BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — So when a football player constantly feels disrespected and uses that chip to fuel their drive to greatness, what happens when they actually become, well, great?
In Akiem Hicks’ case. Not much.
Hicks finally got his big contract extension back in September of 2017. And he didn’t get complacent. He just got better.
Now 29, Hicks put together his best season in 2018 and earned a Pro Bowl nod that was long overdue. He’s no longer a secret and frankly, there’s not much disrespect left to fuel the 332-pound monster. He’s simply one of the best defensive players in the world.
That’s where we’ll begin this week’s “10 Bears Things” column, chock-full full of information and observations from the Bears’ first week in Bourbonnais. We’ll check in with Matt Nagy and find out how this second training camp is different for him, Ted Larsen will explain why he doesn’t plan on fighting anyone in Bourbonnais this time around, and a rookie NFL referee will attempt to explain how officials will avoid inevitable chaos with the league’s new pass interference rules.
1. Hungry Hicks
Akiem Hicks was with noted protégé Bilal Nichols Sunday night when Nichols noticed that his teammate’s name popped up on the NFL’s top 100 list.
Just a couple weeks after Hicks’ Madden rating of 87 seemed to slight the talented defensive tackle, there wasn’t much to complain about with being named the 39th best player in the NFL.
“I am excited to be on the list and receive the recognition and to be placed in the top 50. I think that is special,” Hicks told me Monday. “I want more. That is my mindset.”
Hicks said he took some time Sunday night to let the honor soak in and enjoy it, but by Monday he was focused on taking the next step.
“Just fighting that nature to say, ‘Aw man, I’ve achieved something and I can chill out about it.’ No, I want to take my next step,” Hicks said.
In terms of recognition, the next step would be All-Pro status, something that Hicks had a case for last season, but couldn’t be too upset about falling behind Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox. Unlike many other athletes, Hicks isn’t afraid to talk about or even tweet about the recognition he thinks he deserves, but he remains humble in his work ethic and competition on the practice field.
More importantly, he refuses to stop.
“(I remember) what it took to get to this point and then having the mindset that it’s not enough,” Hicks said. “And not to say that you don’t appreciate your accomplishments and it doesn’t mean that you don’t celebrate your small victories, but I tell myself, ‘What’s next for me?’ I would be doing myself a disservice to stop at any point. When I don’t have anything left is when I stop.”
So what’s next? Every year, Hicks focuses on adding one more pass rush move to his arsenal. He has one ready for 2019, but he’s not going to let the secret get out before the Packers visit Soldier Field on Sept. 5. You’ll see it on tape Week 1.
“You must (see it),” he said. “You must.”
2. The Surprisingly Entertaining Kickers
I really did not envision being this entertained by the kicking competition in training camp, but the results have been surprisingly competitive. Both kickers are showing their personality and, for the most part, making their kicks.
In one corner is Elliott Fry, the former AAF kicker who is a diabetic with a tattoo on his forearm that says, “One Shot” — a reference to the insulin shots he takes daily, not the NFL opportunity in front of him. He’s confident, but mellow. Consistent in his kicking form, but lacking a little thump.
In the other corner is Eddy Pineiro, the son of Cuban and Nicaraguan immigrants, a former soccer player who realized kicking footballs was his best opportunity for collegiate stardom. He embraces challenges, wearing Tim Tebow’s No. 15 at Florida as he entered a program starving for a kicking solution — not unlike the Chicago Bears right now. He has the bigger leg, but is still perfecting his kicking technique.
The way in which the Bears are executing the competition is adding to the intrigue. Saturday was Fry’s day to kick. Sunday was Pineiro’s day. Monday was Fry’s day, and it didn’t matter that he had to deal with driving wind and rain. Kickers can’t control the weather. They just have to put the ball through the uprights. Fry did.
Fry missed his first kick on Saturday, but made nine straight to finish the day 9-of-10, including asking for and drilling a 60-yarder.
Pineiro responded Sunday by making 7-of-8 field goals, one-upping Fry with a 63-yarder that went right down the middle.
“Coach asked me if I want to go from 60. I said, ‘Nah, you guys hit 60 yesterday, we’re going 63 today,” Pineiro said.
Monday’s rainy conditions didn’t call for 60-yard field goals, but Fry still went 8-of-10 as he kicked into the wind. One of the misses came when he slipped on the grass, a reality that could present itself in the regular season, but still an understandable miss in the rain.
Pineiro’s next move will be interesting, but it promises to be entertaining. He carries a swagger that the Bears like and he’s not afraid to let you know when he feels slighted. When asked if he feels extra pressure because the Bears potentially gave up a draft pick for him in a trade, Pineiro responded:
“Not at all. The Raiders gave me up for pennies.”
