By Robert Zeglinski
The time of year that every seasoned NFL veteran dreads has now arrived. The dog days of sweltering heat, two-a-days, and the doldrums of a routine that will be perfected over six months begins. As the Bears look to prepare for their 2016 campaign in training camp in Bourbonnais yet again, questions – and some measured hype – loom over John Fox’s budding group.
After all, at each of his previous coaching stops in Denver and Charlotte, Fox’s teams have either made the playoffs in his first or second year of coaching. Now it won’t be easy to live up to his previous standards given the rigors of an incredibly competitive NFC North, but that’s out of the Bears’ control.
This is the kind of team that we won’t really truly know anything about until after the first month or so of the season. Most teams in the NFL are easy to read in the preseason based off of our previous expectations and set talent levels. The Bears on the other hand, have youth and inconsistency that will take some time to gauge. If the picture comes together in the vision that Fox and general manager Ryan Pace have pieced together, then it could be an eventful season on the lakefront. Let’s take a look at some issues and questions that need to be answered within the next month in camp.
Who is the starting center?
The debut and subsequent onslaught for second-year center Hroniss Grasu wasn’t easy last year. A season-ending injury to now ex-Bear Will Montgomery forced the Bears’ hands to have the rookie thrown into the fire much sooner than they had hoped.
Grasu, a third round draft pick in 2015, was of course seen as a developmental pick that would be the future starter in the middle for years to come after some seasoning. Scouts feared he was undersized and didn’t have the strength for the position yet at just under 300lbs. These fears mostly came to fruition for Grasu as he struggled to stabilize a patchwork offensive line that often had quarterback Jay Cutler breaking the pocket just to have any breathing room.
None of this was any of Grasu’s fault of course, but new expectations have been set.
With the release of guard Matt Slauson and drafting of his replacement Cody Whitehair, it’s clear what the Bears plan-A long-term interior from left to right of Whitehair, Grasu, and Long would do wonders for Chicago’s offense for years but everything has to be in sync. Grasu, after most accounts noting he has bulked up to approximately 315lbs, needs to seize the starting center role as the anchor the Bears want him to be. Whitehair, who played every position in college at Kansas State, can fill in and potentially be the starter but that would send the entire offensive line into flux. Grasu doesn’t possess that position versatility and the Bears have nowhere near the depth to fill in.
A team’s offensive line, especially when youthful, is expected to have growing pains, and Grasu will have a grace period in that respect. With Grasu having first and most honest opportunity at the job, he needs to distinguish himself and earn the trust of the Bears’ staff instead of planting seeds of doubt.
Who is the safety next to Adrian Amos?
This is a competition that likely won’t be completely solved in training camp. Amos after a stalwart season that saw him named to the PFWA All-Rookie-Team, is entrenched as the team’s free safety and as a player on the rise. He showcased enough playmaking ability and reliability for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to earn that right. What Fangio must figure over the next six to seven weeks is who his brilliant pupil’s partner will be.
The Bears had signed the now released Antrel Rolle to temporarily fill the void next to Amos last year, but injuries and age caught up to the veteran. Lone incumbent second-year player Harold Jones-Quartey would seem like the favorite in normal circumstances given his short familiarity with Fangio’s defense, but the Bears rightfully so have thrown a wrench into the mix.
You don’t draft two safeties like Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson and expect someone to have an automatic starting role after all.
Bush, described as an excellent tackler who separates the ball from ball carriers (five forced fumbles in 2015), should figure to have first crack at strong safety given his pedigree and skillset from the relative power University of Miami. Jones-Quartey and Houston-Carson are much more raw given their respective Division II University of Findlay and College of William and Mary FCS backgrounds. Yet all three are now on the relative same level plane.
One could take a look at any of these sleepers and see budding sleeper talent on the horizon, it’s just a matter of who wins the Bears’ faith. Typical Vic Fangio defenses are structured around a strong front seven with safety being prioritized over corner on the back end. Fangio had the dynamic trio of Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, and Eric Reid at safety in his time in San Francisco.
The Bears have largely completely revitalized their front seven and have their first man in Adrian Amos. Whoever separates himself in camp and carries the torch among Bush, Jones-Quartey, and Houston-Carson, will look to be the missing puzzle piece next to him.
How does Kevin White begin to fit in the offense?
There’s a lot of understandable hype surrounding this rookie. White is someone that’s compared to Alshon Jeffery given his size and frame, but with more ability to truly stretch the field. Given Brandon Marshall’s antics that led him to be traded out of town, White was drafted and is looked upon as Marshall’s replacement in football terms. That’s a lot of production and talent to live up to.
With the state of the Bears’ receiving core often in shambles in 2015 because of injuries to Jeffery, Eddie Royal, and Marquess Wilson, Cutler often found himself throwing to admirable fill-ins like Cameron Meredith that eventually hamstrung Chicago’s offense. The Bears can’t have the same receiver health issues and anyone that is on the active roster must produce if this team is to enjoy any success.
White, presumably healthy, has to show he’s the man next to Jeffery that will open up everything for other Bears playmakers. He had some struggles with drops in minicamps in spring that often happened when Jeffery wasn’t around. There have also been questions that White didn’t run the full NFL route tree in college, a product of West Virginia’s spread offense that makes him a less than ready professional product. These are aspects of White’s game where the Bears will be searching for answers.
It’s up to the 24-year-old whether he quells these concerns. In the hot and humid August sun, Cutler will undoubtedly be looking to gel early and often with his full complement of weapons, especially his new toy. White must show he’s ready for the challenge.
Of the many conclusions we can draw of these Bears at the end of the August, these three figure to factor the most into a highly competitive camp. Strap in, everyone.