By Robert Zeglinski
We’re just about two weeks away from the sweltering heat of Bourbonnais as the Chicago Bears will begin training camp to get prepared for the 2017 season. Before long, the grind of the NFL season will return as well. Oh, joy! The sound of pads popping at Olivet Nazarene University is but a signifier of the return of football.
On that note, before camp, it’s time to take a look at each individual unit for Chicago and consider X-factors, competitions, and top storylines.
There’s plenty of baggage to answer for and sort out over the next two months for the Bears and this is the best guess at unpacking it all.
First up, the Bears offense, which has a dramatically new look at quarterback.
Based on simple process of elimination, this year’s Bears offense should improve by default. The 2016 version was actually 15th in total yardage but only 24th in scoring, mainly because of 27 turnovers from the quarterback trio of Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Barkley. For a unit that actually proved to move the ball well, continually stopping drives with sloppy mistakes was a killer.
Of course, as fate would have it, the Bears have an entirely new quarterback room at Halas Hall. Gone are Cutler, Hoyer, and Barkley. In is free-agent signing Mike Glennon and 2017 No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky. Fun fact: There will be a different set starter before the season for the Bears for the first time in eight years.
The Bears maintain the Glennon is the starter, for now. Trubisky does too, saying last week at an event that “Mike’s the starter and I’m behind him all the way.” But for the record, no one has also ever explicitly said the rookie Trubisky can’t snatch away the job during a competitive period such as camp and the incoming preseason. Just handing the keys to the car won’t benefit anyone. Some healthy competition will aid the Bears offense even if it’s still their expected outcome.
However, unless Trubisky truly lights it up, Chicago will likely stick with Glennon at least to the start the season. A rookie needs to separate himself even more than usual. This quarterback battle will define not only camp but perhaps the entirety of the 2017 Bears season.
In playing only four of a possible 32 professional games so far, 2015 first-round pick Kevin White has enjoyed anything but good fortune. The young wide receiver flashed explosive, game-breaking talent in college at West Virginia but leg injuries to this point have effectively robbed the 24-year-old from showcasing any of that ability at the professional level.
Now in his third NFL season, White has a lot to prove and show his mettle if he’s not going to be a monumental bust for a former top-10 pick. He can’t afford another year where he misses most of if not all of the games. He needs the experience and on-hand potential to play and prove his worth.
And to his credit, White also said at recently that he isn’t “worried about any injuries.” It’s only time to play football and enjoy the game.
The Bears could really use White’s assistance as well when you note the intense question marks along their entire receiving core.
Outside of Cameron Meredith, who led the Bears in most relevant receiving statistics in 2016, you have an older Victor Cruz and two receivers on prove-it deals in Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton (although Wheaton has more guaranteed money). The role next to Meredith on the other side of the field has a gaping hole where the Bears are desperately yearning for a stretch-the-field type talent.
Under the Bourbonnais sun and intense stress of the next few weeks, it would behoove White to begin to comfort everyone at Halas Hall with an excellent camp. His effective addition to begin living up to the hype would work wonders for the Bears offense.
Competition to watch
Outside of the easy Trubisky-Glennon dynamic to point to, it’s still too early to figure who the Bears’ third receiver i.e. slot guy will be.
As noted, Chicago currently possesses a glut of positional skill talent that sits at relatively the same level in the organization’s eyes.
Wright once led his previous team in Tennessee Titans in receiving in 2013, but since then has dramatically dropped off in usage, which led to his exit and acquisition by the Bears this spring. There’s a lot of experience and channeled energy here for the 27-year-old, he just has to stick out among a crowd.
Meanwhile, Wheaton’s best asset is the deep ball as a playmaker down the field. However, the 26-year-old missed 13 of 16 games last year due to injury and has never topped more than 53 receptions in a season. At this rate, he strikes as more of a fourth wide-out than your reliable third receiving option.
Finally, the salsa touchdown dance champion in former New York Giant, Victor Cruz. The 30-year-old Cruz is an interesting case for the Bears in seeking a career rejuvenation. There was once a time you could’ve easily made a case for Cruz being a top-10 receiver in the NFL. His speed and knack for getting open made him an integral part of the 2011 Giants Super Bowl championship team.
But a patellar tendon injury in 2014 essentially robbed Cruz of whatever career trajectory he’s been on. Since then, the last few seasons have been rough in a slow recovery for the veteran to try and regain some of his old form. 2016 was a nice start as Cruz played in 15 of 16 games, yet he still only caught 39 passes for 586 yards – a far cry from his consecutive 80 reception, 1,000-yard seasons in 2011 and 2012.
Whatever Cruz has left in the tank, he’d be best served to put it all on display during training camp. Considering his one-year deal with the Bears is all but guaranteed, he’ll still have a role with the team, it just could be smaller than usual if competition doesn’t pan out well.
Chicago’s quarterback needs more than one or two trusted targets and this trio of Wright, Wheaton, and Cruz is set for an interesting battle to become a reliable safety valve in that light.
Overall, the Bears quite clearly have a lot of holes on offense they need to plug over the next several weeks. Answering the questions of quarterback and talent at the skill positions to compliment a strong offensive line and 2016 second-leading rusher in the NFL, Jordan Howard, will go a long way towards not only sustained success this season but improved play consistently.
There’s no better stage than under the Bourbonnais sun to gleam out these answers the Bears seek. R.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.