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Bears rookies played the third-most snaps among NFL teams in 2016. Is it a sign of a bright future?

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The Bears’ youth movement is in full swing and the experience may indeed pay off later.

Chicago Bears v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Even while success for the 2016 Chicago Bears came in limited doses with a 3-13 record and injury reserve list that by the end of the year may as well have been an extensive obituary, it doesn’t mean there weren’t positive underlying statistics that could point to brighter days ahead.

One of those primarily being last season’s Bears rookies playing the third most snaps in the NFL with 4,236, only behind the Cleveland Browns’ 5,521 and the Indianapolis Colts’ 4,393. It’s easy to point to promising high profile and obvious young guys primarily contributing to that, but there were in fact other green players that also factored into that number that could bode well.

While a lot of youth playing for teams like the Bears and Browns could, in one light, mean they didn’t and still don’t have much established talent, in the other, it means a budding core is attaining valuable experience as well. Just look at other successful teams from last year such as the defending champion Atlanta Falcons coming in fourth overall in rookie snaps with 3,697 and the NFC top wild card team in the New York Giants rounding out the top five with 3,637 snaps.

Now, those teams clearly have more established cores than Chicago or Cleveland at the top with franchise such as reigning MVP Matt Ryan, two of the best receivers in football in Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr., an All-Pro second-year safety in Landon Collins, and more. But it doesn’t mean the experience means any less for currently less successful teams, especially if a lot of those rookies play well, particularly like they did for the Bears. The rest of the roster just has to come together and evolve along in that facet.

Here are the official snap counts (all derived from Football Outsiders) of all of the Bears’ rookies that are still on the roster and at some juncture appeared at least sparingly last season. These snaps could be in any capacity and are not limited to an offensive or defensive distinction.

2016 Bears rookie snaps leaders

  1. Cody Whitehair, C

Total snaps: 1,014

Offensive snaps: 1,009

Special teams snaps: 5

Whitehair’s experience in his first year as the Bears starting center where he played at arguably at a Pro Bowl level for the entirety of the year with 16 starts, is an excellent sign for a strong Chicago interior. In due time, who knows just how high Whitehair’s caliber of play will be. A myriad of Pro Bowls and All-Pro nods may be coming his way.

2. Cre’Von LeBlanc, CB

Total snaps: 729

Defensive snaps: 695

Special teams snaps: 34

LeBlanc was a bright spot in a shoddy secondary as an undrafted free agent waiver wire late August pick-up for the Bears in 2016. It took a little awhile for him to get fully acclimated. But, he ended up appearing in 13 games, starting nine, and even intercepting two passes, one of which was brought back for a touchdown - the only pick-six for Chicago last year. He primarily played in the slot, but was deployed everywhere, and figures to be in a tough competition for the starting nickel cornerback role with Bryce Callahan in training camp this year.

3. Jordan Howard, RB

Total snaps: 658

Offensive snaps: 654

Special teams snaps: 4

For the league’s second-leading rusher in 2016, it’s a bit harrowing to see him receive so little churn down this list. There is an explanation. Obviously a running back, particularly one that still has to work on his receiving ability and who didn’t start until Week 4 of last year, isn’t going to be high up in most attempts anyway. The only offensive players that are on the field for every play are ideally your starting offensive linemen and quarterback. Skill positions are limited by specific packages all the time.

Regardless, even while only receiving at least 20 carries in four of 13 starts last year, Howard made the most of his opportunities. He’ll be leaned on even more in 2017 in a ball control offense with question marks at receiver and quarterback.

4. Nick Kwiatkoski, LB

Total snaps: 602

Defensive snaps: 457

Special teams snaps: 145

The fourth-rounder in Kwiatkoski had obvious ability but wasn’t expected to contribute much defensively last year. Yet, with a suspension to Jerrell Freeman and a patellar tendon injury suffered by Danny Trevathan, Kwiatkoski was sprung into action for the Bears around the midseason mark. The review of his play: mixed, even while he showed flashes of athleticism and instinct in 14 appearances and seven starts.

