BOURBONNAIS — The Bears are already a full week into training camp and the important evaluations have begun with padded practices well underway. Here are some early storylines as the Bears’ try to improve on their 3-13 record from last season:
1. Charles Leno Jr. is in a contract year and he’s very motivated. The 6-3, 306 pound left tackle has been a pleasant surprise as a former seventh-round draft pick, but the Bears decided to not to extend Leno in the offseason, even though he’s going into the final year of his rookie contract.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Leno when asked if that has him motivated. “Last year of the contract. Came out here excited. Of course I want to be here in Chicago, but now I’m just excited. I just want to make sure I put the tape out there so I let everyone know I’m here to stay. I’m here to be the Chicago Bears’ left tackle for a long time.”
Bears general manager Ryan Pace would love to see Leno earn that next contract, but remember, Leno was a Phil Emery pick and the new regime still wants to see more Leno. He’s been good, but not quite consistent enough.
Leno believes he’s improving with experience though, learning the details of playing left tackle in the NFL.
“Study the hell out of your opponent. That’s what I learned. You got so many guys, especially in our division. You’ve got Clay Matthews, Everson Griffin. You got to study your opponent. We play those guys twice (a year). They know me inside-and-out. I’ve got to know them inside-and-out,” Leno said.
The left tackle knows what is waiting for him if he puts together a good 2017 season: a big paycheck. On the flip side, a poor season might leave him searching for a new job.
2. Fourth round draft pick Eddie Jackson could have an immediate impact in a couple different ways. For one, the rookie safety has shown a natural ability to track the ball in the air, a trait the Bears have lacked at the position for years. He made a very nice downfield read on Mitch Trubisky last week and undercut receiver Rueben Randle’s route for the interception. Wednesday, in a Hail Mary situation, Jackson showcased his range, intercepting Mark Sanchez’s heave to the end zone. After not participating much in OTAs because of the leg injury he suffered last year at Alabama, Jackson is off to a nice start in his first NFL training camp.
“He’s a very sharp guy, very aware player, especially for a young guy,” head coach John Fox said. “Kids that come out of Alabama get a good taste of a pro defense, in particularly from a coverage standpoint, (with) Nick (Saban) having been a secondary coach in the NFL for a long time.”
Fox also mentioned Jackson’s experience as a return man, saying, “Typically those guys—going as far back as a guy like Rod Woodson—they have good ball skills and he seems to do that pretty naturally.”
With the free safety competition wide open, it would not be surprising to see Jackson end up winning the job. So can a rookie with a rod in his leg start at safety and still contribute in the return game?
“It just depends. Every case is different,” Fox said. “I think his football maturity level is pretty high, as I mentioned before, so I think he’ll adapt pretty quickly.”
Count Jackson among a large number of young Bears players who will be interesting to watch in the preseason.
3. The Bears told us that Mitch Trubisky would occasionally get work with the second-team in training camp and that’s exactly what happened Wednesday.
“Don’t read much into it,” Fox said. “It’s just a matter of getting guys through different centers, different groups. It’s something that we mentioned would happen at some point throughout the camp.”
Trubisky still has a lot to prove before the Bears would permanently make him Glennon’s backup and such a move would not occur until after the rookie received real playing time in a preseason game.
4. Tarik Cohen’s “evadability” (as Fox put it) has already earned him an obvious role in the Bears’ offense. Even though the Bears aren’t tackling in practice, it’s clear that arm tackles aren’t going to be enough to take the rookie running back down.
“I try and turn and contort my body in different ways so you know that arm tackle might not get in there. T person might not be able to grab my jersey so I can allude the tackler,” Cohen said.
Of course, at 5-6 and just 181 pounds, the key for Cohen will be avoiding big hits.
“Like a lot of shifty guys, they don’t give you easy hits on them so hopefully he does a good job of avoiding those,” Fox said. “He’s a matchup problem. He’s tough for linebackers, even for safeties at times as far as covering, because he’s explosive and real quick. And he has excellent hands.”
Without live contact in practices, it’s hard to truly gauge Cohen’s elusiveness, so he’s another rookie who will be intriguing to watch during the preseason. The Bears like Cohen’s potential in the passing game, so don’t be surprised if he is frequently lined up as a receiver.
“Some third-down backs are like receivers, where you shift them out and do things,” Fox said. “There’s been some guys like that who’re threats in different ways, and that helps an offense especially on third downs.”
5. Nick Kwiatkoski is in an interesting situation, getting work as a starter while Danny Trevathan continues to recover from his knee injury. The Bears like Kwiatkoski, but they also signed Trevathan for a reason and the Bears’ defense was probably at its best last season when Trevathan and Freeman were both on the field together.
One would think Trevathan will keep his job as soon as he gets healthy, but the Bears saw some positive signs from Kwiatkoski late in his rookie season and, at a minimum, they hope he provides quality depth at the position.
