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The Bears alphabet guide to understanding training camp

There’s a lot to know about the Bears entering their first camp under Matt Nagy. Let’s put it in elementary terms.

Trubisky is definitely thinking about everything he has to learn.
Chicago Tribune

Any language’s alphabet is the base of how we perceive and write that language when not spoken. In English, we’re taught about A to Z in grammar school (and in Sesame Street), and that becomes the literate foundation needed throughout the rest of our lives.

When it comes to football, the base of our knowledge often stems from film analysis, on-site reporting, and healthy discussion. We don’t think of it in anything close to simple terms like an alphabet. It’s needlessly overcomplicated and turgid, like much of NFL offensive and defensive schemes are and not by coincidence.

The Bears return to Bourbonnais for training camp this week, their first with Matt Nagy as head coach. As they begin preparations for one of their most anticipated summers and seasons in years, I’ve decided to teach you everything you need to know about this bunch in a more straightforward manner. I have created a Bears alphabet featuring every important aspect of this organization in a new era: from the A in A-Gap to the Z in Z Receiver.

Without further ado, here’s the Bears alphabet to prepare for you what to expect on the eve of this year’s camp.

A - Akiem Hicks: He’s the Bears’ current best player and a team captain. Oh and ho-hum: he’s one of the NFL’s premier 3-4 defensive ends. Hicks does everything for Chicago on and off the field, and it shows. This season is the first Hicks plays on a deserved mega four-year extension signed last September. An extension that showed the Bears’ immense belief in the 28-year-old. He’s determined not to let that faith go to waste, even if the video game Madden doesn’t hold the same conviction in him.

B - Bourbonnais, Illinois: The Bears have held their training camps in this suburban town just outside Chicago since 2002. In that time, Bourbonnais has turned itself into a Bears tourist destination, going so as far to emblazon a water tower easily seen from the Olivet Nazarene University practice fields with “Summer Home Of The Chicago Bears.” With the Bears finishing up a Halas Hall expansion in April 2019 to accommodate future camps held closer to home, the three years remaining on a deal to hold camp in Bourbonnais will be cherished by many.

C - Tarik Cohen: One of the Bears’ bright, young offensive spark plugs, expectations have reached ludicrous heights for the second-year Cohen. Though, for an exciting player that can take the ball to the house any time he touches the ball, that’s understandable. Cohen now gets to work in an offense that maximizes his versatile skill set and consistently places him in a position to succeed. A dangerous thought for defenders.

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings
Small in stature, but Cohen has never lacked in ability.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

D - Defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio: There was a lot of consternation over whether Fangio would return to the Bears in January after a three-year deal he signed in 2015 had expired. Everything the Bears having built recently at risk of going to waste. The surly Fangio eventually relented (after a handsome pay day, no doubt) and is back in Chicago to finish what he started. An excellent development of continuity for a defense that returns a majority of it’s starters.

E - Eddie Goldman: Did you know Goldman is only 24-years-old? Well if you didn’t, now you do. The fourth-year nose tackle and Bears defensive anchor enters a season where he’s been consistently talked up as a likely contract extension candidate. That’s deservedly so for one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. A guy that just turned 24 is in line for potentially two more lucrative, long term contracts while eating up space for the Bears in the meantime. What did you do in your mid-20s?

F - Leonard Floyd: The only top edge rusher the Bears have drafted in the last four years, the goal for Floyd in 2018 is simple: dominate or enter no man’s land. A player that’s missed 10 games in his first two seasons with Chicago can’t afford to miss any more time. He can’t afford to be as inconsistent rushing the passer as he’s occasionally proven to be. 2018 from a pure roster standpoint and with what’s on the line, is more important to Floyd than every other Bears player. The talent is there. Now the luck and capacity for growth have to be too.

G - Tanner Gentry Taylor Gabriel: What Gentry did in last year’s Bears camp was special. You can’t replicate the deep bombs he caught on the Bears’ secondary. He’s definitely grown up in his second year and ready to become a superstar. Never doubt the underdog. How dare you if you do. Underutilized and under-appreciated in his final year with the Falcons last season, Gabriel is one of the Bears’ crown jewel free agents from this spring. An electric talent in the open field and walking mismatch, “Turbo” Gabriel should create plenty of fireworks with his similarly diminutive partner in Cohen.

