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Bears 2016 roster evaluations: Jordan Howard leads the primary standouts

It was a trying 3-13 season for the Bears, but there were some bright spots to highlight on the lakefront.

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

It would be an understatement to say there were many pleased with the Chicago Bears’ overall performance this season. From a carousel at quarterback of Jay Cutler, to Brian Hoyer, to the fateful Matt Barkley all pushed along by injuries; to a team ravaged by coaching mistakes, and injuries as a whole (19 eventual players on injured reserve), not much went in the Bears’ favor in 2016.

This past season’s stock reports gauging the Bears was a week-to-week look at players shining, showcasing growth, or lack thereof. Of course, for a team currently slated to pick third overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, you’d believe there was more focuses of negativity in individual talent. That’s not always true, though. An inherently bad team can still have hope for the future in having standout players, because the rest of the roster isn’t there yet. With that in mind, there’s plenty to discuss of guys that shined even while in relative obscurity.

The 10th youngest team in the NFL in Chicago experienced it’s fair share of highs and lows (mostly lows on a team level), but displayed hope for the future in game breakers as the pieces of Chicago’s hopeful next contending, and even - championship team. Drastic words to utter at this juncture, but that is the clear goal and these are the kinds of seasons that will be lost in that eventual (or hopeful) development.

Circumstances look vibrant when you have what looks to be a very promising 2016 draft class featuring Jordan Howard, Cody Whitehair, and Leonard Floyd. Rookies, who for the most part worked wonders as a trio of young talent gathered from the same class the Bears haven’t had in a long time.

From the free agency perspective, while it’s inherently a risk in signing veteran players that aren’t homegrown in most cases, the Bears did well in acquiring guys such as Josh Sitton and Akiem Hicks.

Yes, this first offseason stock report will take a look at this year’s primary Bears foundational standouts.

Jordan Howard:

Any tale spun of this disappointing season starts and ends with the star rookie running back’s rise to prominence. When you’re drafted in the fifth round and come in second in the league in rushing (1,313 yards), average 5.2 yards per carry (fourth in the NFL), and receive your first Pro Bowl berth, that’s the only way discussion can begin.

Now breathe: Howard is also the Chicago rookie running back to be named to the Pro Bowl since Gale Sayers in 1965.

When your name is uttered in the same sentence as a Hall of Fame runner in Sayers - a man who only needed “18 inches of daylight” - there’s no way you’re not the objective headliner among mediocrity.

When you’re making runs such as this, there are no words to describe your talent, too.

There was conversation that the Bears would struggle to replace Matt Forte - who signed with the Jets in the offseason - but once Howard began to roll, that discussion simmered down to white noise in the background. His patience, power, and vision are a marvel to watch and what primarily make him a special backfield player. For everything the Bears have struggled to consistently get correct in their 90-plus year history (quarterback, other skill positions) they’ve somehow always nailed down linebackers, and - running backs.

After one season, Howard looks like he’s poised to enter the long echelon of tailback successes for this organization. And you can bet the Bears are more than anxious to see what’s to come from the 22-year-old.

Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair:

I would be remiss if I did not mention what Sitton’s and Whitehair’s additions did for the Bears’ offensive line, even if it didn’t translate well to the win column.

When the Packers released Sitton in September, many were reasonably skeptical as to why a normally well-run organization would so willingly let go one of it’s best offensive linemen for nothing.

But Chicago and general manager Ryan Pace did their research, and thought it was the best move to make given how dire their situation looked at the start of the year. Injuries to center Hroniss Grasu and a proposed lack of depth due to unexpected retirements, forced this upon the Bears and worked out for the better.

It’s not often you can acquire a player such as Sitton only a week before the start of the regular season.

Pro Football Focus graded Chicago’s offensive line as the 15th best in the NFL this year - which is a quite a marked step from expectations - with Sitton grading out as their fourth best overall guard. His addition played a huge part in that designation as an elite pass blocker with the Bears tied for the seventh least amount of sacks allowed at 28.

As for the second round pick Whitehair, his play stabilizing the middle of the line, gave the Bears an anchor that it looks like they could count on for years to come. Early season struggles turned into confidence as Whitehair took control of his group and led him to already become one of the NFL’s best centers.

Pro Football Focus deservedly ranked Whitehair on their season’s best rookie list, and it’s all the more impressive considering he was essentially thrown into the fire with no time at center during training camp. Everything about Whitehair’s development as a growing elite player was done on the fly at a breakneck pace. With a full offseason under his belt, who knows what’s in store for Whitehair.

Adding these two in conjunction with Kyle Long, has Chicago now set to have one of the league’s best - if not the best - interior offensive lines for the next few seasons.

Leonard Floyd:

Floyd had a bit of an up-and-down 2016 book-ended by injury issues, but the 24-year-old displayed plenty of traits as a potential elite pass rusher.

In largely only 12 games of action, Floyd filled up the statistical sheet with 33 tackles, 16 quarterback pressures, seven sacks, two passes defended, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, a touchdown, and a safety.

Most of that production came in a six-game stretch that began in Lambeau Field and ended with the second Lions match-up in December - where Floyd consistently flashed his elite speed and worked through blockers with his length.

The Bears and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio unleashed Floyd as a pass rusher here and with a solid support system, he flourished with confidence and comfort over an extended period of time.

If he had finished the season the same way, Floyd likely would’ve been a prime Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, but alas, injuries and other factors had his production drop.

Given his age, Floyd will have to accelerate his development and almost assuredly be a dominant star in 2017, even if it will only be his second year. Floyd had rough patches in 2016 from concussions to shoulder injuries that he simply cannot have moving forward. He is too important as one of the incremental pieces on the Bears’ front seven to take a step back.

Because really, there’s no reason for an eventual 25-year-old former first-round pick to not be acclimated for the demands of the league. To do it, Floyd will have to add significantly to his 240 pound frame. That frame saw him pushed around at times by offensive tackles in the running game. He’ll also have to become more of a force with variety of pass rushing moves, learn to control his attack points as a rusher, etc.

These steps are what will have him reach his supposed boundless potential.

Otherwise, as noted, he already possesses the ability you look for in great pass rushers from an excellent use of hands, to almost unmatched explosiveness off the edge. For Floyd, it’s all about refining his game and becoming the dominant force he can transform into this offseason.

Akiem Hicks:

Hicks was not supposed to be this good. He wasn’t supposed to be one of the league’s best interior defensive linemen, and a legitimate Pro Bowl snub. But it’s funny how players finally utilized to their full capabilities blossom as they enter their prime at 27-years-old.

Hicks was primarily seen as a more of a mammoth run-stuffing defensive tackle with the Saints and Patriots, and here the Bears used him as all-around threat which paid immediate dividends. In starting all 16 games, Hicks accumulated 53 tackles, 17 pressures, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He was easily Chicago’s best and most consistent defender as he more often than not proved to be un-blockable.

You just don’t see Pro Bowl centers such as Travis Frederick thrown around like rag dolls.

That Hicks’ performance came on the heels of an extreme bargain of a contract (two years, $10 million, with half guaranteed) only bodes well for the big man to cash in on the future. It’s not out of the realm to suggest he’s already earned himself a significant pay raise as he’s more than outperformed his initial free agent deal with the Bears.

Given that Chicago is set to be armed with “top-five cap space” according to Pace, they’d do well to lock him up sooner rather than later while there’s room for flexibility. Negotiating stances don’t stay warm forever.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.