“I still have a long way to go but I mean just from where I started to where I am now it’s been a huge difference,” Kwiatkoski said. “Just watching myself on film, I can see myself reacting faster, seeing things faster. That experience at the end of last year definitely helped a lot.”
Inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires likes the instincts Kwiatkoski has at the position, but said the key for the second-year linebacker is to speed everything up.
“Making faster decisions and being more physical when you make those decisions,” Pires said. “He was making decisions, they weren’t as quick, and he’ll be the first guy to tell you. But now we got to be more physical in doing it faster.”
Pires compared the linebacker position to a computer, which has all of the pre-snap information stored so that when a decision has to be made, it’s computed in an instant. In other words, Kwiatkoski needs to get more experience reading plays before the snap, so that he can put his instincts to work faster once the play begins.
“The pre-snap preparation is huge for that young guy taking that step,” Pires said.
6. Willie Young is growing more and more comfortable with his role in Vic Fangio’s defense. He’s now in his third season working as an outside linebacker and even though the transition has gone well, it wasn’t easy. Remember, the Bears made the switch to a 3-4 defense the same offseason that Young was recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, and he still was able to play in 15 games and record 6.5 sacks and an interception in 2015. That earned him a two-year contract extension from GM Ryan Pace, a sign that both sides believed he could thrive in a foreign defense.
“I’m a true defensive end by nature. All my life I’ve played defensive end,” Young said. “What helps right now at this moment is that I’ve been the guy that I’ve always had to figure out how to get in where I can fit in.”
Before 2015, Young had only played exclusively in 4-3 defenses and, at every stop, had to prove himself as an overlooked player. That drive, plus some help from Fangio, has helped the former seventh round pick transform into a successful outside linebacker — and a smarter player.
“Coming from a 4-3, you don’t have to worry about nothing but watching the ball and getting off. Now, there’s a lot of pre-snap stuff, formation shifts, everything changes. One guy moving can dictate the entire defense sometimes,” Young said. “Having a better understanding comes from me having Vic more hands-on … I think it gives me a better idea for understanding defenses, understanding how much time I have to rush the quarterback or why is it so important for guys to be where they’re supposed to be at? It’s really helped me as a pro all around, understanding the defenses better.”
7. Deiondre Hall hopes his college safety experience helps him at his new position. It’s been a quiet start to training camp for Hall, who was moved to safety after the Bears signed Marcus Cooper and Prince Amukamara at cornerback. Hall showed some positive flashes at cornerback last preseason, but a severely sprained ankle limited his playing time as a rookie. That injury required surgery in January, and now Hall hopes to make a splash at free safety, which is a wide open competition.
“Another reason for the (position) switch is because I’ve played it already,” Hall said. “I played it in college and have had some success there so the transition wouldn’t be too huge of a feat to do. Then it just comes down to opportunity and execution.”
So far the opportunities have been limited, but Hall made his most impressive mark in the preseason games last year, not in practices. He likes being able to see the entire field from the safety position and his extremely long arms can be an asset when making plays on the ball.
Plus, Hall’s versatility is one of the reasons why the Bears want to keep him around. If injuries strike at the cornerback position, he can always switch back to the outside.
As for his preference: “The field, period,” he said.
8. Victor Cruz seems to have full confidence in new wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. The Kevin White “dispute” put a spotlight on Azzanni’s coaching tactics, which come from his 18-year college coaching career. He believes they can work in the NFL, and Azzanni appears to have support from the most prominent veteran in his position room.
“Obviously he likes to call his practice a little college-y — I don’t know if that’s a word or not. But I think it’s great,” Cruz said. “I think it’s kind of refreshing for me to have a guy that is from a college program and has that type of work ethic from a guy from a college program. He wants the ball tucked away. He wants us to burst through the line after we catch a 5- or 10-yard route. He wants that attention-to-detail. And it’s good for us. We have a relatively young room and that kind of attention to detail is only going to make us better. I think Coach Z is a tremendous coach and he’s helping us anyway he can.”
Azzanni’s impact in the wide receiver room will be monitored closely this season, but any concern about him losing credibility with his players is probably overblown at this point.
9. Rain and lightning messed with the Bears’ practice schedule Thursday. It seems like the Bears are adjusting their Bourbonnais schedule daily, but Thursday’s change was out of their hands. While the radar looked clear in the morning, a big thunderstorm cell popped up near Bourbonnais in the hour before practice and arrived at Olivet Nazarene University while the team was stretching. With lightning the primary concern, the Bears wanted to make sure the fans in attendance were safe, so they cancelled the public practice and instead held a private walk-through indoors. Head coach John Fox said they will make-up the padded practice on Friday, however the team announced that it will still be closed to the public.
10. Referee Walt Anderson is in town with his crew to observe a few practices and help educate the players on rule changes. This is an annual visit made by NFL officials, but the referee changes each year. Anderson will help officiate Friday’s practice at ONU and Saturday’s scrimmage at Soldier Field.