BOURBONNAIS — We’re officially two weeks into training camp, which means it’s time for my annual look at how the Bears’ draft class is handling their crash course into the NFL.
Ryan Pace’s third crop of rookies just feels like a bigger deal, mainly because he essentially bet his job on Mitch Trubisky back in April. But the swirl of criticism Pace saw during the draft didn’t just stop with Trubisky. He was also widely criticized for using three of his five picks on small school guys and another on a safety with a rod in his leg — the only defensive player he picked in what was considered a deep defensive draft.
But know this: there’s been a quiet confidence permeating from Lake Forest since draft weekend. It’s not just the front office that is excited about this group of rookies. John Fox loves them too. In fact, the entire coaching staff does.
So while you might read this in Athlon Sports Pro Football Preview magazine — “Despite GM Ryan Pace’s protestations to the contrary, the Bears are unlikely to get much immediate help from this draft class” — the reality is likely much different. In fact, even with Trubisky set to “redshirt,” it would not be surprising to see three of the Bears’ five draft picks play major roles as soon as Week 1.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Pace’s third draft class is doing in training camp so far:
1. 1st Round, No. 2 overall: QB Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
After nine practices (and two open walk-throughs) in Bourbonnais, it’s easy to understand why the Bears are not in a rush to play their first round draft pick. Trubisky has dazzled the fans with some impressive throws (he definitely leads the quarterbacks in “wow” throws), but it’s also obvious that he is still a work in progress when it comes to running the offense. When he has the ball in his hands, you see the raw talent Trubisky possesses, but it’s everything that happens between the whistle and the snap (getting the play call, relaying the play call efficiently in the huddle, getting everyone lined up, reading the defense, identifying/changing the protection, and executing a clean snap) that is still a work in progress.
None of this is surprising. Trubisky played in a shotgun offense, with plenty of no-huddle and protections that were relayed from the sideline after everybody was lined up. You can’t just walk into the NFL and run an offense smoothly if you’ve never executed the required elements before — no matter how talented you are.
But to be clear: it would be inaccurate to say that Trubisky is struggling with his adjustment to a pro-style offense. Sure, there have been too many balls on the ground and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has had to order Trubisky to re-huddle every once in a while, but the quarterback seems to be getting more comfortable each day, which is encouraging.
“I’ve just been pleased with how well I’ve been able to pick things up, just command in the huddle with all the calls at the line of scrimmage, getting the protections set and getting us in the right play so we’re able to move efficiently,” Trubisky said.
Loggains and quarterback coach Dave Ragone have been breaking down each and every rep, particularly focusing on what Trubisky is doing at the line of scrimmage.
“Just where he puts his eyes No. 1,” Loggains said. “If he’s diagnosing the defense right and reading keys and safeties and the leverages of the nickel (back) and all those things, and when he starts his progression — which is his eyes — where they’re supposed to be. So that process is actually easier to evaluate compared to (his receiver progressions). That’s where the biggest growth comes for a young quarterback.”
Despite being known for his good footwork in the pocket, Trubisky said that’s where he would like to see more improvement, mainly because he’s had to learn it all over again in the Bears’ offense.
“Sometimes I go back to my college footwork just because that’s second nature, “ he said. “Just continuing to take coaching and what they’re talking about with the footwork here. The more I do that the more I can stay within the offense, be in time with the progressions and all that.”
Footwork changes drastically under center compared to in the shotgun, so that has been an obvious adjustment (and a bigger challenge than simply getting the snap under center). Plus, you’re dealing with pass rushes that are much more potent.
“It’s the NFL so everything happens faster,” Trubisky said. “So instead of me taking more time, everything’s got to be a step faster. Just trying to speed it up.”
With the No. 2 overall pick expected to sit once the regular season comes around, these four preseason games will be extremely valuable for Trubisky. Don’t be surprised if he sees time with different units, gaining experience with most of the receivers. It also seems relevant that the third-team offensive line has been underwhelming in camp (Trubisky is frequently being forced to scramble) and the Bears will want to protect their investment when the bullets go live Thursday night.
2. 2nd Round, No. 45 overall: TE Adam Shaheen, Ashland
Pace used his first two second round picks on “plug-and-play” starters in Eddie Goldman and Cody Whitehair, and he may have hit the trifecta with tight end Adam Shaheen. I’m big on first impressions once the pads go on in training camp — typically when a high draft pick immediately looks like he belongs, it means he belongs.
So far, Shaheen has looked every bit the part. He’s huge, he can run, and he catches everything. Everything. In fact, I can only recall one drop in all the practices reporters have been permitted to watch since rookie minicamp back in May.
