By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – The NFL’s annual Hall of Fame Game may be played under the lights on a national broadcast, but it’s nothing too close to the real deal the regular season presents.
So while young Bears like 2018 sixth-and seventh-rounders Kylie Fitts and Javon Wims shined when the team visited Canton, Ohio Thursday, it’s barely representative of what to even expect from the remainder of the preseason.
In a select context, what guys like Wims (seven receptions, 89 yards) and Fitts (four tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss) were able to accomplish against the Baltimore Ravens matters. These are inherently raw talents getting valuable game experience, regardless of the level of competition against fellow third and fourth stringers.
Taking a bigger picture look when the entire team returns flat and “sloppy” as Matt Nagy put it on a blazing Saturday in Bourbonnais, these performances have already been washed away. They don’t matter if you can’t build on them. The Bears are on to the next challenge. The next game. The next practice. And if they can’t string consistently good outings together – something this organization has struggled with in recent years – they’re going to have problems.
Luckily, with final roster cuts not until September 1st, it’s still early enough to improve.
“We understand they played well in their first game and highlight that,” Nagy said of players like Wims and Fitts coming into the spotlight. “But that’s over now, and we have to progress.”
If Bears like Wims and Fitts are going to do more than make the final 53-man roster, they can’t get lost in the shuffle of any initial flash plays. The professional game is about consistency. It’s nuance and coming prepared once you’ve been scouted. It’s natural talent in line with a refined mental game, an aspect that many young players are regularly at odds with.
Next time the Bears take the field against a live opponent this Thursday on the road against the Bengals, Cincinnati won’t be caught off guard by Wims’ jump-ball ability. They’ll know where Fitts excels as a pass rusher, and where he doesn’t. And the developing Bears will have to have done their homework.
No letdowns are tolerated.
“You have to show up every day. You can’t perform in a game and come out in practice and take some plays off,” Fitts said of his and other young guys’ next steps. “It’s every snap and every drill going 100 percent.”
Fitts locking horns in pass rush battle
At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds there’s no doubting Fitts’ physical gifts to let him play in the NFL. A linebacker that tested similarly during March’s Scouting Combine to Titans second round pick Harold Landry, Fitts belongs at this level and can more than hold his own against tackles that attempt to bully him.
No, the question instead with Fitts has always been injuries and as a consequence, how those injuries have made him one of the more raw prospects on the Bears roster. Fitts appeared in just nine of 24 games in his last two years with Utah after a stellar 2015 sophomore season that saw him record seven sacks. If not for nagging foot injuries, Chicago never has a chance to draft a more polished pass rusher in the sixth round.
It’s funny how circumstances work out, and how far along Fitts has already come during the Bears’ stay at Olivet Nazarene University too. From Day 1 reporting day in mid-July to the first few days of this August, it’s night and day for the outside linebacker.
“I’m more technically sound, but just in a few of my pass rushes, I could still clean it up,” Fitts said. “I could stand to improve my get-off a little bit.”
That’s the key for Fitts moving forward. He can’t get too low with any of his play, and more importantly, he can’t get too high and get invested in praise of his progression either. If he’s going to make an impact for these Bears, he can’t put any stock in those saying he’s become a force. Even from his head coach in Nagy who has appreciated his ability. There are shorter ways to say “no comment”.
“It’s good to be called out like that,” Fitts said of Nagy’s compliments. “For now, I’m just trying to ignore it and stay on my routine.”
If anything has bothered or eaten away at Fitts, he does a great job of showing otherwise.
A testy outside linebacker positional battle between he and Isaiah Irving?
“For all of us outside backers, we’re a young group,” Fitts said. “We want to maximize every opportunity we get.”
Injuries limiting Fitts’ NFL potential to this point?
“Last season (2017) it was tough, sitting out all those plays,” Fitts lamented. “But I ignore it, I don’t think about injuries.”
A necessary blissful ignorance for a man getting accustomed to the league.
Wims counting his blessings
One of the more productive receivers in college football on one of the best teams in college football at Georgia, the 6-foot-4 Wims wasn’t supposed to last until the seventh round. He was supposed to be drafted much earlier, hearing his name called among the top prospects as he basked in the glory. Your football career never goes exactly as planned.
As one of the Bears’ fringe roster guys for the moment, Wims isn’t dwelling on those oversights. And he’s not reveling in merely one good preseason outing either. Whatever you’re handed on a silver platter, you take it and run.
That’s why it might be difficult for Wims to stay fully locked in. In an early receiver blocking warmup drill Saturday morning, Bears wide receiver coach Mike Furrey was lighting into his group because he wasn’t satisfied with their efforts. On more than a few occasions, Furry lit into the young Wims to repeat repetitions, “that’s soft, that’s soft, soft, soft.” The adjustment period, especially after a physical game, is ongoing.
But Wims is taking it in stride with the help of Bears veterans, and as he should.
“They teach me how to be a pro on and off the field, it’s a blessing to have them,” Wims said.
“They” is Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, two of Chicago’s big free agent additions from the off-season. They’re two playmakers that have been there done and that, and have undergone the overwhelming transition Wims is being asked to make. Their insight is arguably more valuable than anyone else’s for the time being, so Wims has to absorb their teaching when he can.
Wherever Wims’ career takes him, he knows has to lean on the shoulders of others. He knows that ultimately he’s fortunate a team like the Bears have him in camp. It’s that grounded and sponge-like humble mentality that serves the lanky wideout well to potentially last a long time.
“It’s a blessing that I’m even here. I don’t think about it,” said Wims of his lengthy draft wait. “I motivate myself by being here and competing and playing well.”
Housekeeping and tidbits
After a grueling Hall of Fame Game, defensive backs Deon Bush (hamstring) and Cre’Von LeBlanc (groin) suffered some setbacks on Saturday, said Nagy. Considering the two are locked in contentious competitions with No. 1’s Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan, respectively, they better hope they recover quickly from what can be two debilitating injuries.
As for other injury news, veteran pass rusher Aaron Lynch hasn’t practiced since the first day of Bears training camp due to an ailing hamstring and was still not wearing a helmet on Saturday. Nagy maintained that he likely won’t be back this week, but that Chicago is being extra cautious with him. Likewise for Lynch, he needs to return soon as a young outside linebacking corps is slowly coming into it’s own. The clock is ticking. R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. You can find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.