The current nucleus of the Bears could be described as promising, with work to do. While this certainly feels like the most talented Bears team in years on paper, there aren’t true overpowering stars on the roster yet, other than Akiem Hicks. This is a franchise that needs field tilters to evolve and progress, before they could reasonably be seen as a contender again. Each of the current upper echelon organizations in the NFL such as the Patriots and Eagles have their cores mapped out in this proper fashion.
And that’s what needs to happen next for a young team like the Bears. That next step comes this fall, especially for key young players and acquisitions. The rise and fall of every potential contender is written in the development of those etched out in prominent roles. These Bears are assuredly no different.
We’ve already previously discussed the Bears with the “most to prove” in 2018. Now here are the Bears primed to break out and become stars to be built around. The types of players that will be household, top 100 names (for as faulty as that process has proven to be) come January. (The most obvious answer is Mitchell Trubisky, so I’m not including him.)
Eddie Jackson, Safety
Fun fact: With his two interceptions and three fumble recoveries, Eddie Jackson is the first Bears safety with at least five takeaways in a season since Chris Harris in 2010. Jackson is the first Bears’ rookie safety in the 21st century to record that many turnovers on his own. Not even the often hallowed Mike Brown was able to accomplish that in his rookie 2000 season.
Long story short: Jackson appears to be everything the Bears have been seeking at safety for over a decade since attempting to replace the previously oft-injured Brown. For years, the Bears have drafted at least one safety every year attempting to finally find “The Answer” considering their woes on the back end. And for years, from Kevin Payne and Craig Steltz, to Chris Conte and Major Wright, Chicago failed as Aaron Rodgers and a host of other elite quarterbacks routinely ripped them down the middle of the field.
Jackson, for the first time in what seems like ages, is poised to change that history and make the Bears avoid seeking a long term replacement at the position for awhile. Given the way his career has already started, it wouldn’t be wise to doubt a rise in play proficiency.
It’s easy to forget, but Jackson was recovering from a broken leg suffered at Alabama in October of 2016 through most Bears’ off-season activities last year. He wasn’t the Bears’ top safety or even a starter until well into training camp and the preseason in the summer. But defensive coordinator Vic Fangio couldn’t reasonably keep Jackson on the sideline for long as he proved to have recovered well from his broken leg by continually picking Bears’ quarterbacks off and showing more instinct and responsibility than what is expected from a rookie defensive back. Obviously, that translated to a quality if at times, uneven first year from the 25-year-old.
Going into his sophomore NFL season, Jackson has been a full participant in all Bears practices and team activities to this point. That’s a necessary stage in his development moving forward as he gets more comfortable in Fangio’s scheme and becomes accustomed to the rigors of professional football. What was once a wide-eyed rookie attempting to make a name for himself while getting healthy, has evolved into the Bears’ top safety of whom carries himself with a certain swagger.
Jackson’s breakout in 2018 won’t necessarily manifest in more turnovers as five is already aplenty for any No. 1 safety. It’ll be more about maintaining proper positioning in coverage against pass targets and understanding his fits in run support better. After seeing how NFL teams preferred to attack him as a rookie, Jackson’s improved understanding will lead to less mistakes, and to him entering the conversation among football’s top safeties.
Trey Burton, Tight end
It’s been repeatedly endlessly to this point, but with his fresh free agent contract with the Bears, Burton is currently the seventh-highest paid tight end in the NFL. Only established stars such as Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, and Travis Kelce make more. Needless to say, the Bears and Nagy have astronomical expectations for the 26-year-old tight end as an offensive centerpiece.
One caveat: Burton has never caught more than 37 passes or more than 327 yards in a single season. He had a slow rise of a role with the Philadelphia Eagles into becoming Ertz’s No. 2, but has never remotely been counted on as a focal point. The question with Burton is whether he’s ready for the responsibilities the Bears are putting on his plate: as going from No. 2 to someone with close to 90 targets in the passing game is a sizable jump.
The hunch here is that the versatile Burton becomes a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. That he should relish becoming a leader for the Bears’ offense in a similar way to other star tight ends. Ask Nagy himself about his free agent tight end.
“It’s so easy to feel his leadership,” said Nagy of Burton. “It’s not one that’s rah-rah, always-hear-him-talking type leader. He just leads by example.”
In addition to that example, Burton can line up across the Bears’ front line, and that is going to pay immediate dividends for his production. He can beat linebackers and safeties one-on-one and has a knack for finding openings in coverage on the fly. Versatility is the name of the game for one of the most unique players in football.
Right now, Burton is most famous for his “Philly Special” touchdown pass to Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII. After being prominently featured in the Bears’ offense this season, that distinction is going to be featured on the back burner of the tight end’s accomplishments.
Cody Whitehair, Center
Much like Jackson, it’s easy to forget now, but Whitehair was once slated to be the Bears’ starting left guard going into the 2016 season. An ACL injury suffered by Hroniss Grasu at that August’s Family Fest dramatically shifted the way the Bears viewed Whitehair, as he became their center on extremely short term notice.
Despite some early rough developments of a patchwork Bears’ offensive line pieced together on the fly, Whitehair thrived anyway as a rookie in 2016. The third-highest rated rookie center by Pro Football Focus since 2006 (the publication’s date of inception). A Pro Football Writer’s Association All-Rookie team member. A man with the brightest of futures with seemingly endless Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections on the way.
That is until more injuries struck the Bears’ offense in 2017 in the form of Kyle Long’s frequent struggles with health. The Bears shifted Whitehair around from center to guard to compensate and he was nowhere near the same consistent form he took on as a rookie, due to discomforts. When you’re constantly juggled around the offensive line as a still-growing player, you’re going to experience more pains than normal. That was the case with Whitehair: a complete mismanagement of his future and place with the Bears.
Enter noted offensive line guru Harry Hiestand, one of the most renown and respected offensive line coaches in football. Inject young help in James Daniels that can help Whitehair grow into his role as the now firmly entrenched Bears’ center. And finally, add in the experiences of the highs and lows of the NFL to assist Whitehair in reaching the heights everyone originally expected of him last year.
Comfort goes a long way for an offensive lineman. As does a refinement of technique and a a mentor coach that can rein everything in. Whitehair has everything going in his favor now, and barring any setbacks, will be in the conversation for the Pro Bowl and more in 2018.
You’re probably asking “can a center really be a breakout player?”
To that, look no further than the fact that the Bears’ best offensive lineman is Whitehair. When you’re the leader and most crucial element of your offensive line, you’re a breakout talent prepared to consistently show out.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.