Shaheen has worked with all three quarterbacks and it is obvious he has earned their trust quickly, especially in the red zone. His route running is polished and his ability to box out defenders and catch passes in traffic is similar to Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham (to be clear, I’m not saying he’s that good yet; I’m just saying he has the rare physical tools that the elite NFL tight ends possess).
“I think he’s going to be a great addition for us,” fellow tight end Zach Miller said. “A huge weapon. Just a big, big guy out there who can run. Has really good hands. So as soon as he gets a grasp of this thing, he’s going to have a really bright future.”
So what exactly does Shaheen need to grasp? Well, for one, he’s making a big jump from Division-II Ashland and as impressive as his transition has been so far, it will be different when he faces live competition from other teams. From a pass-catching standpoint, he should be able to have immediate success, but his blocking will ultimately determine how much he sees the field.
“I never really pass-blocked in college,” Shaheen said when asked what it was like to face Leonard Floyd in practice. “Obviously (Floyd) is much better than anybody I played in college, but I didn’t really do it in college either.”
As for what Shaheen is focusing on when it comes to blocking: “Just footwork, footwork, footwork. You can always get better, as well as your hand strike. Where you’re attacking on his body. What’s your landmark? Numbers, armpit.”
This is my seventh Bears training camp and, without going too far overboard, I’m honestly struggling to think of another rookie who has been this impressive two weeks into camp. Kyle Long is pretty much the only one who comes to mind, as it was easy to peg him as a starter early in Bourbonnais. Shaheen looks like the real deal.
3. 4th Round, No. 112 overall: S Eddie Jackson, Alabama
Jackson hasn’t stood out to the extent of Shaheen, but it would not surprise me if he ends being the Bears’ starting free safety Week 1 against the Falcons. Quintin Demps has easily been the best safety in camp, but he’s pretty much cemented into the starting strong safety spot. Among the long list of young safeties competing at the other spot, Jackson is the only one who has shown an instinctual ability to track the football in the air, which is exactly what the Bears need out of that position.
“Especially after my injury — battling back and seeing, all right, I come back out, I still make plays on the ball. It’s just something fun. And just to see the guys, how they react to it and how the coaches react to a turnover here is just big,” Jackson said.
The safety appears to be back to full strength after suffering a broken leg at Alabama last year (which required a rod to be inserted) and the Bears are hoping to see more of Jackson’s big play ability. In just eight games last year, Jackson scored three touchdowns — two on punt returns and one on a pick-6. And, unlike the rest of the Bears’ draft class, Jackson is dealing with a much easier transition to the NFL after playing for Nick Saban.
“He’s a very sharp guy, very aware player, especially for a young guy,” Fox said. “Kids that come out of Alabama get a good taste of a pro defense, particularly from a coverage standpoint (with) Nick (Saban) having been a secondary coach in the NFL for a long time.”
4. 4th Round, No. 119 overall: RB Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T
It’s no secret that the Bears plan to use Cohen in their offense immediately. Referred to as a “Joker” back by the coaching staff, the Bears envision a Darren Sproles-like role for their second fourth round pick (remember, Pace had Sproles in New Orleans). Cohen will see time on third down and be used as a slot receiver within the offense as well.
But can Cohen be as effective as Sproles? The results so far have been encouraging. Typically, it’s hard to put too much stock into what running backs are doing in practice when they can’t be tackled, but Cohen’s speed and agility are on a different level and you can tell the coaching staff is excited about him.
That said, we need to see Cohen in an actual game. At just 5-6, 181 pounds, I’m waiting to see how he handles the first big hit he receives.
“It’s definitely been a jump, a noticeable jump. I can definitely tell size-wise and definitely in the speed,” Cohen said about making the jump up from the FCS level. “One of the main things I’ve really seen is the discipline of the defenses now. You know if somebody has outside contain they’re going to do everything to keep that outside contain so that’s the main thing I’ve seen.”
If he can avoid the big hits at the NFL level, it seems likely that Cohen is going to be an exciting player to watch, even if he only gets the ball in his hands a few times per game.
5. 5th Round, No. 147 overall: OG Jordan Morgan, Kutztown
The overlooked member of this draft class, Morgan’s role on the roster may be more significant now that Eric Kush is out for the year with a torn hamstring. A dominant left tackle at Division-II Kutztown, Morgan is transitioning inside to guard with the Bears. He’s not necessarily a mauler, but rather a good athlete who wins with technique.
“I like to be as physical as I can in the run game, but I really strive to be a technician, because I feel as though that’s what separates the good from the great when it comes to this position,” Morgan said.
