Football is back at Halas Hall.
Well, sort of, if you’re counting the sort of football without full pads on, then yes, this is football. Either way, the Chicago Bears begin their “voluntary” (it’s not advised veterans skip these workouts) organized team activities today in preparation for the 2017 season, which will indeed involve plenty of game planning. There’s also the process of cutting down a 90-man roster to an eventual game day 53 that every NFL team must go through and finalize by the time the regular season officially rolls in. But we’ll get to that after training camp concludes.
For now, the Bears’ focus will be on working their way towards a definitively mandatory full-team mini camp from June 13th to June 15th before a short summer break. There’s actually a degree of relative importance here for the Bears.
And since it’s the official start of camp season at Lake Forest, now comes the speculation surrounding position changes, the health and viability of certain players, and the onset of a new hope in an incoming draft class and the bright future they may present. Most everyone looks “good” this time of year in shorts, but make no mistake - competition and getting in tune with the team is still crucial for every individual.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the top story lines to watch for the Bears during organized team activities.
- How will Kevin White look?
Coming out of college at West Virginia, many regarded White as the legitimate best player available when the Bears selected him at No. 7 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. Since then, White hasn’t received much of an opportunity to justify that high selection and investment from Chicago. The third-year wide receiver has been plagued with misfortune with two leg injuries that have robbed him of 28 of 32 available games to start his career. Not all is lost if the still-raw White can start consistently staying on the field and honing his craft as a receiver. But one more major setback could spell an end to all the hype.
Early reports from previous workouts say the wideout has been in full participation through every activity presented in the offseason so far. If that continues, perhaps White can indeed eventually reach his potential as a true No. 1 wide receiver with experience. In that light, it’ll be curious to see if White still has a lot of the raw speed and athleticism the Bears largely drafted him for. He may only be running in shorts for now, but any sign of that retained ability is still a comforting outlook.
With a jersey change to his college jersey number in 11 from No. 13, maybe better fortune starts coming White’s way. At least he and the Bears hope it does.
2. Kyle Long’s health and versatility (again?)
The 28-year-old Long is coming off of two major injuries in the 2016 season - a torn labrum and severely injured right ankle - both of which technically required surgery. That ankle will keep Long out of at least the start of organized team activities as he’s still working his way back to full functionality. Of note, Long only went under the knife to repair that leg, which was the only injury that pushed him to injured reserve, as he toughed it out through his damaged shoulder. The veteran will again attempt to do the same with his labrum, albeit with proper rehabilitation, as he works his way back onto the field.
That looks like a lot for one man to push through to return to playing in one offseason, but it doesn’t look like there’s much concern emanating from the Bears in Long’s long-term viability, though. This is still very much someone Chicago sees as a core piece in their rebuild as heavily evidenced by Brad Biggs’ of the Chicago Tribune reporting they again could have him move positions (no, not to tackle) - whenever it is exactly that he returns.
This time, the Bears are considering flipping Long to left guard, where he did start occasionally in his brief college career at Oregon. The move would make sense considering veteran Pro Bowler Josh Sitton has 64 starts on the right side under his belt with the Packers. It also makes sense since Long is the better athlete of the two, which could significantly improve pass blocking while also having the Bears use him as a puller towards the right side in their power running game. All in all, a move that actually makes total sense for a line that will otherwise remain unchanged (as it should).
With this discussion, it’s clear the Bears aren’t shy in moving their best lineman around, as this would be Long’s third position change in the last three years (right tackle in 2015, right guard in 2016). At least on this occasion, if the Bears follow through with moving him again, it won’t be on a one week’s notice like it was in 2015. He’ll have the majority of the camp season, or at least it smartly would structure that way. It’s not like the Bears are likely to give any concrete public timeline on injured and recovering players.
3. A safety carousel
Since the Bears are beginning full-team activities on every side of the ball, this would be the time where we start getting a look at cornerbacks Deiondre’ Hall and maybe even Kyle Fuller at safety. Earlier reports back in March confirmed that the second-year defensive back in Hall would get a look at safety and now his chance to make a mark with his new position has come. A severely sprained ankle limited the impact the rookie could’ve made in 2016 at cornerback. While Fuller, who will supposedly compete at corner for now, may also have his opportunity lying in the wings.
