Adam Shaheen

5 players with best chance to be Bears' 2018 training camp star

5 players with best chance to be Bears' 2018 training camp star

It happens every year in Bourbonnais. An unexpected hero rises from the bottom-half of the 90-man training-camp roster to become a fan favorite and preseason headliner.

Last year, it was undrafted free agent Tanner Gentry (WR). The year before, it was seventh-round pick Daniel Braverman (WR). It’s possible another receiver wears the crown in 2018, but he’ll have some stiff competition.

Here are five candidates to be this year’s training camp star: 

Ryan Nall (RB)

Nall was the Bears’ most well-known undrafted free agent signing and despite beginning training camp behind several established veterans on the depth chart, he’s going to make the most of his reps in practice and is a good bet to lead the team in rushing yards during the preseason. Nall’s best chance of making the final roster is with standout special teams play, but there will be a segment of Bears fans calling for the former Oregon State standout to factor in the running game by the end of August.

Kylie Fitts (OLB)

A sixth-round pick with pass-rushing upside? Sounds like a perfect nominee to get Bears fans excited. And maybe a little too excited at that. Fitts is being pushed into a role that he may not be ready for: the backup plan to Aaron Lynch if the free-agent signee doesn’t pan out as a healthy complement to Leonard Floyd at outside linebacker. Fitts has had his own issues with injuries during his time at Utah, but he’s entering the ideal situation in Chicago where the depth chart is wide open for an unexpected sack artist to emerge.

Matt Fleming (WR)

Fleming, a small-school undrafted receiver (Benedictine University) with a track star background, will make his case to be Chicago’s training camp darling if he can get behind coverage and make big plays in the first handful of practices. At 6’0 and 180 pounds, Fleming has a similar physical makeup of former Bears receiver Bernard Berrian and offers the same straight-line speed that Berrian brought to Chicago from 2004-2007. Bears fans love big plays in the passing game and will rally behind Fleming if he brings that dimension to practice day in and day out.

Adam Shaheen (TE)

Trey Burton has hogged all the tight end attention this offseason but it’s Shaheen who has a good chance at being the talk of the town in early August. He had 124 yards and two touchdowns in three of his final five games played last year and started flashing the kind of mismatch upside that made him the Bears’ second-round pick in 2017. His role may not change all that much even with Burton on the roster, but his production will be capped. Still, expect the Shaheen faithful to make themselves heard if he makes plays in the red zone this preseason.

Chase Daniel (QB)

Everyone loves the backup quarterback, and while Bears fans are firmly in Mitch Trubisky’s corner, Daniel has a chance to outplay the franchise passer this summer because of his familiarity with coach Matt Nagy’s offense. Daily reports of his accuracy and efficiency will start an unnecessary conversation among fans who are still sour over Pace trading up for No. 10.

Will Dion Sims be the Chicago Bears' surprise starter in 2018?

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USA Today

Will Dion Sims be the Chicago Bears' surprise starter in 2018?

The Chicago Bears made a hefty investment in tight end this offseason with the four-year, $32 million contract given to Trey Burton. The former Philadelphia Eagle is expected to man the U-tight end spot for the Bears, a role made famous by Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce.

Burton's addition has called Dion Sims' role into question only one year removed from Sims being the high-priced free agent. General manager Ryan Pace signed him to a three-year, $18 million contract last offseason, but his first year in Chicago didn't go as hoped. He started 14 games and managed only 15 catches for 180 yards and one touchdown. Hardly the kind of production expected from a player with his price tag, even if he's more of an in-line tight end.

The good news for Sims is coach Matt Nagy needs more than just Burton in his starting lineup. Sims will battle second-year player Adam Shaheen for the primary in-line role.

Sims was recently tabbed as the player most likely to become a surprise starter for the Bears in the fall.

Don't write off Sims just yet, because the tight end fills a certain niche within Nagy's offense. Sims can still be a factor in two-tight end sets and the running game, as his blocking makes him an ideal in-line option. 

Nagy and the Bears coaching staff will have unique depth to work with at tight end. Burton brings the most athletic ability and playmaking upside to the position group, but the combination of all three gives the Bears offense more options and targets in the passing game no matter who's on the field. That's a really good problem for second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to have.

The recent re-signing of Zach Miller will help all three as well. He'll be able to serve as a quasi-coach while he continues his recovery from the leg injury he suffered last season.

With a better foundation in place, Adam Shaheen still has to earn his snaps in 2018

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USA Today Sports Images

With a better foundation in place, Adam Shaheen still has to earn his snaps in 2018

A year ago at this time, the question about Adam Shaheen wasn’t if he’d be good — it was how good he’d be. 

As it turns out, that wasn’t the right question to ask while Shaheen impressed during helmets-and-shorts OTA practices. Bodying up a defensive back without pads looked nice, but wasn’t a predictor of how the rookie from Division-II Ashland would fair during the regular season. 

“Really I was pretty blind to it all last year, I was just trying to run the right route and catch the ball,” Shaheen said. “So it’s not like this year where I really feel like you understand football in Year 2.”

Shaheen played the fourth-fewest snaps (239) among Bears’ tight ends last year, behind Dion Sims (580), Zach Miller (314) and Daniel Brown (241). Granted, Shaheen only was the “Y” tight end in the Bears’ offense, and missed the final three weeks of the season due to a chest injury — but that lack of usage was because, fairly or unfairly, John Fox and Dowell Loggains didn’t quite trust him. 

So Shaheen only was targeted 14 times in 13 games, catching 12 of those for 127 yards with a team-high three touchdowns. Even with the NFL’s low success rate of rookie tight ends, those numbers were underwhelming. 

But Shaheen is expecting to make a significant jump in Year 2 as a pro, as he alluded to above. 

“It’s so much different for me this year, at least from a mental standpoint,” Shaheen said. “And knowing what I needed to do physically this offseason and doing what I had to do, and then coming out here, even with the new offense it just feels a lot slower.”

Shaheen said he weighs 270 pounds (he came to the Bears at 278) but is leaner, the product of a full year in the Bears’ strength and conditioning program. He and Mitch Trubisky showed a decent rapport last year, and can build on that this year — so long as Shaheen is able to cut into Sims’ playing time (Trey Burton and Brown are both “U” tight ends, a position Shaheen says he’s learning but isn’t a focus for him).

“I feel like (tight end’s) one of our strengths as an offense with that experience and just that athleticism and what they can do creating mismatch opportunities for the defense, so we've just gotta continue to utilize them,” Trubisky said. “But at the end of the day, it comes down to execution and just us learning our offense and giving our playmakers the best opportunity to go against them. I believe we've got our playmakers than the defense has guys to account for them, so we've just gotta utilize those guys and get them the ball and believe in the plan and execute the plays.”

Shaheen isn’t guaranteed playing time just because he’s on more solid footing after his first year in the league, though. The Bears still need to see him earn those snaps in the coming weeks and months. 

“You gotta control what you can control, and for me that’s my effort,” Shaheen said. “The extra stuff I do, that’s what you can control. You can’t control anything else. That’s what I’m going to do.”