Matt Nagy wasn’t referring to Kevin White — or any player, specifically — when he offered up this line on Wednesday:
“We all can agree that once the pads come on, there are some guys that aren’t showing up right now that will show up, and there are other guys who are doing well that won’t do well,” Nagy said. “When the pads come on, that’s when we can truly evaluate and answer a lot of the questions we get asked.”
This is the reality of practices during the NFL’s offseason program, which don’t permit pads to be worn. Certain guys look impressive in shorts and helmets only to struggle to match that when the pads come on in Bourbonnais (Adam Shaheen, last year, is a good example).
So while White showed some promising signs during two minicamps and OTAs between mid-April and early June, the real test for what he can do in 2018 will come during training camp. Can White still body up defensive backs and catch jump balls when the guy across from him can be more physical? Can he still burn past opposing defenders when they can tackle him? Can he run crisp routes and get open for Mitch Trubisky when he’s getting jammed at the line of scrimmage?
For now, though, it’s encouraging that White did exactly what the Bears wanted him to do during the offseason program. Nagy said back in April that he wanted White to stack practices and take a narrow view to his future; by all accounts, that’s what White did.
“He certainly grew in a lot different areas,” Nagy said. “And the one thing that I’ve noticed about Kevin, that I thought was neat, is that if there was a dropped ball, it was the next-play mentality for him. I kept a keen eye out for that to see how he was going to react to a play like that, and he’s done well. He’s been running routes well, he’s been catching a lot of footballs, he’s been focusing on what he needs to focus on and that’s a big advantage for this offense.”
White began by making a few plays here and there during April’s minicamp, and continued to build on those with better practices during OTAs in May. He’s roundly impressed his quarterback with what he’s done, too, and the chemistry developed between the two of them counts for something.
“He’s coming out really hungry, which is great to see, lot of passion, he looks great out there and he’s just coming in every day with an open mind ready to work,” Trubisky said. “He wants to be coached, he wants me to just communicate with him every play, what I see, what he sees and we’re talking on the field, off the field, what he can do to get better at and he’s just showing a lot of passion out there every day.”
White did well to take advantage of the opportunity presented to him with Allen Robinson (torn ACL) not participating in team drills during practice. Robinson has said he expects to be fully cleared for training camp, which won’t mean White will lose all of his reps with the first-team offense, but they’ll probably be diminished to some extent (at least initially: If White continues to practice well, he'll earn more reps with the first-team offense).
It’s a similar situation to the one that was in front of Kyle Fuller last training camp when Prince Amukamara got hurt: A former first-round pick, on the verge of being stamped with the “bust” label for the rest of his career, took advantage of an opportunity and not only played his way into a roster spot, but played his way into a starting role and (eventually) a $56 million contract.
White has a long way to go before he’s cashing in on a breakout season with an eight-figure contract, of course. The next step is proving he can continue to practice well, with the same kind of speed, with pads on. Then, he’ll have to show his connection with Trubisky transfers over to preseason games. And from there, he’ll not only have to continue to play well in the regular season, but he’ll have to get through a season healthy for the first time in his pro career, too.
So while White passed his first test of 2018, there are plenty more ahead. But perhaps the most encouraging observation about White has been that if you took the “11” off his jersey and didn’t know who he was, you couldn’t tell that he’s someone who’s struggled to produce in the rare moments he has been healthy.
“No, I wouldn’t (be able to tell),” Nagy said. “And that’s kind of my mindset coming into this thing. I don’t care about what happened in the past with anybody on this team, I don’t care. You’re going to get a fresh, clean slate, and you gotta prove it. You gotta show what you can do. And they know that. And if you tell the guys that, it’s on them. There’s ownership.”