The NFL dream as a high profile, former first-round pick isn’t supposed to go this way. When a team invests part of their future into a player with a top-10 pick, as the Chicago Bears did with Kevin White at No. 7 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, the leap to stardom as a household name is only supposed to slowly build it’s way up. Everything is, in turn, thrown into rhythm, as a player is shown the ropes of professional football and acclimates enough to become the star he was originally envisioned to be.
For White, his NFL road has not fit the ideal script to this point. With two serious leg injuries in the first two years of his Bears career, albeit both bone-related, the developmental trajectory has been thrown significantly off-kilter. So off-track to where many consider any contributions he offers the Bears as merely gravy at this rate with a very low bar.
And with that prior injury history, any time there’s news of White missing practice as he sat out the just second day of Bears organized team activities, feelings of consternation will grow. His participation in other avenues doesn’t matter in cases like this.
This standard is held up regardless, even if head coach John Fox himself vaguely says to the Chicago Tribune that there’s no new injury with White as the Bears look ahead to the season. The focus is to have everyone ready for Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, as the actual regular season should be for every NFL team, no doubt. But players in White’s position are held to a different standard, under a different microscope. This time of year in shorts is important for a player with limited playing experience. Missing this time of year in shorts, also looks like a red flag from the outside perspective. If, as the Tribune also reports, White is has been working on aligning his stride this offseason, then his prospects with the Bears have an even longer way to go.
Higher-ups with Chicago can wax poetically all they want in public about White. For example, general manager Ryan Pace exuded nothing but confidence back in late March about the third-year wideout who is apparently “100-percent healthy”, when he told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I think he’s there. Like I told you before, he’s got the biggest smile on his face because I think he’s eager to show everybody what he can do. So we’re fired up about that.”
With Pace, it’s awfully difficult to ever find him being less than positive about his team’s prospects. Unbridled and occasionally unrealistic optimism might as well be his trademark. But a smile in public is different than private frustration. To say there isn’t any anxiety whatsoever at Halas Hall concerning White, would be misguided. With the emergence of Cameron Meredith and other pieces on the team coming together, the landing pad of a potential bust by White has been softened. Yet it doesn’t make it easier to swallow the first draft pick of a regime potentially never contributing meaningfully. That’s not how it works.
And public perception about a previously perennially injured player in White, which is out of Pace and the Bears’ control, much like his injuries, won’t change until there’s enough to warrant confidence. There’s not enough to trust to go back on from either party.
With White, who was already incredibly raw coming out of West Virginia, it’s difficult to tell if he can even contribute at the NFL level. The more time goes on that White isn’t on the field attempting to reach his ceiling, the less likelihood he ever does anything meaningful for the Bears. There hasn’t been enough sample size to tell otherwise, and until or if he hits the field at a consistent rate, the pendulum will always swing negatively.
With the Bears, trusting them to report on injuries completely truthfully is an exercise in futility, even if they aren’t obligated to let anyone know the status of players on their roster. The scenarios aren’t completely comparable, but if you’ll remember, cornerback Kyle Fuller underwent an apparently harmless knee scope in mid-August of last year. He was supposed to be ready to return for Week 1, if not the early season. After some vague cat and mouse play from the Bears, Fuller was eventually placed on injured reserve with a designation to return, and instead missed the entirety of 2016.
With that in mind, what, if any reason, should you take the Bears’ words on White at face value now?
There might not be a new ailment for the 24-year-old, and White sitting out any practice may truly only be precautionary, but the proof is in the previous pudding. The Bears aren’t going to release any problems with any player until crunch time i.e. when they absolutely have to. That’s just the nature of their game, so there has to be a healthy dose of skepticism present until otherwise noted with White.
Though, even if you could fully trust the Bears organization with injury reporting, it doesn’t feel like the cloud of doubt surrounding White would simply go away. No. Not until he’s playing in the majority of a season, producing and showing progress.
Meanwhile, White, who has appeared in just four of 32 available professional games, has become something of a symbol of angst among those who follow the Bears. That mentioned public perception is magnified when the team struggles and when first-round picks can’t play well for whatever given reason to turn the situation around. Loyalty and confidence is earned with game action, and fans can only operate on the context they’ve been handed with White, which is to say so far, none.
But that’s not a facet of this situation that the Bears or White can control. The news cycle will grind on regardless. The conversation surrounding their hopeful star pupil will just move on to the next project-in-waiting should White not pan out. That’s how this machine operates. The Bears aren’t obligated to say any more than they have and White doesn’t have to respond to his critics and skeptics because ultimately, none of what they say will change any expectation. Only action can.
White, who still has to refine his route running, learn to play without thinking, and get comfortable in the Bears’ offense, will only quash all of this uncertainty once he’s absolutely proven he’s past his injury issues. And once, or if that that happens, he must then prove he can make up for lost time and produce on offense quickly. Don’t discount perhaps the greatest hurdle in the mental hurdles he no doubt must overcome as well.
Given White’s previous track record, the entirety of that scenario is easier said than done.
“We’re not really going to get much into that as far who’s in and who’s out,” said Fox of White’s absence on Tuesday. “It’s just realizing that we’re not lining up to play yet.”
Indeed, there’s still quite a bit of time left before the Bears open their season in September. For their aspirant prodigy in White, the road until then might even be bumpier than anticipated.
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.