By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – It’s easy to get caught up in the aura of Matt Nagy in his first Bears training camp. The energy he brings to the table. The attention to detail of an offensive playcaller learning to manage an entire roster. A coach learning the ropes, and steadily understanding them
At the Bears’ opening press conference at this year’s camp, Nagy himself said he didn’t “have any markers” for success in his first season in Chicago. That’s because he’s still gauging his team and how to push their buttons most effectively. It’s also because setting any high expectations doesn’t behoove a rookie head coach focusing on establishing a foundation before anything else.
The Bears are in Bourbonnais to grasp an all-new culture and to gel. Everything else is superfluous until further notice.
Bears training camp feels different this year and by different, more meaningful. That’s because of Nagy.
Here are five takeaways from the first phase of this year’s Bears camp and what to look forward to.
Where’s Roquan? Let him be.
I assure you, the Bears aren’t planning on playing former Florida State standout Ro’Derrick Hoskins, who they signed two days ago, regularly in 2018. Roquan Smith encompasses Chicago’s vision at inside linebacker. Case closed.
Contrary to popular belief despite an ongoing holdout, Smith does want to be in camp and practicing. He does want to be working hands-on with Vic Fangio. That doesn’t mean he isn’t also doing the absolute best thing for his long term future by waiting for a contract offer from the Bears that he’s comfortable with.
No, Smith’s not missing valuable repetitions that mitigate the impact of his rookie season. Especially not this early.
No, just because Smith is missing time now doesn’t mean he’ll be more susceptible to injury during camp. There’s no correlation between camp holdouts being any more susceptible to football injuries than other players. If there was, that’s news to me. Not to mention that the Bears reported to camp a week early before 30 other teams, negating points of missed time altogether.
Smith earned a contract set to the NFL’s decompressed rookie scale at No. 8 overall and he should fight for every guaranteed dollar he can pry away. The Bears know this too, for as much as of a stalemate as there might be between both parties.
Though, the team isn’t that worried about Smith’s absence. As they shouldn’t be.
“There’s no set time. We know it’s a process,” said Ryan Pace last week. “I’m not surprised.”
Until Smith is missing game time, it’s best to maintain that stance. Let his financial process carry on.
Fuller and Amukamara poised for consistency
The easiest players to evaluate in Bourbonnais are the skill positions. The guys in the trenches aren’t always going full throttle by comparison. With that in mind, I think how last year’s Bears starting cornerback duo in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara have fared thus far is incredibly encouraging.
Last summer, a strong camp by this pair preceded a stellar whole season in coverage. Fuller used that camp as a springboard to rebound from a missing-in-action 2016, and Amukamara channelled it to ingratiate himself in Fangio’s defense. After year of this scheme under their belt, the two look even more comfortable. They look like proficient technicians. They look like playmakers.
Save for the occasional dazzling by young Bears offensive skill talents, Fuller and Amukamara have shined. I can count the number of times they’ve been beat individually and soundly on one hand. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve seen them break up a pass, get an interception (yes, even Amukamara), or force impossible tight window throws from Bears quarterbacks. Fantastic athleticism and situational awareness all around.
Last week, Fuller talked about how comfortable and confident he was in Chicago as an established veteran and franchise player following a four-year extension signed this off-season. There was a reason the Bears sat him at the podium next to Mitchell Trubisky: he’s one of the faces of their roster now.
“Just understanding the game,” Fuller said. “Just being confident, and understanding everything. Confidence is everything.”
If the confident Fuller and his partner in Amukamara can continue their fine summer tune-up, the sky looks like the limit for one of the most underrated cornerback duos.
Trubisky’s development a process
There’s no point in sugarcoating it. Five practices into this Bears camp and Trubisky’s performance has been at best, okay. Realistically, he’s been all over the place. From sailed passes and inaccuracy, to four interceptions (yes, camp picks are charted by someone), he’s checked every box of a quarterback struggling to grow up.
And that’s okay. There are caveats to remember in regards to the second-year quarterback’s early duds at Olivet Nazarene University.
This is the first time Trubisky is the unquestioned starter of the Bears during camp in an offensive install. In that new offense where he’s being turned loose by Nagy, there are bound to be pitfalls in a steep learning curve. To master anything you first have to fail through trial and error.
Trubisky’s also working with a host of new receivers and building chemistry with them. Believe it or not, having a magical connection with Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller needs more time to blossom. That goes double when you note the Bears haven’t yet allowed everyone to kick it into another gear at practice. And, while it’ll never be seen as a reasonable excuse in Chicago, some wet weather was less than ideal over last weekend for passing.
Even still, Trubisky’s play hasn’t been ideal and it’s important to acknowledge the truth. The only way he can better is by admitting there’s much work to be done. It’s also important to understand that the Trubisky we see now is not the Trubisky we see in mid-October. Far from it, in fact. If there was ever time to work the kinks out, it’s late July.
Nagy maintained on Tuesday that Trubisky is still in the “flight simulation stage” of his maturation with the Bears. The time to take actual flight won’t happen until later.
Handle with care
No one has lost more adjusted games due to injury in the last three seasons than the Bears with 366. You can talk about schemes. You can game plan and build a perfect roster on paper. But that roster has to hold together and actually make it to the field in one piece.
The Bears haven’t had that luxury lately. Part of it is misfortune catching the team in the least advantageous positions. And part of it is gripping the reins of player health management as tightly as humanly possible.
After mandated on and off days for Kyle Long through the first five practices, and rest days for Robinson and Akiem Hicks on Monday and Tuesday, it’s clear this won’t be an issue with Nagy’s vision. Football is a brutally physical game. Attrition over the grind of half of a year means that no player is healthy even a few weeks into the regular season. Pushing past that limit only opens your team to losing that player past “small” nicks and knacks.
If the Bears are going to turn it around under Nagy, they have to stay healthy. They have to be smart to not beat each other up and keep themselves fresh for action that counts in the standings.
Nagy said at the opening press conference that “health is the biggest concern” for the Bears. There’s a reason he made sure to specify that: he’s done his research.
Things to keep an eye on
This week the Bears begin preparation for their first live game of the season: the Hall of Fame Game against the Baltimore Ravens next Thursday. That means you can expect the energy level and intensity at camp to rise up a notch for as much as the Bears have kept matters light to this point. They’ll pull back when necessary unlike in year’s past.
Look for Trubisky to have a much more consistent week and progress well, especially as the weather cooperates. The second week of camp is when we typically see more of a tug of war between the offense and defense. Until now, the Bears’ defense has had the edge. That should change dramatically at least a few times over the upcoming weekend.
Oh, and obviously Smith will report to Bourbonnais eventually. A comfortable hunch is that it’s in the next few days where his Bears career finally begins in earnest. R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the team all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.