Bennie Cunningham

Four Bears position battles to monitor as offseason continues

Four Bears position battles to monitor as offseason continues

General manager Ryan Pace had an extremely busy offseason. It started in free agency where he spent big money on targets for Mitchell Trubisky and continued in the NFL draft where at least three new starters may have been found.

Pace's aggressive approach to the roster has several players from last year's squad on notice. Whether it's a starting job or key sub-package role, the competition for playing time will ratchet up as the offseason marches on.

Here are four position battles worth monitoring through OTAs and training camp.

WR: Kevin White vs. Anthony Miller

Miller was drafted in the second round to contribute right away. White was drafted in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft to become a go-to-guy. Something's gotta give.

The smart money is on Miller winning this battle because White hasn't proven capable of staying healthy as a pro. Maybe it's bad luck. Maybe his body can't take what the NFL requires. Regardless, even when he's been healthy, White hasn't provided the Bears with any reason to feel confident he'll develop into the Dez Bryant-like player he was projected to be.

Miller, on the other hand, has the benefit of being the shiny new rookie with endless upside. He's not a sure-thing, however, and if he struggles with drops or NFL speed, White could pull a surprise upset. 

The best case scenario for the Bears is the competition brings out the best in both players. If that happens, the offense will be shockingly explosive.

TE: Dion Sims vs. Adam Shaheen

The duo of Sims and Shaheen started finding its groove late last season and it appeared tight end was one of the few spots on the roster that could be ignored this offseason. Then came the Trey Burton signing. 

Burton wasn't signed to sit on the bench, and the number of plays that will feature three tight ends will be minimal. Shaheen and Sims will battle for the primary in-line tight end role and both players represent a significant investment by Pace. Shaheen was a second-round pick in 2017 and Sims was signed last year to a three-year, $18 million deal. Pace may end up the biggest loser in this battle. 

Smart money is on Shaheen pairing with Burton as the primary tight ends in the offense. He offers a little more as a pass catcher and was building chemistry with Trubisky when he was healthy last year. Sims could end up a surprising cut when it's all said and done.

OLB: Aaron Lynch vs. Kylie Fitts

The NFC North is arguably the most talented quarterback division in the NFL with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins representing six of the Bears' opposing passers in 2018. If the Bears don't have a productive pass rush this season, they're in big trouble. 

Lynch was signed to a one-year deal in free agency to contribute to that cause, but Fitts has drawn early praise from Matt Nagy and could work his way into a bigger role than was expected on draft day. The Bears may be willing to give Fitts an extended look because of his favorable rookie contract, too. Lynch should begin the year as a starter, but if Fitts makes some plays in the preseason, he could be a surprising first-teamer come Week 1.

RB: Ryan Nall vs. Benny Cunningham

This one's going to be a dogfight. Nall is a tough and physical runner who can make plays on the ground and through the air and will contribute to kick and punt coverage on special teams if he makes the roster. Cunningham proved last season he can spell Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen in the backfield and was a key contributor to the game's third phase. He was re-signed to a one-year deal.

The Bears won't keep both. They offer the same kind of skill set even if they're bringing different body-types and styles of play to the field. 

Cunningham should come out on top. Nall would be a great practice squad candidate if he doesn't make the cut, but don't count him out. He's an old-school football player and teams need those guys.

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Nick Kwiatkoski found out something about the rookie “wall” about this time last year, his first in the NFL. It wasn’t even the games themselves, the first three preseason ones and the first two of the regular season, which Kwiatkoski missed with a severe hamstring injury. It isn’t even the grind of training camp, much of which Kwiatkoski had to sit out with the hamstring. It was all of it.

“I went right from my senior year into this point of the year and I felt drained,” Kwiatkoski said, shaking his head. “It’s such a difference from what you’re used to in college. Now it’s football-football-football, all the time. That plays into it.

“My bowl game [at West Virginia] was on a Saturday. I was back in training that Monday. I went and did that for three months – Senior Bowl, Combine, Pro Day, I was still training. OTA’s, minicamps. We got a break before the season but that didn’t feel like anything. Then you’re into the season.”

Limited workloads for ’17 draft class

Any rookie “wall” may be a relative threshold for the Bears, who may be making major changes but not yet with their rookies doing heavy loads. Only one rookie has started all eight games and none of the draft choices have played as many as 50 percent of the snaps on either offense or defense. The Bears need that to change.

The Bears and their rookies are deep into the season now, with players getting deep into their on-field preparations for the Green Bay Packers next Sunday and beginning the second half of the 2017. Over the past week-plus, a number of “resets” will have occurred, both physical and mental.

Both can be a problem, and right now the Bears’ margin for error at 3-5 is perilously thin for any coping with any problems.

“I did hit a wall,” said guard Josh Sitton, recalling his 2008 rookie season as a Packer. “I was ready to get the [heck] outta there. I remember it. My O-line coach actually called me in his office and said, ‘You look dead.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I feel like it.’”

