barone used to describe Kmet were “quick study.” And everything that showed up when the Bears scouted him coming out of Notre Dame has shown up in meetings and walkthroughs.

“He certainly looks the part,” Barone said. “He’s as big as advertised, he’s in tremendous condition, very lean, he’s a big, thick bodied guy and extremely athletic.”

More than any other rookie, the Bears need Kmet to contribute immediately given his upside and potential impact in allowing Matt Nagy use more 12 personnel – a largely untapped resource in his playbook. So it’s certainly good news that Kmet is quickly picking things up and stayed in great shape over the summer.

MORE: Fragility of 2020 season constantly on Bears' players minds

Rookie tight ends, though, rarely make major impacts. It’s not easy to transition from college to the speed and physicality of the NFL at that position. It'll be even more difficult without OTAs and minicamps, let alone preseason games. 

So the Bears will do what they can at Halas Hall to get Kmet prepared for Sept. 13, but how the No. 43 pick handles an NFL game will be an unknown until his first snap at Ford Field that day. 

“Usually there’s a mode of tempo and such that happens in practice and then it ramps up in preseason and then it doubles when you get to regular season and even more in postseason,” Barone said. “That’s going to be the thing as a staff and a team that we replicate in practice. So those young players who are going to be called upon early in their career so they can get an idea of what opening day is going to be like.”

The Bears are playing the long game with Trevis Gipson.

Outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said Barkevious Mingo, Isaiah Irving and James Vaughters will compete to be the Bears’ No. 3 OLB – the first guy off the sidelines when Khalil Mack or Robert Quinn needs a breather. It was notable that he didn’t mention Gipson, a fifth-round pick, among that group.

Again, there’s a theme here: The lack of spring workouts and practices is negatively impacting the ability of almost every rookie across the league to get on the field early in the 2020 season. The Bears like Gipson’s pass-rushing upside, and that hasn’t changed. But he’s transitioning not only from college to the pros, but from being a 4-3 end to a 3-4 edge rusher. 

The good news on Gipson is Monachino has no concerns about his work ethic and ability to learn. Gipson is constantly asking questions and looking for extra time to spend with coaches, Monachino said, which will help him catch up faster.

“For a player that played in a system like he did, it’s real common for a guy to see the game through a straw,” Monachino said. “But he’s trying to see it through a barn door right now. It’s a process but he’s not shying away from it at all. He’s a super kid and I think he’s fitting in well in the room and I think he’s got a bright future.”

Here’s a quote you’ll love to see.

DeShea Townsend, talking about fifth-round cornerback Kindle Vildor: “As far as the type of guy he is, he is a Bear guy.”

While these walkthroughs have been better than nothing, most of the last few weeks has been a getting-to-know-you period for Bears coaches with these rookies. The springtime Zoom calls were nice, sure, but it’s a lot more impactful to get to know someone in person – even if you’re socially distancing and wearing masks.

MORE: Post opt-out NFL power rankings

And for Townsend, getting to know Vildor revealed something that’ll help the Georgia Southern product fit right in on the 2020 Bears.

“He is a true competitor — the way that he asks questions in meetings, the things that he wants to know, it just shows that he’s a competitor,” Townsend said. “So I’m excited to see him get a chance to get out there and play.”

Don’t count out Ledarius Mack.

I didn’t include Mack in my latest 53-man roster projection, though I do have him landing on the Bears’ practice squad. It’s going to be a tough for an undrafted rookie to beat out multiple players with NFL experience this year.

But if anyone can do it, it’s Mack, isn’t it? We'll end the first Rookie Watch installment with a glowing review from his position coach:

“Ledarius is not a very big player, but he walks around here like he’s 10 feet tall, which is exactly what you’d expect,” Monachino said. “He’s got plenty of juice. He’s explosive. He’s got really heavy hands. He’s done a lot of things that are really impressive, and he’s an easy learner, and so that part has been great.

“From a personality standpoint, he’s got a lot of the best traits Khalil has. He’s a little snarky every now and then, so he’s got some funny things to say. He also is very attentive in what his job is. It’s been a joy to have him. To see those two together, they have tried not to be Khalil and Khalil’s little brother or Ledarius and Ledarius’s big brother as much as they have been teammates, which has been kind of cool to watch. It’s not like a dad and a son. It’s two guys that are both fighting for the same things, and it’s awesome. It’s been fun to have.

“Talented young player. Right place, right time, got a chance.”   

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