There’s no mincing words here. Perhaps the Chicago Bears exceed current expectations and hover around as more of a .500 team in 2017 given the construct of their currently very deep front seven (if healthy) as well as an offense poised to play quality ball control.
However, it is outlandish to think this Bears team is ready to compete for a championship, at least in the near future, given the pieces they still need to show out in the secondary, at receiver, and the question mark at quarterback until Mike Glennon proves himself or until Mitchell Trubisky is ready to take over.
Yet again, the Bears are a work in progress in an extended rebuilding plan. In that respect, 2017 will be primarily be another year of individual growth and keeping an eye on the next steps that current Chicago core players take and what guys who should be a part of the core, but aren’t at this moment, do as well.
Some Bears are ready to become stars and consistent franchise players. Some are merely preparing to get off the launch pad. Let’s take a look at perspectives for several Bears set to breakout in their own ways this upcoming fall.
Leonard Floyd, OLB
I don’t think I need to tell you what Floyd’s potential and talent can bring to the table for the Bears. As previously noted many times in this space, Floyd can be one of the best pass rushers in the NFL given his freakish length at 6-foot-6 and blur of a first step. It’s a skill set that not many possess. It’s what makes Floyd the potential face of the Bears defense long-term if channelled properly.
Some may argue that Floyd has technically already broken out, considering his seven sacks in 2016 as a rookie in a limited sample size. But to truly become the dominant player and stay on his new platform, Floyd has do it for 16 games and become the terror the Bears envisioned when trading up to draft him in the 2016 NFL Draft. One productive stretch and otherwise being invisible isn’t enough. Easier said than done of course as Floyd struggled with injury and size issues as a rookie.
With added weight at a reported 250 pounds, strength, and no doubt a refinement of technique from a regimented NFL offseason program, the sky’s the limit for what Floyd can be in 2017 and beyond. His past transgressions and flaws likely aren’t completely mitigated yet, but regardless, it would be naive to suggest he hasn’t highly polished up as an advancing outside linebacker.
The upcoming season may merely be a small taste of what to expect from the 24-year-old Floyd. A shuddering thought for opposing quarterbacks.
Cameron Meredith, WR
Meredith is in a similar position to Floyd. 2016 was really the first glimpses you saw of the former undrafted free agent flashing his exceptional talent as a patient route runner with excellent after-the-catch ability. That culminated with several 100-yard plus receiving performances back-to-back at the start and end of the season. It also allowed Meredith to lead the Bears in most relevant receiving statistics from yards (888) to receptions (66), albeit while being helped out by a four-game suspension from the since-departed, Alshon Jeffery.
And yet, there were also stretches at various points in the season, particularly in the middle of the year, where Meredith also showcased inexperience all while catching just seven passes total across four games from late October to early November. Incredibly breathtaking and maddeningly frustrating at the same time.
With Jeffery off in Philadelphia and continued questions surrounding Kevin White, Meredith is the man at wideout for the Bears now, and there are no excuses. He is the definitive No. 1 receiver and will need to play like it for whomever is under center. Dry spells where he’s almost being completely shut out are not acceptable for a player in his role.
Given the work he’s put in the offseason and a coming increased sample size of targets, it appears Meredith is ready to do plenty as the primary receiving option in the Bears passing offense. A physical and smart receiver with a chip on his shoulder should lead the Bears in receiving again, but this time, at a more consistent pace.
Cre’Von LeBlanc, CB
LeBlanc, as another undrafted free agent and late August waiver wire pick-up in 2016, wasn’t on many radars to start the Bears season last year. But with injuries and general up-and-down play at cornerback, the 22-year-old received his opportunities and flourished more and more as the year went on.
One of the best examples of his continued growth over 2016 was his discipline and intelligence. That, according to Pro Football Focus, was exemplified by him only allowing the second lowest passer rating by a rookie last year at 82.7. That of course, was also only second to the high-priced, high-caliber, Jalen Ramsey, of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who is already regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Seeing that LeBlanc was able to maintain that kind of performance while in one of the worst secondaries in the NFL and while relatively undersized at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds speaks volumes as to the next steps he can and probably should take soon. He’s going to be involved in a heated competition for Chicago’s slot cornerback spot with Bryce Callahan in training camp, but when taking into account his past performance, it appears he would have the leg up there.
The passer rating allowed, 44 tackles, and two interceptions (one brought back for a touchdown), speak for themselves. With an improved and healthy front seven in front of him, as well as hopefully a more talented secondary in support, LeBlanc should be able to readily explode as the Bears’ nickel and dime cornerback in 2017.
Jonathan Bullard, DE
For a third-round draft pick, Bullard received a lot of hype as a rookie for the Bears in 2016. He was seen as a first-round talent to some, that merely fell to later rounds because of raw size and technique issues. Needless to say, given occasionally being benched and consistent disappearances, those concerns surrounding Bullard came to roost last year.
But that doesn’t mean he’s a lost cause all of a sudden. Not every third-rounder immediately contributes or even pans out, but Bullard appears poised to move past his younger professional struggles. And even while he was almost completely absent on the statistical sheet in 2016 (just 18 tackles and one sack in 14 games), he showed flashes.
Sure, there’s also an increase of competition at the Bears’ five-technique position with accomplished veteran Jaye Howard now on the roster from Kansas City, as well as the monumentally sized 6-foot-7 Roy Robertson-Harris. Don’t forget, in another cliche, that iron sharpens iron, though.
And regardless, it feels like Bullard, who is still only 23-years-old, should have the leg up with his upside transcending past his teammates. An offseason of refinement and working on what stalled him as a defensive lineman likely paid huge dividends for a player looking to make his mark in Bullard.
Remember, the Bears do have a bit of a gap at the opposite defensive end from Akiem Hicks as well. Bullard’s ascension can be another luxury for an increasingly talented defensive front seven for 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.