The rookies have been practicing at an NFL level with veterans since the start of training camp at the end of July. But only safety Eddie Jackson had won his starting job by opening day; Jackson has started every game and played unofficially 99.6 percent of the opposing snaps.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky replaced Mike Glennon four games ago, and has played 233 snaps. Tight end Adam Shaheen also has started four games but played barely 20 percent of the Bears’ snaps. With Zach Miller’s season-ending knee injury, a major void opens, with Shaheen now needed to play up to the level of a second-round draft choice, which he hasn’t.

The Case of Cohen

Running back Tarik Cohen became aware of the “wall” over the break, “going back home and seeing [alma mater North Carolina A&T’s] schedule and seeing they have two games left, possibility of three games left, and we [the Bears] have eight. So that's the only thing that really caught me off guard.”

Cohen has been in all eight games but started only one (Tampa Bay) and played 38 percent of the offensive snaps. Cohen, however, has played 49 snaps on special teams as the Bears’ primary kick and punt returner, particularly with Deonte Thompson released and Benny Cunningham missing time with a sprained ankle.

The novelty of Cohen has more than worn off, more like possibly worn “down” as in Cohen touches producing diminishing returns as the rookie season of the undersized running back hits the midpoint. Injuries have taken Cunningham (5-10, 217 pounds) out of the rotation to the point where Cohen has been pressed into a role for which he isn’t really designed, and the Bears now very much need Cunningham. Very much.

Cohen had double-digit touches (handoffs plus targets) in five of the Bears’ first six games, too much of an NFL workload for a player measuring 5-6 and 185 pounds and in his first NFL season after a small-college career. Viewed using the Darren Sproles template for diminutive backs: Sproles had no more than four offensive touches in a game until deep into his third season, by which time he’d developed more physically even with a second season spent on IR.

Like Sproles, Cohen is handling kick returns but is also carrying the football and working as a receiver. Cohen played 18 offensive snaps against New Orleans, plus nine on special teams, compared to 3 snaps for Cunningham, none on special teams.

Health is an obvious factor. But while it has been one for Cunningham, the risk now is that it will become one for an over-used Cohen. The gold standard for undersized backs is perhaps Warrick Dunn, who burst on the NFL with huge usage and production for Tampa Bay in ’97. But Dunn was out of Florida State at a time when the ‘Noles were perennially part of the national-championship discussion, a different exposure than Cohen’s, or Sproles’ for that matter.

The off-week (not the “bye” – a bye is what happens when you advance a round in a tournament or playoffs without a scheduled match) is a time for self-scouting; best guess is that Cohen’s usage will come up.

“I feel like I’m good. I’m refreshed,” Cohen said. “The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.

“I feel like it’s been going well. I don’t feel like I’ve been overworked or had an overload put on me. I feel like I’m talking everything they want me to do in the playbook and really running with it in stride because it’s not necessarily a lot in one area, it’s just bits and pieces in a lot of areas, so I feel like I’m able to handle that.”

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each Bears position group heading to Bourbonnais. Today’s group: the running backs.

1. Can Jordan Howard get to the Starting Gate healthy?

By now, there’s no question the franchise’s all-time leading rookie rusher can do it. And after the fifth-rounder answered some durability questions last season, the last thing the Bears need is Howard to be banged-up or unavailable heading into a brutal first month of the season. If the Bears are to compete against the likes of the Falcons, Buccaneers, Steelers and Packers, they’ll need their ball-control game to be effective behind the league’s second-leading rusher last season. The humble star spent the offseason trying to get even better, from eye surgery, to finding ways to get through the second level and outrun defenders.

“Just improving on the little things, my conditioning, my weight, catching passes,” Howard said at last month’s minicamp. “And looking for ways to finish runs better. I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up.”

2. Spark from Sparty

Jeremy Langford entered last season as the starter following an impressive rookie season of his own, looking like the heir to Matt Forte as he split time with the veteran. But after 28 carries the first two games, the Michigan State product injured an ankle in Week 3 at Dallas after gaining 31 yards on only three carries. He was never the same once he came back, totaling just 31 carries for 84 yards. He remained out of team work during minicamp last month, working out individually on the side in an effort to be full-go for Bourbonnais. Howard took the ball and ran with his opportunity once Langford went down. But it’s not reasonable for him to carry the entire workload once the season begins, unless Dowell Loggains is asking for trouble. Langford returning to his rookie form will help.

3. The 3 C’s

That’s Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Ka'Deem Carey. Carey heads into his fourth season, having bought into special teams roles and being fearless charging into opposing defenders, even pancaking a few in his time here. But unless he finds a way to make himself a core performer on Teams, or if Howard, Langford, Cohen, or Cunningham suffers an injury, one doubts the Bears would enter the season with five running backs, especially if they decide to keep a fullback around. Cohen provides his unique skillset as the “human joystick” third down threat and potential as a returner. The latter is what Cunningham’s built his career upon, and has a similar build as Carey.

“I think it’ll play a key role and benefit me,” the 5-foot-6, 179-pound Cohen said of his stature and waterbug-like moves being a part of the offense. “The linemen are going to be bigger and it’ll be really hard for defenders to see behind my linemen. I didn’t necessarily want to be bigger (growing up), but I wanted to beat the bigger kids.”