Ten Thoughts on the Bears after the First Week of Training Camp

As we finish the first week of training camp, here are ten thoughts on the Bears as they approach the pre-season.

1.  One of the players I’m most interested in following this offseason is Khari Lee.  Lee spent most of the season on the roster last year as a blocking tight end.  This year he’s in line to compete seriously for the second tight end spot behind fragile starter Zach Miller and the Bears need him to come through.

It didn’t help that Lee left the first training camp practice with a sprained AC joint.  However he’s back practicing with the team and, therefore, probably won’t be hurt by the set back as long as he doesn’t lose any more time.

General Manager Ryan Pace gave up a draft pick to get Lee last year as training camp broke and I have to believe he did so with the idea that Lee would be more than he currently has shown himself to be.  How he develops in the passing game will be a major factor in his future with the team.

2.  Bears head coach John Fox obviously isn’t being easy on these guys in training camp.  Former Bears he’d coach Lovie Smith in particular was notorious for running easy camps, especially late in his tenure.  Player’s coach Marc Trestman wasn’t much tougher.  But Fox apparently isn’t of the same mind.  Despite the heat index only being about 80 degrees on Thursday, Leonard Floyd, outside linebacker Roy Robertston-Harris and tackle Nick Becton each left the session because of illness.

“It’s a good indoctrination into training camp,” Fox said. “They don’t have the added weight. … Everyone is carrying 12 pounds extra (in pads). But all in all I thought our guys came back in pretty good shape. We’re not all there yet, but it was a good start.”

3.  As Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune points out, the competition along the interior of the offensive line will be fierce this season as four players, Hronis Grasu, Cody Whitehair, Ted Larsen and Amini Silatolu, compete for two spots, left guard and center.  Kyle Long is established as the right guard, assuming he is healthy when the season starts.

That’s all fine.  Competition brings out the best in players and, though you could try to bring in someone to compete at right guard with Long as well, no one would really take that seriously.

The problem is at tackle where Charles Leno and Bobby Massie literally have no one to compete with them.  These guys are not Kyle Long.  Massive is an average starter at best and, though Leno played well when the Bears finally moved him to left tackle last year, there’s no guarantee he’ll do it again.  The Bears really don’t even have a swing tackle with Nick Becton being the front runner for the job.

Unless someone emerges, the depth at this position looks very shaky.

4.  Having said that, I’m completely stunned that a Bears offensive line that ranked sixteenth overall by Pro Football Focus after last year’s season ended is now thirtieth in their preseason rankings going into the season this year.

This is a unit that moved Long back to right guard where he belongs and, in essence, replaced last year’s starters at that spot, who clearly didn’t belong starting in the league, with Bobby Massie who moves in for Long at right tackle.  Yes, they lost Matt Slauson at left guard but between Ted Larsen and rookie Cody Whitehair, the Bears have replaced him with players who better fit the scheme that they want to run.

Charles Leno starts the season at left tackle and that seems to be the thing that has outside observers most worried.  My opinion is closer to that of Adam Jahns at the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I don’t think he’s the question mark others make him out to be. Last year was his first as a starter, and he’s a seventh-round pick. He had good moments last year despite being in a new offense and facing capable pass rushers (i.e. Aldon Smith, Ziggy Ansah, Tamba Hali). But Leno’s development is essential.”

I would agree.  Leno obviously player much better last year once he moved from right tackle to the left and was a steady presence.

Even then, in terms of the PFF ranking, Leno finished the season in that position for the Bears and should be the reason for the down grade.

The Bears offensive line improved over the offseason and I see no reason why this group won’t be, at minimum, as good as the middle of the road unit that finished 2015 for the Bears.

5.  As usual, fans and media are mildly upset with John Fox as he won’t put a time frame on Long’s recovery from a calf strain.

“I don’t put time frames [on injuries] because I don’t know, so I can’t tell you,” Fox said after practice Friday at Olivet Nazarene. “We just take it day by day. When our medical people deem him healthy, he’ll be back. But they have all that [including an MRI] at their disposal.”

Having said that, it is being reported that the injury is not severe and that his return to practice should come some time this week.  That’s a relief.  Recovery times for muscle strains are highly variable and offer a huge risk of recurrent and more severe injuries when players return to play before they’re 100% recovered.  They can be frustrating to deal with.

Here’s hoping the team has it right and Long is back fully healthy sooner rather than later.

