Injuries are the greatest detractor of potential in the NFL. Hundreds of talented athletes enter the league with the necessary talent and instincts to succeed again and again. But, in the NFL, where the average career lasts three years, so many are washed away by the wayside due to unfortunate injury circumstances, becoming trivia questions and the eternal “what-if’s?” of fan bases.
Even the shelf life of consistent all-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro machines can be cut short in an instant due to events such as increasing concussion concerns as it was with former 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. Should a player actually enjoy no damage to their legs, arms, or body as a whole, they’ll still have an ever growing and lingering thought of protecting their long-term livelihood.
In that light, in the modern era, just getting off the launch pad of a career and enjoying any success should be commended more than ever.
Of course, this brings us to Chicago Bears wide receiver, Kevin White, and whether his career is over before it’s even started. Whether he’ll ever reach his proposed potential as a former number seven overall pick. White possessed or quite possibly, still does possess all of the raw natural skills that made him a tantalizing prospect for the Bears back in 2015.
It’s a loaded question that leadership at Halas Hall must ponder.
They know the player they picked. A guy that some considered a better talent than Oakland Raiders star wideout, Amari Cooper. A guy that was supposed to be an explosive game-changing and stretch-the-field type to diversify Chicago’s offense from the possession size game of Alshon Jeffery, with a complementary one-two punch.
In regards to White, it’s whether he can stay healthy or recover in any way from the injuries he’s already suffered to his legs, to actually become that player in the end: A foundational piece at a skill position.
To some, selecting White so high back in 2015, was an egregious mistake to usher in a new regime led by general manager Ryan Pace. That White - with only one major year as a starter in a spread system at West Virginia - was an overrated playmaker, even when taking into account his physical tools of size and speed. That while the Bears had traded Brandon Marshall and created a major void at receiver next to Jeffery, other studs of need were available.
It’s a futile exercise in hindsight, but it’s difficult to forget players such as Atlanta Falcons All-Pro pass rusher, Vic Beasley - chosen right after White - or All-Pro Kansas City Chiefs cornerback, Marcus Peters, or All-Pro safety, Landon Collins. All guys the hapless 2014 talent-less and empty cupboard Bears could have used.
But alas, White was clearly at the top of Chicago’s board, they selected him, and now Pace and company must reap the consequences.
And perhaps, that was fair.
The Bears chose to select a player they believed would pay immediate dividends and make an impact in changing their offense. It’s how their evaluation progressed based off of need and your tried and true “best player available” moniker that travels around during the draft season.
It doesn’t matter if this position has inherent less value than say an edge rusher, for example. Especially for a team like the Bears devoid everywhere two years ago (and to an extent, still now).
Obviously, there is the possibility of finding other successful receivers later in the draft while taking care of trench needs and or a franchise quarterback. It’s an overlooked prospect. And receiver is a position that doesn’t necessarily always translate to championships too. How many teams with the best wide receiver core win the Super Bowl, after all?
Yet, of this year’s Pro Bowl wide receivers (Antonio Brown, Amari Cooper, AJ Green, T.Y. Hilton, Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Larry Fitzgerald), only two weren’t top 12 picks in Brown and Hilton. Receivers are talents that can be major busts when over valued, but sure fire commodities have been found at the top. Boom or bust.
While taking White’s injuries into consideration, he may have joined that group in due time - or not. You just don’t know, and that’s part of the deflating Russian roulette of the draft. Take your chances with your best and most comprehensive scouting, and hope for the best. Hope the buzz saw that is this violent game doesn’t claim another victim to set you back.
And for White, maybe he was “damaged goods” when drafted. Maybe the stress fracture he supposedly suffered in organized team activities back in 2015 - that took his entire rookie season away - was a pre-existing injury, and the Bears knew it while taking the risk. Or, maybe they didn’t. That’s not the point. This isn’t the place for conspiracy theories. You can’t blame them for the dark unknown.
In essence - either way - it’s clear they knew and still know what they’re getting into with White, their fading, star pupil.
They also weren’t able to control White’s foot getting caught in the grass at Soldier Field either while weight of two Detroit Lions broke his fibula, which ended his 2016 season. That’s part of the game. It happens.
It’s just unfortunate it happened again to White, who needed seasoning, and who needed the time on the field to reach whatever his potential is. This was an already less polished player as mentioned, now hampered again. You could see this version of White slowly get it together this past September and early October. His early play wasn’t anything special by any means, as he was thinking instead of reacting, but he was leading the Bears in receptions with 19. Comfort was coming along.
Plays like this, were just glimpses of what White offers.
White was working his way towards a desired destination, slowly starting to understand and have the game come to him, before it was all rudely snatched away. The thing about this league, is that potential is always abruptly uprooted, never expected or welcomed.
Now, White has played in just four of an available 32 games in his first two seasons. He’s 24-years-old without having made any significant imprint. How many players do you know off the top of your head that have become significant contributors or stars in their career, after having played only approximately 12 percent of games to start? The list isn’t exhaustive, nor is it flattering.
It’s a long, winding road for oft-injured, raw players such as White. At this juncture, it’s more likely he never reaches the summit, or becomes a depth number three or four receiver, than a star. It’s crucial the Bears understand that same ideal, that White can’t be seen as a core player moving forward, until proven otherwise.
Somehow, whether it’s pandering, or genuine, Pace and company; don’t feel the same way, at least publicly. In the Bears’ season-ending press conference two weeks ago, Pace maintained that White can still be the same elite guy they drafted, provided the work is there, and provided there’s patience.
“This is 100 percent recoverable,” said Pace of White.
While recognizing optimism, White might not be recoverable, and that’s okay too. He can be a hit, but he doesn’t have to be. Not every draft pick will be perfect. To succeed, you just don’t make the same mistake twice and learn. This is a cruel and unforgiving game. Why do you think that more often than not, the healthiest teams are the ones left standing by late January and early February? A winning battle against attrition and injury fortune goes a long way.
Whatever White contributes moving forward for the Bears should be an added bonus. Cameron Meredith’s rise as an undrafted free agent has in some ways mitigated the pain of what White might or might not be, but given what they don’t know about White, could the Bears really afford to let Jeffery - a pending unrestricted free agent - simply walk? Probably not, as that would only create another gaping roster hole.
There’s a place on this team for White, but until there’s evidence of consistency, health, and the dynamic talent locked away, they need to adjust their expectations while not giving up on him.
Unknown commodities and player assets in this league are as dangerous a prospect there is for executives, because they keep you on a string, showing flashes, and offer belief that they may one day put it all together. It’s an uncomfortable Twilight Zone of taking stock of your roster. The Bears would be wise to recognize that.
Have high hopes for White. Develop him as best as you can. But in the end, the Bears must proceed with caution, and be wary. Because now, it’s “put up or shut up” time for a player that might disappoint you instead.
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.