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Bears mailbag: Who will be this year’s camp stars?

Who captures the hearts of Bourbonnais this year? What should be expected from the Bears’ offensive line? That and more in this week’s mailbag.

NFL: Chicago Bears-Minicamp
It’s time for the new sheriff in town to show out.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

In roughly two weeks, the Bears finally file into Bourbonnais, Illinois for this year’s training camp. A spot in the early August Hall of Fame Game against the Baltimore Ravens necessitates that Chicago begin preparations for the 2018 season a little earlier than usual. That’s what happens when Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis are First-ballot Hall of Famers in the same induction class.

With most Bears players and coaches out of the Chicagoland area for the time being, the dog days of summer still have to continue for a short while longer. Until they return, there’s much to sort out regarding Matt Nagy’s first season as head coach in Chicago.

For example: who shines (no sun pun intended) in training camp as a star this year?

This question is answered among others as I open this week’s Bears mailbag.

NFL camp season tradition is buying into diamonds unveiled in the first competitive full scale environment of the year. Everyone loves a player meeting and subsequently exceeding expectations while coming into his own. The hype naturally becomes unbearable and more overwhelming the better he performs as training camp goes on. The hype is manifested in both story and team impact.

For example, last year’s Bears camp heroes with major roles were to me Leonard Floyd and Cameron Meredith. Two young players proving their worth on both sides of the ball. Meredith unfortunately never had a chance to build on a strong preseason as he tore his ACL before the regular season began. While Floyd started strong and also suffered an injury later on.

This year, by the definition of unproven, I see Mitchell Trubisky being the player that becomes a star at camp and has an immediate impact. I know that feels like an easy answer, but remember that this is Trubisky’s first camp where he’s the unquestioned leader of the Bears. It’s on him to put on fireworks and show that he has an excellent grasp of Nagy’s offense.

Trubisky’s primary predecessor in Jay Cutler was known for being a showman this time of year, regularly shining in camp practices. Look for Trubisky to emulate Cutler in that manner, and translate to more efficient play than Cutler ever enjoyed once real games begin.

As for the Bears’ player that will have a quiet camp but be a star anyway, I’ll go with another easy answer: Jordan Howard.

Howard’s style of play as a bruising power running back doesn’t translate to a practice environment where defenders are often prohibited from bringing offensive players to the ground. He can’t run with the same reckless abandon and determination he’s known for against his own teammates and risk needless punishment. While the Bears’ receivers and Tarik Cohen are making headlines in the next few months, it’ll be easy to forget Howard because of that.

Where Howard is quiet in camp, he’ll be ready to be unleashed upon defenses in the season. Just like each of his first two seasons. There is such a thing as mental repetitions that benefit anyway. Players like Howard are more equipped to grasp the offense mentally as they don’t need to be full throttle in camp to learn their responsibilities.

When will Roquan Smith sign? - punchinjudy

NFL: Chicago Bears-Minicamp
Just because Smith hasn’t signed his rookie contract yet, doesn’t mean it’s time to worry.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven’t noticed, the Bears’ new defensive centerpiece in Smith is not officially under contract yet. The Bears were able to sign their entire 2018 draft class outside of Smith in early May, and there don’t appear to be any developments since then. Since camp is two weeks out, it’s time to panic, right? Wrong.

The design of first round contracts in the NFL with fifth-year options and offset language - especially for top 10 picks - mean they often take time to negotiate perfectly and be agreed upon. It isn’t until a concrete deadline, like say camp coming around, that both sides in the team and player’s representatives recognize the urgency to get a deal done.

Every situation is fluid too, as some first rounders take longer than others to come around. Only half of the 2018 first round has agreed to a contract to this point, so the Bears’ predicament with Smith isn’t unique or an indictment on anyone in their front office. Notably, the same wait happened with Trubisky last year as he signed his rookie contract on the day Bears rookies reported to camp.