3. Year 2: Matt Nagy
While 2018 saw the Bears win 12 games, it was still a bit of a whirlwind for Matt Nagy in his first year as a head coach. As much as he prepared for training camp in Bourbonnais, he didn’t really know what to expect until he arrived on the Olivet Nazarene University campus and experienced it for the first time.
Naturally, going through it again has allowed him to make some personal adjustments as a coach.
“For me personally, I can kind of step back,” Nagy explained. “And just like I’ve used the analogy with Mitch how he’s at level 202 and being able to see the defense, now for me I’m not so worried necessarily about a specific technique of a wide receiver because I know that Mike Furrey our wide receivers coach is all over that position. And now we’ve had a year to be able to teach him how we do things and now I can step back and kind of get out of the trees. I’ve felt that.”
In other words, he’s able to trust his assistants more. So what does that allow him to focus on more?
“Really just the functional organization of making sure that guys are finishing plays,” Nagy said. “Instead of going right to the offensive line and talking to a guy about how he missed a block, I’m looking at a wide receiver catching the ball and turning upfield and running another 20 yards. It’s hard to really put into words, but there’s just so many different areas that I can touch upon.”
The added experience is paying off beyond the practice field as well.
“Even in the class room, we’re taking it to a level where, today at lunch, we’re watching more video, rather than the playbook stuff — the lines on pieces of paper,” Nagy said. “Now I have a whole year’s worth of experience of different coverages, blitzes, and front stunts that they can see. And it’s cool because they’re not watching the Chiefs, they’re watching the Bears.”
On the other hand, the success the Bears experienced in Nagy’s first season resulted in Vic Fangio earning the Broncos head coaching job. Thus, all but two defensive coaches are going through the Bourbonnais experience for the first time.
“I know Chuck Pagano’s staff is new and the defensive guys are new but overall our entire organization understands the rules that we have, the standards and expectations when we get out here,” Nagy said. “We kind of built that foundation last year. We created the culture.”
4. Three Players To Watch: An Update
Last week I pointed out three players I was looking forward to watching in Bourbonnais so it seems like a good time to share my initial impressions on those players now that I’ve seen five practices, including two in pads:
Running back Mike Davis
Like all of the running backs, you really need to see these guys in pads, and the early returns on Davis are positive. He seeks out contact, but is shifty in tight spaces. I’m most impressed with his route running ability and soft hands when he’s catching the ball. Davis told me that the problem in Seattle stemmed from the roles in the backfield not being as well defined as they are in Nagy’s system.
“You never knew who the starting running back was at one point. You just never knew who was going to be in. You just never knew how it was going to go,” he said.
Davis will still be splitting carries in Chicago, but it appears that Nagy has defined roles for these guys and the playing time will be determined mostly by situations and how opposing defenses are playing the Bears’ offense. It will be interesting to see that play out.
Tight end Adam Shaheen
Unfortunately Shaheen came out of Saturday’s practice with a back issue, so he missed the Bears’ first two padded practices of camp. With durability being Shaheen’s biggest question mark, he needs to practice.
Center James Daniels
I’ll be honest, I haven’t noticed Daniels too much early in camp and that’s usually a good thing for an offensive lineman. You may remember that when Cody Whitehair was noticed last year, it was because of snap issues. We haven’t seen any of that with Daniels. In fact, there was only one botched exchange in Monday’s rainy practice and that came when the third-string was on the field.
5. Other Early Impressions
Let’s go through a few more:
Wide receiver Marvin Hall — This goes back to the spring as well, but I like this dude. He’s fast and seems to get open frequently. Hasn’t been afraid in traffic and has made some nice catches. Sunday, he won jump balls over both Kyle Fuller and Buster Skrine.
Wide receiver Javon Wims — Wims is off to a great start, peaking Sunday with a really nice practice. He just looks like an NFL receiver.
Wide receiver Emanuel Hall — Hall was in demand after going undrafted and he signed with the Bears even though the depth chart was loaded. So far he hasn’t splashed much and he even missed a practice coming off the groin injury in OTAs. He’ll need to step his game up in the coming weeks.
Tight end Ian Bunting — The undrafted free agent out of Cal has received some extra opportunities with Shaheen missing practice time. He might be a guy to keep an eye on in the preseason.
Inside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis — Don’t forget about the sixth-year veteran. A good special teamer and reliable backup, he probably has a better shot to make the roster than you think.
Outside linebacker Khalil Mack — Still ridiculous at football.
6. A Unique Perspective
Ted Larsen’s first stint with the Bears is remembered most for his infamous training camp fights, most frequently with Akiem Hicks. But the now 32-year-old offensive lineman played in all 16 games for the Bears in 2016, starting eight of them. After spending two years in Miami, Larsen is back, giving him a unique perspective on a team that was in the beginning stages of a rebuild three years ago, but is now ready to win.