While he adjusts to his new position at a much higher level of competition, Morgan said the Bears’ offense is actually very similar to his college offense, so that is easing his transition. Right now it’s too early to judge Morgan in training camp, but it will be interesting to see how he performs in the preseason games as he’ll likely be on the field with Trubisky a lot.
6. Undrafted free agent: WR Tanner Gentry, Wyoming
I usually restrict this piece to draft picks, but the Bears only had five draft picks this year and Gentry is forcing the issue with a very impressive training camp. Some are shrugging off his camp success, comparing it to the past performances of Daniel Braverman and Dane Sanzenbacher in Bourbonnais, but I’d be careful about that. For one, Gentry is 6-2, 209 pounds and isn’t a slot receiver like those other guys. At Wyoming, he was a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver and put together very impressive tape full of acrobatic catches.
In Bourbonnais, Gentry has proven to be just as much of a deep threat as he was at Wyoming, consistently using his athleticism to go up and get the football.
“I just do a good job of tracking the ball in the air and making a play on it,” Gentry said. “I did it a lot in college. We threw a lot of deep balls so I think I gained a lot of good experience there.”
He did. According to Pro Football Focus, Gentry had 49 deep targets (throws 20 or more yards in the air) in 2016, which was the most among all college wide receivers.
Just one day after beating Kyle Fuller deep down the right sideline, Gentry came back and got the best of the former first round pick again Tuesday with a one-handed touchdown catch on a deep pass from Mark Sanchez. Earlier in practice, he helped Trubisky out, going up over two defenders to pull in a touchdown on a deep ball that floated a little bit because Trubisky was hit as he threw.
“I mean, when the ball is in the air, I do my best to make a play on it. That’s just kind of what I do,” Gentry said.
One player who is has seen Gentry up close at lot in camp is cornerback Sherrick McManis, who was once an overlooked player and is now the longest tenured player on the Bears.
“Tanner is doing great, man. Anytime I see an undrafted guy coming out here, that’s what I expect in an undrafted guy,” McManis said. “Even though I was drafted, I was drafted late and I feel like we would have similar mindsets when I first came into the league. I feel like Tanner is just out there competing hard and trying to win every down, not taking a play off. And that’s what you have to do to stay in this league. And I feel like Tanner has the right mindset right now.”
Gentry still faces an uphill battle in a crowded wide receiver competition and his special teams abilities will be tested in the preseason games. Gentry only did return work on special teams in college and will now be asked to cover kicks and punts. Asked when he last hit someone, Gentry laughed, “A while ago. Maybe when I had to track someone down after an interception in college.”
7. Speaking of McManis, many people don’t realize he was a Pro Bowl alternate as a special teamer last season.
“It didn’t get big headlines at all, but at the same time, for me, it wasn’t good enough,” McManis said.
The eighth-year specialist out of Northwestern led the Bears in special teams tackles for the second straight season, but he’s eying more than just “alternate” status in 2017. He’s in the final year of a two-year extension he signed in 2016 and the Pro Bowl is a personal goal for him. And while he realizes that fans don’t pay too much attention to special teams performance, he feels like the Bears appreciate what he brings to the team.
“The film never lies, you know what I mean? I know teams, including the Bears, especially — I haven’t been here for no reason — they do recognize it,” McManis said. “Other teams recognize it as well. So I believe the respect is there and I feel like as a player, if you want more recognition, let’s go out there and make more plays.”
McManis might not be a “lock” on the roster because he’s not a starting cornerback, but he’s still only 29 years old and isn’t slowing down on kick and punt coverage units.
“That’s why you play the game. Everything is evaluated. And if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be in the league as long as I have been,” he said.
We’ll end this lengthy edition of “10 Bears Things” with a quick look at three key players to watch in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Broncos
8. QB Mike Glennon
While everyone will want to see Trubisky in the preseason, let’s not forget Glennon is the team’s starter and has only thrown 11 regular season passes since 2014. He needs the work as much as Trubisky and I expect him to play a lot in the preseason. The better he plays, the more Bears fans will accept Trubisky sitting and developing in 2017.
9. WR Kevin White
Through nine legitimate practices, White has only stood out as special in one of them. He hasn’t been bad, but he also hasn’t been great. I’m curious to see how much Glennon targets White in the preseason, because the quarterback seems to favor Cameron Meredith in practice. For White, it’s all about building his confidence back up and a big game Thursday night would help a lot.
10. CB Kyle Fuller
After a strong first week of training camp, Fuller was slowed down by a minor calf injury and I have to admit, getting beat badly by Gentry in Monday’s practice seemed significant. Fuller still seems like the Bears’ best option to backup both Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper, but he’s certainly not a lock on this roster. Cooper’s hamstring issues help Fuller a little bit, but the fourth-year corner needs to have a strong preseason.