If bargaining with Smith is taking longer than expected and is too close for comfort, it still doesn’t matter until it does. The only time to start panicking regarding a rookie signing a contract is when that rookie is missing practice time and has missed the deadline of camp. The fact that all’s quiet on every front in headlines, means that there isn’t much panic coming from Smith or the Bears either. You can breathe a sigh of relief.

Depending on the ascendance of James Daniels under offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, I think this Bears’ front is in prime position to be an underrated group in 2018. That’s what continuity, quality coaching, and a fresh influx of talent on the interior offers you.

Will this be the best offensive line in the NFL? No. I’m of the belief the Bears need an upgrade at right tackle before they can start that conversation. And they don’t have to be at the moment.

Will they be the worst offensive line? Also no.

Anything in the top 12 or so is a boon for the Bears. Having a core and underrated four in Charles Leno Jr., Daniels, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long (if healthy) puts them in that position. As long as they generally succeed in keeping Trubisky upright and growing together, they’ll come along well.

On the latter sentiment, the only player that you could reasonably be worried about not staying healthy through the season is Long, seeing as how he’s missed 15 starts in the last two years. There’s a reason the 2018 season could be the last for the 29-year-old in Chicago.

Every other projected starter has had a clean bill of health in the NFL. Leno and Whitehair haven’t missed a start in two seasons. Meanwhile, Massie has missed just four games since signing with the Bears in 2015. And with Daniels, until there’s a professional history, you can’t extrapolate anything about his well-being.

It would take a completely unforeseen disaster and far cry from recent developments for parts of this Bears offensive line to not survive the upcoming year. Previous evidence points firmly in a healthy direction. They’re equipped to gel and become a wall for Chicago’s offense. The power of Hiestand is strong.

If A.Lynch can stay healthy, can he make an impact OLB? - Grizzled Geezer

Here comes the cold water.

While the Bears’ offensive line has no reason to worry about health outside of a freak occurrence, there should be concern about one of Chicago’s projected top defensive contributors in Lynch.

I know Lynch is reuniting with his former defensive coordinator with the 49ers in Vic Fangio. I know the storylines about redemption and motivation on a one-year deal are easy to get caught up in. And I know that Lynch possesses the talent to be a good edge rusher. He wouldn’t have had 12.5 sacks in his first two San Francisco seasons without it. He can play and make a tremendous impact when on the field.

The question with Lynch, as it always has been, is his health. You have to remember that he’s only appeared in three games in the last two seasons. From concussions, to ankles, to losing motivation in general, 2016 and 2017 were chaotic for Lynch. The Bears are supposed to be a step towards the 25-year-old regaining his mojo and becoming a steady partner opposite Leonard Floyd.

Yet the Bears haven’t even started camp and there’s Lynch hurting his ankle in organized team activities. Later, near the end of minicamp in June, he tweaked a hamstring. It isn’t about the nature of these early injuries, but the history. If Lynch can’t get through minimal contact in the spring with what he’s been through in the past, how is anyone supposed to believe he can manage once taking full contact hits from 300 pound men? You’re not, and he likely won’t.

Ultimately, while the Bears are hoping for the best and doing everything they can for injury prevention, putting much of any stock into Lynch staying healthy and making a consistent impact in 2018 is fool’s gold. The evidence points firmly in the unhealthy direction. There’s a reason this outside linebacking group looks so weak on paper.

I, for one, don’t understand it myself. Ignoring a foolproof method to win a title is illogical.

LeBron James was sitting right there, and Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn’t make one phone call. How can you maintain that you want to consistently contend without trying for James? What’s this plan of drafting and developing your own talent he’s so obsessed with? And what’s this idea of having already spent more than enough in March’s free agency on premium players like Allen Robinson?

If you want to be a juggernaut, you have to convince athletes like James and Kevin Durant to take significantly less money than they’re worth to join your roster. You have to game the salary cap in an unprecedented fashion. Until he can lure stars like LeBron to the Bears, Pace is clearly unfit to build an NFL team. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

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.