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons
Another small rocket of a man, Gabriel makes defenders pay for underestimating him.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

H - Harry Hiestand: The biggest addition to the Bears’ coaching staff outside of the head man himself, Hiestand is the primary reason to feel more optimistic about Chicago’s offensive line than ever. His track record for developing young frontline talent at Notre Dame speaks for itself. As does his history with the Bears as the offensive line coach the last time the team made two consecutive postseason appearances in 2005 or 2006. By no coincidence, Olin Kreutz’s peak, among others.

I - Joel Iyiegbuniwe: Iyiegbuniwe, otherwise known as “Who?” based on the majority of reactions to the Bears drafting of him in this year’s fourth round, is unquestionably Chicago’s heir apparent at inside linebacker to Danny Trevathan. Whether he’s ready to take that position soon is a different story. A college career built on fine athleticism and relentless work says that he knows it’s going to take time — likely a season or two — before he starts for the Bears. Rest assured, everyone knows Iyiegbuniwe’s name now. They just can’t spell it yet.

J - Eddie Jackson: Pop quiz: who is the first Bears’ safety to record at least five takeaways as a rookie since Mark Carrier’s astonishing 15 in 1990? Why none other than Jackson! A year older and wiser, Jackson is expected to become a star for the Bears’ secondary. Any drop off would be a major disappointment for the ballhawk.

K - Kyle Fuller: For the first time in his career, Fuller lines up as the Bears’ definitive No. 1 cornerback when they open up practice this weekend. For the first time in his career, the 26-year-old is seen as a veteran leader by higher-ups, especially given his presence as one of the player speakers for Thursday’s opening press conference. That’s what happens when you’re the fifth-highest paid NFL cornerback. Expectations and responsibility rise.

L - Kyle Long: Once upon a time, the Bears had a three-time Pro Bowl guard en route to one of the best careers by a Chicago offensive lineman in years. Then he went on the worst run of luck and severely broke his ankle, tore his labrum, and developed neck issues that needed surgery. The last two years have been rough on Long and derailed much of his original promise. But not all is lost for the 29-year-old, provided he can finally be healthy. The Bears will welcome a talented offensive lineman that can help any day, it’s just now or never.

Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears
Getting back anything close to the 2013-2015 version of Long wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to the Bears.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

M - Mitchell Trubisky: The Golden Boy. The face of the franchise. The hero Chicago needs and thinks it deserves. Everything the Bears have done in the last year has revolved around Trubisky and putting him in a spot where he can eventually win them championships. He might as well have his own gravitational pull in terms of influence. Whether Trubisky reaches the heights the Bears envision of him is a different question that we don’t yet have the answer to. Here’s a hunch that Trubisky and company go down guns blazing either way.

N - Matt Nagy: Nagy and Trubisky had to be next each other if only for symbolic purposes at how metaphorically linked at the hip they are. The quarterback-head coach relationship is the most important dynamic there is in football. Nagy was hired by the Bears for his potential influence on and relationship with Trubisky. If Nagy can get the young passer to click and buy in, then this couple is meant to be.

O - former Oregon head coach, turned offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich: When your boss is as outspoken and energetic as Nagy, you tend to take a backseat in the public light. The man in the shadows tasked with creating effective game plans and reining in Nagy’s offense as his main partner in Helfrich should have a greater share of the spotlight. His quick tempo spread influences from Oregon meshed with Nagy’s West Coast disciplines will make for a unique Bears offense.

P - Cody Parkey: Thanks to the oft-maligned Connor Barth and a struggle to replace former stalwart Robbie Gould, the Bears made a total of 32 field goals in the last two years. Some teams’ kickers eclipse that mark by early December, for what it’s worth. Another big ticket free agent addition in Parkey is being counted on to actually close that revolving door after Gould. While he’ll never likely be confused for an elite kicker, Parkey is generally solid and coming off a year where he was in the top 10 in percentage of field goal makes. That’s elite to the recent hapless Bears, no doubt.

Miami Dolphins v Atlanta Falcons
The revolving door post-Robbie Gould is closed.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Q - Questions galore: Okay, Q was difficult because there aren’t are any common names or references associated with it (though, there are nicknames). You work with what you can. But still: there a lot of questions that could receive answers during the Bears’ stay in Bourbonnais. Who starts at defensive end opposite Hicks? Who starts at outside linebacker opposite Floyd? We’ll have a clearer look at these competitions and roster holes after the next three weeks.

