By Robert Zeglinski
When NFL training camps roll around, the optimism the off-season has created comes to a head. A team finally practicing together and beginning formal preparations for the grind of the regular season is seen as the most momentous occasion of the calendar year, because it’s tangible football. Never mind that for much of camp players are in shorts or not taking each other to the ground: this is the official unofficial return of the NFL, no matter the level of play.
The Bears, like most organizations around the league, use camp as a means to freshen up on every phase of the game while building team chemistry. And the Bears, like most organizations around the league, greet surprise competitors into their ranks for fans to fall in love with over the course of roughly three weeks.
With Matt Nagy’s first Bears training camp but single digit days away, the time for camp heroes will soon emerge. This atmosphere not only facilitates the obvious major contributors like Mitchell Trubisky or Leonard Floyd getting into the swing of things. It allows for the lesser heralded names, the heroes, to rise to the forefront in the swell of the summer heat. Underdogs of the past such as Tanner Gentry last year, Daniel Braverman before that, Brandon Rideau, and many more.
These are the players that shine in the sunlight of camp practice at Bourbonnais, but aren’t guaranteed anything else, and so rarely shine in the spotlight of meaningful game action. The late round draft picks and undrafted free agents. Sometimes they make the eventual 53-man roster once the 90-man camp edition is cut down, and even then their contributions are often minimal.
The uphill battle for fringe roster guys in football is continuously an impossible slope to climb.
While we settle in on what should be an entertaining inaugural camp for the Nagy regime, here are the prime candidates to be this year’s Bears camp heroes. From their current status with the Bears, to likelihood of making the final team and an impact, everything is considered. This isn’t the place for name recognition. It’s about who is going to make a name for themselves.
Tanner Gentry, WR
Current status: Outside looking in
Likelihood of making team: Miniscule
Another year older, another year wiser would be the appropriate tagline for the 23-year-old Gentry going into his second season. He’s certainly grown up and worked on his craft, as any young player should. That doesn’t mean he’s any more equipped or in a position to cement a spot with the Bears, however.
A year after capturing the hearts of Bourbonnais crowds with acrobatic catches and vertical bombs – performances that eventually landed him a spot on the Bears’ 2017 regular season roster – Gentry is in worse standing to realize a successful NFL dream. After Chicago signed Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, drafted Anthony Miller, and brought about the services of Bennie Fowler and Josh Bellamy: Gentry is realistically the sixth or seventh receiver on the Bears’ depth chart until proven otherwise. Catching consistent deep passes in practice is different against starting level cornerbacks to say the least.
For a player like Gentry that struggled to find his footing in arguably the worst receiving corps in football last year (three receptions in four games), the future doesn’t spell out great things with given additions. Gentry has to prove he’s become more refined as a route runner outside of his trademark vertical game, and beyond that, morph into more of a special teams ace. No one is going to supplant Robinson, Gabriel, and Miller as the Bears’ top trio barring injury. Everyone after them has to do more than play receiver to have value.
Kevin Toliver, CB
Current status: On a launch platform
Likelihood of making team: Moderate
The question for the rookie Toliver isn’t talent. A three-year physical starter for LSU, Toliver can play and bring the necessary edge to thrive in the NFL. It’s about whether he’s focused and ready for the demands of the game. There are significant questions about Toliver’s character, attitude, and mentality that a variety of his former coaches discussed in the 2018 NFL Draft process. That’s why he was brought on as an undrafted free agent instead of getting a draft reward: he wasn’t deemed worthy of the investment.
Which to the Bears’ credit, they know they’re taking a flier on Toliver. A flier they need given the lack of depth they have at boundary cornerback. Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara are a nice and solid duo, but it gets shaky with disappointing 2017 free agent signing Marcus Cooper after them. After Cooper, look up the Bears’ No. 4 at your own risk. If there was ever a place on this roster for a young player to take by storm during camp, it would be boundary cornerback.
At 6-foot-2 with a press style tailor-made for Bears’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, all Toliver has to do is regularly flash the ability he showed throughout college. Toliver plays off blocks well, walls off receivers seamlessly, and has the necessary speed to last. The type of defensive back that has a chance to make his mark against the similarly big-bodied Robinson one-on-one, among others.
As long as Toliver’s eyes are on the prize, the Bears have the makings of a developmental diamond in the rough on their hands.
Taquan Mizzell, RB
Current status: On a launch platform
Likelihood of making team: Moderate
Because defenders are generally not allowed to bring offensive players to the ground, and offensive and defensive linemen typically aren’t always going full-tilt, camp is an excellent place for wiggly skill players such as Mizzell to excel.
A post-preseason waiver claim edition to the Bears’ last year following a cut by the Ravens, Mizzell enters his first year with Chicago attempting to tap into a crowded running back room. The only player in ACC history with 1,500 career receiving and rushing yards, Mizzell is a dynamic virtuoso of versatility out of the backfield. A human highlight reel on a team that looks like it’s full of them. He just needs the chance to show Bears coaches he belongs.
No one is going to supplant Jordan Howard as the starter. Tarik Cohen is likened more to receiver than runner at this point, but is also the clear No. 2 with a heavy workload incoming. No, instead, Mizzell’s time in camp will be defined by attempting to snatch away playing time from veteran workhorse Benny Cunningham.
Cunningham, who played as a reliable third down back and special teamer for the Bears in 2017, is back on a one-year deal because of his value and leadership in that spot role. But 20 receptions and 240 receiving yards on a limited amount of snaps isn’t irreplaceable for a younger and more talented player. This amounts to a spot role that isn’t as locked down as one would believe.
Affectionately nicknamed “Smoke” because of his quickness and speed, Mizzell has to live up to his billing if he has any prayer of making the Bears’ final roster. Something he’s capable of in comparison to the less electric Cunningham.
An extra offensive dimension, or a bit of “Smoke”, is always welcome.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.