6.  One of the things about quarterback Jay Cutler that I believe may be under appreciated is ho smart he is.  Long raves about this aspect of Cutler’s personality in this interview with the Chicago Tribune.

“You look at his ability to learn and it’s special. You see a lot of quarterbacks and they hit that mental plateau. Jay never stops learning. It’s cool. It’s like when Neo was in the Matrix and all of a sudden it’s “Oh, I know kung fu now.” Well, Jay is that way. The guy learns new stuff all the time. That’s what makes him great.”

This brings the question.  Is Cutler actually too smart?

You have to wonder if Cutler’s intelligence isn’t one reason he has such a hard time getting along with his coordinators.  His problems with Marc Trestman need no review but Cutler’s history is a long one of struggling to respect his offensive coaches from Mike Martz to Mike Tice.  And its hard to respect someone who is ostensibly in charge when you are sure you know better than they do what needs to be done.  Bottom line, Cutler didn’t think these men could help him get better.

After establishing a good working relationship with former offensive coordinator Adam Gase last year, Cutler is back on a new horse with Dowell Loggains.

Loggains is known to be quite vocal during practice and that may not be a good thing if Cutler figures that he’s close to Mike Tice than Adam Gase.  Its obvious that Cutler doesn’t suffer fools and there’s nothing like having someone you don’t respect yelling what you think is nonsense at you and your teammates.

Bears fans better hope that the relationship Loggains established with Cutler as quarterback coach last year becomes stronger as he transitions into the coordinator role this season.  Because if it goes the other direction, things could deteriorate quicker than usual.

7.  As Hub Arkush at Pro Football Weekly talks about the five players he believes are key to the Bears rebuilding plan he offhandedly makes this statement:

“They swung and missed on [safety Antrel] Rolle and [wide receiver Eddie] Royal;”

The feeling on Rolle is one I’m in touch with.  He was only with the Bears one year, played in only 7 games and was slow to the ball at that.

But Royal is a different kettle of fish.  Royal didn’t have a great season in part because of the injuries and in part because the Bears started him on the outside for the first month of the season.  Once the Bears moved him from the outside into the slot where he belonged in the game against the Raiders last year, he had 6 receptions for 80 yards that game after getting only 12 for 117 yards total for the first three games before that.

Royal could turn out to be a good signing yet if he stays healthy and the Bears continue to put him into the best position to succeed.

8.  Give Alshon Jeffery some credit.  He has really handled questions about his contract well, calmly answering questions with quiet confidence that if he plays well it will all work out in the end.  The only quibble I have with Jeffery’s behavior is that he failed to show up for voluntary offseason workouts.  Had he done so and allowed the Bears to monitor his conditions and progress, he might have a long-term contract right now.  And, having signed his franchise tender, the Bears are paying him a lot of scratch this year.  The least he could have done is showed up to earn it.

Having said that, we aren’t talking about a Martellus Bennett situation here.  Jeffery seems to be on board with the team and all may be set up well for a good season for both him and the team if he stays healthy.

9.  I think everyone was glad to see Willie Young get a 2 year contract extension last week.  You, who was entering the last year of his contract with the Bears and had out performed it, offered preparation was one of the secrets to his success in the NFL.

“Guys that had been playing 10-12 years — I came in as a rookie, they’re taking 10 times more notes than I’m taking. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. I learned that early on in my career. That’s part of my success right now, I mean that is my success. That’s the only way that I know how to play the game.”

The Bears pass rush is being under-estimated nationally and maybe even locally.  Most outside observers will acknowledge the talent and skill of Pernell McPhee and will recognize the importance of first round draft pick Leonard Floyd.  But few recognize the accomplishments of Young and Lamarr Houston last year.

Both men struggled to fully recover from injuries that they incurred last season.  Down the stretch, though, Young had at least one sack in each game from Weeks 11 through 15, finishing the season with 6.5 sacks overall.  Similarly, Houston had seven of his eight sacks in the final nine games.

If Houston and Young can continue the pace they set late last season and perform throughout the year, the Bears will have a formidable set of outside linebackers to deal with this year.

10.  One Final Thought from Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times:

“My new favorite drill: coaches throw white towels at punt returners while they catch the ball. Receiver B.J. Daniels has seen it before. ‘I’ve had towels, bowling balls, basketballs, volleyballs, everything,’ he said. ‘Not bowling balls.’

Not bowling balls?  Really?

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