R - Allen Robinson: The 24-year-old receiver and prized 2018 Bears free agent addition, Robinson is two years removed from a 2015 season where he caught 14 touchdowns. Since then, inconsistencies and a torn ACL suffered last year have set him back. The Bears are counting on Robinson to become that No. 1 star again, even with those recent setbacks. Their $14 million per year free agent investment speaks volumes of that mandate.

S - Roquan Smith: “Quan” is Smith’s affectionate nickname and also his Twitter handle. “Quan”, if given time to acclimate and learn the nuances of the NFL, can morph into a household name. The 2018 first round pick couldn’t have landed in a better spot to turn into an elite inside linebacker than with the tradition-rich Bears.

T - Trey Burton: In Philadelphia, Burton was a solid No. 2 tight end, but an afterthought to star Zach Ertz. Burton would get his fair amount of chances for his part in the Eagles’ overpowering attack, but he always felt he deserved more. Hence the final major Bears’ free agent chess piece and a contract that makes Burton the seventh-highest paid tight end in the NFL. The Bears and Nagy have relentlessly praised Burton’s versatility as his greatest strength. That versatility will be put to a test as Chicago plays him in a major role he’s not used to.

Philadelphia Eagles v Los Angeles Rams
No longer playing second fiddle.
Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

U - U Tight End: Similar to his coach and quarterback, it’s only fitting that Burton is beside his official position designation with the Bears. Burton, while Chicago’s No. 1 tight end, isn’t your classic run of the mill and put your hand in the ground grinder. He’s a receiver. He’s a full back. And he’s a tight end. Ultimately, he’s a U: a guy that lines up everywhere in an offensive formation because he’s that athletic and capable. The U position is the same that Nagy’s former tight end in All-Pro Travis Kelce was featured with the Chiefs. While not nearly as good, Burton is going to be used in the same prolific manner.

V - Victory: This is the only time of the year where the Bears will be undefeated following every practice. Of course, this is a running training camp gag given the lack of competition. Victory, whether they perform well or poorly, will always follow them in Bourbonnais. They can do no wrong in the summer.

W - Kevin White Cody Whitehair: At this point, White is Chicago’s overwrought camp narrative. He returns every year in the “best shape of his life” ready to prove his critics wrong. And every year, he’s eventually fallen short because of disastrous injury. The Bears didn’t pick up White’s first round fifth-year option for a reason. They can’t trust him. One stellar camp, which he hasn’t even enjoyed before, won’t change that feeling. No one arguably had a more disappointing season from the Bears’ 2016 draft class than Whitehair. Considered a lock to make a jump in play last season, Whitehair struggled mightily in 2017 and could never get totally settled in. Hiestand’s presence should help the 26-year-old mature and get back onto a trajectory of a star center.

X - X Receiver: Contrary to popular belief, an X in football — the No. 2 outside receiver — doesn’t have to be tall and physically imposing. Route running, hands, and speed are paramount instead, as they should be. This is especially apparent in Nagy’s Bears offense which will deploy the 5-foot-8 Gabriel as Chicago’s X: the same position he played in and excelled with Atlanta. You don’t have to adhere to playbook stereotypes if that’s where your best players thrive. You adapt and move on.

Y - Y Tight End, Adam Shaheen: Whereas Burton isn’t that burly physical freak that can block in-line, Shaheen is. The second-year tight end in Shaheen is every bit the prototypical Y NFL teams seek with his 6-foot-6, 269 pound frame. He’s the man that’s going to do the dirty work for the Bears offense and make the most of his damage in the red zone getting rebounds for touchdowns. Shaheen is essentially Chicago’s 1B at tight end for the time being, and is the perfect fit for the variety of formations Nagy uses.

Z - Taquan Mizzell: While it’s certainly possible a strong camp and subsequent preseason could see the more naturally gifted Mizzell supplant the established Benny Cunningham as the Bears’ third running back, it’s not likely until he shows consistent flashes. A late waiver wire addition last fall, this camp is Mizzell’s first opportunity to put on a show for Bears brass and the Bourbonnais faithful. What’s more likely from that respect is him becoming the camp darling everyone roots for as he dazzles every day. Making the final roster is another daunting hurdle altogether.

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.