“It’s still a young team that is working to get better,” Larsen said. “I think it’s just me and Chase (Daniel) that are really over 30, so it’s kind of cool to see a bunch of young guys try to hit their stride and hit their prime.”
Technically, Kyle Long is also 30, but Larsen’s point is well taken. And he saw first-hand last year how tough it is to prepare for the Bears’ defense. The Dolphins ended up beating the Bears in overtime, but by his own admission, Larsen didn’t have a great game as Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains focused on stopping Mack and Hicks.
“It was kind of unfortunate for me because we kind of took all the protections to the right side and I was playing left guard, so it made for a tough day,” Larsen said. “We took every protection to Mack and Akiem because they’re so dominant and they were so worried about them wrecking the game.”
Mack hurt his ankle early in that game, but tried to play through it, while Hicks was a problem up front all afternoon. Larsen gave the Florida heat some credit for the Dolphins’ victory too.
Now back in Chicago, Larsen has a good chance to solidify his role as the primary backup on the interior of the offensive line.
“When I was here in 2016, it was a little different role,” he said. “But I think I’m here now to compete and push guys. You know, I can play right guard, center, left guard at a high level and I’m here to just push guys every day and try to be the best I can be in case someone gets dinged up or injured, I can fill in at one of those spots.”
And so far, he hasn’t been involved in any fights, even though he says he still has that edge to him.
“I don’t know if that’s as encouraged as it once was, so I might tone that down,” Larsen said, noting that Nagy isn’t as tolerant as John Fox was. “I think I got to stay away from that. Stuff happens, but I think guys kind of already have me pegged as that guy so I got to avoid that. I think I got to avoid that.”
7. Quote Of The Week
“I mean, God gave us two ears and one mouth for one reason: listen more than you speak.” — Bears rookie running back David Montgomery on why he doesn’t talk a lot.
8. Tweet Of The Week
9. Emptying The Notebook
The Bears never seemed too concerned about Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (knee sprain) and promised it would be a short stay on PUP. Sure enough, Clinton-Dix and offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings were added to the active roster on Tuesday morning… The Bears are being careful with Riley Ridley’s hamstring, just like they were with Roquan Smith in the preseason last year … Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy’s book of choice this offseason: “Legacy,” a book about the All Blacks rugby team in New Zealand and what they can teach us about leadership and business … Somewhat ignored in the kicking competition? Longsnapper Patrick Scales missed a couple days due to a personal issue and backup John Wirtel appeared to do a good job filling in … Kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson used to idolize Devin Hester, but he didn’t realize Hester got to come out to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” before every return. His ears perked up when I told him that. Stay tuned.
10. Final Thoughts
- Our annual meeting with the NFL officials was on Monday and we got a chance to discuss the controversial rule changes with Adrian Hill, who was promoted to the referee position this year. One thing Hill kept stressing: the new replay rules on pass interference don’t really impact the officials that much. They are still calling pass interference the exact same way. Hill admitted that because it’s a judgement call, there could be inconsistencies on how pass interference is called on replay, but he stressed that they are only looking for the clear and obvious violations that are missed. One thing that stood out to me, Hill didn’t really object when I brought up “catch/no catch” as a comparison. I truly believe we are going down a road where every Monday there is going to be controversy about an overturned pass interference situation, not unlike there was with the catch rule before they finally simplified it last year. Let me put it this way: I think there is going to be more consistent controversy about pass interference than there ever has been before (with the obvious exception being last year’s NFC title game) and I think the league completely overreacted to one bad missed call.
- One other officiating nugget that was confirmed: Even though the referee “collaborates” with the replay official in the booth and Al Riveron back in New York, there does not need to be a unanimous consensus to change a call on the field. Ultimately, Riveron has final say.
- I saw a Greg Olsen Bears jersey at practice on Monday and it made me think: It would be great to see him healthy again and have at least one more good season. Olsen is well respected around the league and the game is better when he’s on the field. The Panthers visit Soldier Field Aug. 8 in the Bears’ first preseason game.
- I apparently stirred up some controversy on Twitter over the weekend when I pointed out that the Bears were practicing nearly an hour longer than the Packers, even though I very clearly stated that I didn’t necessarily think one way of practicing was any better than the other. In nine years of doing this, I’ve seen shorter practices and I’ve seen longer practices. What really matters is the head coach’s ability to get through to the players, the talent on the field and keeping that talent healthy. Still, such a large contrast between two division rivals that happen to be playing each other in Week 1 seemed notable. Some north of the border seemed a little too sensitive about it. We’ll see how it plays out on Sept. 5.