Keep in mind, it’s not like the Bears added much competition for this position in either the free agency or draft. 2017 fourth-rounder Eddie Jackson was Chicago’s lone defensive pick back on April 27th, and the 31-year-old free agent acquisition, Quintin Demps, looks to be more of a veteran fill-in than any long-term answer. Couple that with Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey having sophomore NFL seasons to forget, and the gist is: there are jobs to be won here.
This early look at Hall and potentially Fuller could mean a lot down the line in a quality starter should either or even both flourish. Considering the Bears’ lack of stability at the position in oh, the last decade or so - no pressure.
4. Which rookie newcomers shine brightest?
It’s not an easy task to parse through a 90-man camp roster, but that’s exactly what the Bears and all other 31 teams will do over the course of the next approximate two and half months. In this process, the occasional un-drafted free agent may flash. For a Bears team that’s received some quality contributors in this department over the last couple of years from Cameron Meredith and Bryce Callahan, to Cre’Von LeBlanc (an August addition), another young player may yet make his mark.
Maybe it’s former Wyoming wideout Tanner Gentry cementing himself in a receiving core with a lot of question marks. Or, former Utah kicker Andy Phillips could begin pushing the incumbent Connor Barth for a shot at the starting role. One of the guys in the Bears’ 2017 undrafted free agent class will begin showcasing exactly what they bring to the table to win a place with the team.
Aside from the underdogs, perhaps a highly touted rookie such as No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky really starts to turn some heads above all else instead. No one with the Bears has outright said Trubisky will sit the 2017 season in a redshirt year. That’s all been speculation from the outside. There could be the early makings of a quarterback controversy in Chicago, even as the Bears insist Mike Glennon is the starter for now.
In any event, it’s too early to definitely predict any roster upheaval with a Bears team that should have an open competition in a lot of spots not limited to quarterback, receiver, or kicker. No spot on the roster or depth chart is effectively won in May and early June, but it is when you begin laying the groundwork for a foundation to do so later.
5. Weight watchers - Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee
The Bears’ likely 2017 starting outside linebacker duo reportedly had a fine offseason’s work getting into shape, respectively, albeit with the complete opposite in goals.
Floyd, who the Bears regard as their defensive cornerstone should he reach his very high ceiling that could define the team’s defensive future, has ballooned up to 250 pounds, reported Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. This comes after Floyd was as rail-thin as 225 pounds as a rookie at the start of last year’s offseason programs. With a full NFL regimented offseason of training behind him, it appears the second-year pass rusher has really committed to his craft in acquiring strength and taking care of his body as he fine tunes his play over time.
Provided he can stay healthy after a topsy-turvy 2016 - which the extra weight and experience should help in that department - Floyd could be primed for a truly dominant sophomore campaign with the Bears as the athletic and now physical freak he’s become in his new frame.
On the other Bears’ defensive edge, the “sexier” (his words) Pernell McPhee reportedly lost 25 pounds this offseason. There’s no concrete weight out there on the 28-year-old, but 260 pounds seems to be the safe bet after the veteran normally sat in the 280’s. This weight loss was done with a chronically injured knee in mind, one that’s plagued McPhee ever since he signed with the Bears as a free agent in 2015.
The finish to that 2015 campaign was less than preferred for all parties, as McPhee required surgery on the knee that began to bother him in the late season. He was still feeling the effects of that operation all through the 2016 training camp, so the team was forced to have him sit on the physically unable to perform list to start last season, which had him miss the first six games of the year.
With a lighter frame in mind, it’ll take some time for McPhee to adjust from a game that heavily relies on power, no doubt. But that should be of little concern compared to making a necessary body adjustment that could pay huge dividends to his actual consistent availability. After all, when McPhee has been on the field for the Bears, he’s been one of the most productive pass rushers in the last two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus.
For a Bears defense with a lot of question marks on the back end, a healthy and now reinvented pass rushing duo of Floyd and McPhee could wreak havoc and do plenty to alleviate many concerns.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.