With Trevathan still recovering from his traumatic leg injury, Kwiatkoski has a real opportunity to build on last season’s inconsistent performance and entrench himself as a starter next to Freeman. 32 tackles and one sack for a raw linebacker is okay. A full offseason and new expectations could mean a dramatic leap forward for Kwiatkoski after getting to dip his toes in the water in 2016.

5. Leonard Floyd, LB

Total snaps: 539

Defensive snaps: 537

Special teams snaps: 2

When it’s all said and done, Floyd will likely be the face of the Bears’ defense should he reach his immense ceiling. A breakout rookie year that largely took place only across an approximate month stretch saw Floyd be one of the most productive 3-4 pass rushers from Weeks 10-14, second only to the Steelers’ James Harrison. In 12 starts, Floyd had seven sacks and plenty of pressures and a penchant for consistent growth.

Though, Floyd was limited by how he was deployed often by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio due to his size, inexperience, and injuries. He also could’ve finished plays a little better. At a sturdy reported 250 pounds now, and an NFL offseason training regimen behind him, the lengthy 6-foot-6 freak in Floyd is poised to become a consistent superstar pass rusher. A scary thought for NFL quarterbacks. And it all started with his early tastes of professional football.

6. Deon Bush, S

Total snaps: 411

Defensive snaps: 333

Special teams snaps: 78

This is the part of the list where we begin to discuss rookies that made less of an impact and could be involved in a coming roster flux. Bush wasn’t awful in 2016 by any means, but in six starts at safety towards the end of the year, he was far from the difference maker you look for at the position either. 16 tackles, some of which came on special teams, and no turnovers forced isn’t going to cut it. With the veteran Quintin Demps now in tow, new dynamic rookie Eddie Jackson, and a potential convert in Deiondre’ Hall, it might be a tall order for the former fourth-round pick to have much of any say in his Bears’ standing.

7. Ben Braunecker, TE

Total snaps: 356

Offensive snaps: 146

Special teams snaps: 210

A late season call-up and undrafted free agent due to a broken foot by starter Zach Miller, Braunecker failed to make an impression beyond working on the Bears’ third phase, as he caught just four passes for 41 yards (page me if you remember them). Moving forward, with the addition of this 2017 second-round giant Adam Shaheen, the free agent Dion Sims, and the incumbent Miller, it’s difficult to imagine Braunecker making the final roster after getting his shot last year. Though, who knows. Maybe with Chicago’s increased tight end depth, Braunecker has also improved enough to stick with the team.

8. Jonathan Bullard, DE

Total snaps: 341

Defensive snaps: 297

Special teams snaps: 44

There were high expectations for the third-rounder in Bullard out of Florida, who some projected as a first-round talent. Of course, he failed to meet them, which isn’t too much of a concern provided he begins to flash soon. Last year, he struggled to stay on the field and carve out much of anything as a rookie, as Fangio occasionally benched him with his inexperience showing. There were concerns about a smaller frame at 6-foot-3 and 283 pounds for a 3-4 defensive end and perhaps some of that played into Bullard’s woes of attaining just 15 tackles and one sack on the season.

Given that Chicago’s front seven is yet again a roster strength, particularly with the addition of former Chief Jaye Howard, who will likely start, Bullard could transition into more of a depth player. There’s still immense talent here, he just has to channel it. Bullard’s difficult first learning experience likely helped him in the long run as a potential key rotational defensive end either way.

9. Kevin White, WR

Total snaps: 191

Offensive snaps: 191

Special teams snaps: 0

It’s a little depressing to see White all the way down this snap list, but since he appeared in no games in 2015, he technically counted as a rookie because of his four starts last year. There’s been a lot of recent consternation and controversy surrounding the technically now third-year player, even if he has little experience, due to injuries. Whether any of it’s justified at the moment is a different matter altogether.

In any event, White has appeared in only four of an available 32 professional games, and has only caught 19 passes. Two leg injuries, albeit both bone-related, have severely limited what was an already raw receiver coming out of a simplistic spread offense at West Virginia. The Bears drafted White on his explosiveness (a 4.35 40-yard dash) with his 6-foot-3 frame, with hopes to refine his technique and route running over time. Since he’s been barely been able to hit the field so far, that progress has been significantly hampered for the 24-year-old.

