By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS — Every year training camp comes and goes in the blink of an eye. With their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos on Thursday, the Bears have only four total practices left at Olivet Nazarene University. As the team looks to make the most of its remaining time on campus, here are some thoughts nearing the conclusion of camp.
Bears’ OL depth again a concern
Until a few days ago, the Bears had almost nothing to be worried about regarding their offensive line. Barring an expected full recovery for Kyle Long, who’s still easing his way into full competition this August, the men up front were building real continuity as arguably the strength of Chicago’s offense. In fact, only individual praise exuded from perhaps the two men most responsible for this unit’s growth: offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and Long himself.
“Bobby’s having a great camp … Cody’s growing as a leader,” Loggains said of guys sticking out to him thus far up front.
Meanwhile, Long praised his new partner-in-crime on the left side—since he’s moving over to left guard this year.
“Charles Leno is one of the most athletic guys that’s ever been around here,” said Long, praising Chicago’s now fourth-year left tackle.
A year ago, the Bears offensive line was in shambles and it reflected in early season struggles. The Bears had to work in a rookie at center in Whitehair on the fly due to an ACL injury by Hroniss Grasu. They signed a top veteran guard in Josh Sitton, but only had a little over a week to work him into the offense.
2017 was supposed to be different. All until swing guard Eric Kush tore his hamstring this past Saturday, effectively ending his season before it even started.
Now as Long’s still working to get to 100 percent, the team already offered a glimpse of a new look offensive line on Monday, again trying out Grasu at center and moving over Whitehair to guard: planning for contingencies. The team’s depth and talent on the offensive line has improved this season, but with Long still recovering, that depth is obviously stretched thin.
It begs the question as to how long the Bears will maintain this experiment of moving a potential All-Pro type such as Whitehair out of position. Weakening one spot with a top asset to fill in with two average players is never the best idea in hindsight. They might have no choice.
Gentry no ‘camp hero’
In a bit of deja vu, the 2017 Bears have another “training camp hero” of sorts at wide receiver. Last year, it was slot receiver Daniel Braverman – a seventh rounder out of Western Michigan – who lit up defenders continually during practice. This season it’s Tanner Gentry, an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming, who surprisingly was not selected during April’s amateur draft, that has consistently stuck out as a security blanket for each of Chicago’s three quarterbacks.
The difference with Gentry is that he looks like he belongs much more than any mere camp flash. The 22-year-old, 6-foot-2, 210-pound specimen has been a terror on the outside. He’s built a chemistry with fellow rookie and the future of the Bears, Mitchell Trubisky. His savvy route running and ability to go up and get the football at its highest point – one of his strengths as a collegiate player – is routinely on display.
From positioning himself and finding space in the end zone in between two defenders for Trubisky to fire a rocket of a touchdown pass last weekend, leaping over the Bears’ best safety in Quintin Demps quite easily for a snag in end zone fade route drills, to burning former first-rounder Kyle Fuller in a two-minute drill for about a 40-yard gain down the field on Monday, Gentry’s done it all.
Some figured he’d fade over time or start producing less as Bears defenders racked up the intensity and yet here Gentry is, standing on the precipice of making the final 53-man roster, provided he has a strong preseason.
Head coach John Fox normally doesn’t commit either way to praising or heaping disappointment onto his players. It’s his way of staying grounded. Following the first few days of practice this summer, however, he called Gentry “impressive.” Couple that endorsement with continued consistency and it looks like the young wideout has his ticket into the NFL.
Bullard living up to potential
One of the most difficult aspects of camp is effectively evaluating line play. Teams simply don’t go “full go” enough to gauge how players up front on either side of the ball are faring. That’s why most of these assessments are saved for actual preseason games.
Two weeks into camp, though, and 2016 third-round defensive end, Jonathan Bullard, has rounded into the form the Bears originally envisioned when drafting him. In these practices where guys aren’t normally showing their full repertoire, Bullard has turned it on of late, proving to be generally unblockable wherever he gets reps.
The 23-year-old out of Florida struggled with confidence issues and general raw fine-tuning his rookie season. This year, he’s grown into his frame as a real force. For example, on more than several occasions, the pass rusher in Bullard noted for his explosive first step would have had several sacks the past few practices (if we counted those now). He’s effectively camped out in the Bears’ offensive backfield.
Bullard’s discipline as a two-gap run defender in Chicago’s 3-4 scheme has also shown out, even if it’s more difficult for an untrained eye to see: you can’t stop the beef.
For the second-year pro, it’s all about translating this play to game situations. None of this practice dominance means anything if Bullard can’t be the same dominant force when the games matter. Something says the Bears aren’t concerned at all about that not happening with one of their top pupils. The leap is merely on the horizon. Just ask Fox, a noted teacher of top defensive talent.
“He’s developed a pro body. I like what I’ve seen so far and I’m looking forward to getting into game situations.”
Robert is your guy for all things Bears and he’ll be with the team all through training camp. Find him on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.