The Bears still say he factors in greatly into their future and they could use a boost from what was the first first-round pick of the Ryan Pace era, but at this point, expecting anything in the near future from a guy who needs a lot of work in White seems like an exercise in futility.

10. Deiondre’ Hall, CB

Total snaps: 143

Defensive snaps: 79

Special teams snaps: 42

The safety (for now) in Hall showed bright spots for the Bears in last year’s early season. After his first career interception in Chicago’s first win of 2016 against the Detroit Lions in early October, the long 6-foot-2 cornerback then suffered a severe ankle sprain that didn’t see him make an appearance until mid-December against the Lions again. By then, he was still limited and barely made any appearances on defense. All a shame considering the injuries and inconsistencies the Bears’ secondary went through last year. If Hall had been healthy, the fourth-rounder likely could’ve entrenched himself as a permanent starter at cornerback.

Now, he’s made the move to safety, and with his experience with positional versatility in college, as well as the still-winding instability on Chicago’s back-end, Hall has another shot to win a starting job and more. It’s just about having better injury fortune this time around.

11. DeAndre Houston-Carson, S

Total snaps: 118

Defensive snaps: 8

Special teams snaps: 110

As a sixth-rounder, this is the exact kind of playing time ratio you would expect for Houston-Carson in 2016. It was always going to be difficult for him to see the field defensively in his natural position and he projected as more of a special teamer anyway when being drafted. If he can carve out a valued role as one of the Bears’ better guys on special teams in the mean time, perhaps he can make the final 53-man roster in 2017. If not, which is likely at this rate with his zero tackles or impact plays last year, Houston-Carson is very much on the bubble.

12. Daniel Braverman, WR

Total snaps: 17

Offensive snaps: 17

Special teams snaps: 0

Finally, we get to the second coming of Wes Welker and 2016 Bears’ seventh-rounder in Braverman. There was a lot of curious hype in the 23-year-old Western Michigan product, who was incredibly productive in college. But that kind of ability and production doesn’t always immediately, if ever, translate to the NFL where almost everyone is a relative quality athlete. Since he doesn’t play special teams whatsoever (a huge knock against him for 2017 perspectives), it took until December for Braverman to be called up to the Bears’ game roster. He wasn’t even targeted until a loss to the Lions in Detroit and didn’t catch a pass all year (albeit a reception he did make was called back due to penalty).

Some will decry that the Bears have no idea about player development and were deliberately sabotaging him, but if he could play, especially as Chicago went through more issues with the now-departed Alshon Jeffery last year due to a suspension, he would’ve made an impact. They would’ve called him up sooner and given him the chance.

Instead, with various additions such as essentially guaranteed roster spots to Victor Cruz, Markus Wheaton, and Kendall Wright, and the safe Cameron Meredith and mostly safe White, Braverman will probably be a cut in August. You can lock in five Bears receiver slots already and most teams only carry six during the season, sometimes seven. That sixth opening is typically reserved for at least one guy that can play special teams and that man is Joshua Bellamy in Chicago - who is arguably their best special teams player. So Bellamy has the leg up already. Perhaps the Bears carry seven wideouts and in that event, Braverman would have to beat undrafted free agents such as Tanner Gentry, which also isn’t a guarantee.

In this case, his early lack of play, may be the ultimate reflector of a very tenuous Bears future for Braverman.

Conclusion

While some of the players towards the bottom of the list may well still become impact players, most of the Bears’ rookie snaps came from a quintuplet of Whitehair, LeBlanc, Howard, Kwiatkoski, and Floyd. For now, that is the group to focus on that has a leg up on everyone else at their respective positions. The experience they gained in 2016 will be incremental to their progress and unlocked talent moving forward, that could turn the Bears around.

Only time will tell how the Bears’ 2017 project class of Mitchell Trubisky, Shaheen, Jackson, and others will factor into the coming season. With any luck, they’ll acquire valued knowledge with plenty of playing time when possible as well. It can never hurt a football team to have it’s youth get a taste of their competition while simultaneously figuring out where they need to grow. Rookie playing time, while not always essential, is a good benchmark for the future of any organization, let alone the Bears.

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