The Chicago Bears are a team in transition. The roster is loaded with veterans, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, which is fine for the short term. But when you consider that at least six of the club’s defensive starters are 30 or older, it’s easy to understand why an overhaul in personnel is underway.
If the Bears are going to be a contender going forward, this year’s class of rookies will need to produce this season, as the club’s stalwart veterans won’t be around much longer.
After a full offseason of work, plus training camp and two preseason games, let’s evaluate Chicago’s rookie class in terms of their potential this year and beyond.
CB Kyle Fuller
In typical fashion, Bears GM Phil Emery swung for the fences in the first round of this year’s draft by selecting former Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller with the 13th overall selection. Fortunately for Bears fans, it appears Fuller is a 450-foot homerun.
As a cover corner, his length and strength allow him to swallow up receivers, while his aggressiveness when the ball is in the air resulted in countless PBUs during camp. Yet Fuller’s most impressive trait is the fearlessness he showed facing Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on a daily basis. The fact he could match up with two of the game’s best is a great sign toward his potential in the NFL.
In addition, we’ve barely seen Fuller in run support, where his physical style of play could quickly make him a fan favorite. He’s going to have an immediate impact on defense this season and has Pro Bowl potential down the line.
The Bears have been using Fuller in base sets out wide, with Tim Jennings in the slot. Expect that to continue during the regular season.
Fuller is currently dealing with a sore ankle but the team fully expects him to be ready by the start of the regular season.
DT Ego Ferguson
After just a year as a starter at LSU, Ferguson entered the draft a year too early due to back injury his mother suffered working as a prison guard. From the first day of rookie minicamp, it was obvious Ferguson was a major project. His fundamentals and technique were severely lacking, as was his conditioning.
Yet despite being as raw as sushi, Ferguson has flashed serious potential. When he fires off the ball and keeps his pad level low, he can be nearly impossible to stop. His combination of size (6-3, 315) and explosiveness could create a beast against the run, although it’s going to take time. Additionally, he’s shown very little as a pass rusher.
In the two preseason games, Ferguson has been nearly invisible, recording zero tackles, sacks or QB pressures. He’s been able to eat up space, which is important in order to keep the linebackers clean, but he hasn’t shown much playmaking potential.
Ferguson has starter talent but he may not reach his ceiling for a few years.
DT Will Sutton
Sutton has served as the primary backup to Jeremiah Ratliff at 3-technique. He’s shown very good quickness off the ball, with active hands and a good motor. At times during 1-on-1 drills in camp, it was easy to see why Sutton is the two-time reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, yet he’s lacking in consistency.
Sutton had a very strong game last week, racking up three tackles near the line of scrimmage. Through two games, he’s yet to make an impact as a pass rusher but that should only come with time.
The plan with Sutton is to use him in the defensive tackle rotation, particularly on passing downs where his ability to split gaps and penetrate could have a lot of value.
RB Ka’Deem Carey
Most assumed Carey would step in and secure the backup running back spot immediately in camp, yet it’s been somewhat of a struggle for the former All-American. The playbook has been a challenge for Carey, who worked exclusively out of a spread offense in college, and he hasn’t been consistent as a receiver or in pass protection.
Yet between the tackles, Carey has been solid. He runs with power and keeps his legs churning, which could make him a weapon in short-yardage situations. Last week, Carey converted two 3rd-and-1 runs, one of which went for a touchdown.
Vereen took starter reps in OTAs and minicamp but was relegated to the second team shortly after the start of training camp. He’s still in the mix to be one of the club’s two starting safeties but he’ll most likely end up a backup.
In the preseason, Vereen has been an extremely aggressive tackler. He’s a physical player who likes to hit, yet he’s a rookie who still has a lot to learn. Vereen is a quality football player who will have an impact this year on special teams and could develop into a first-team player after he gets some experience under his belt.
P Patrick O’Donnell
O’Donnell was very inconsistent in camp but it was obvious from the start the power of his leg. He sent punts 70-80 yards every practice and is decent at angling the ball.
The Bears released Tress Way this week, meaning O’Donnell has been officially anointed the starter. Based on what we’ve seen from him the past few months, he’ll be well worth his sixth-round status.
T Charles Leno Jr.
Leno is buried on the depth chart but he was actually impressive during training camp. He has a strong hand punch and good balance. He worked at both right and left tackle, showing good movement on both edges of the line.
Yet Leno has a hard time mirroring defenders and isn’t explosive in the run game. He has some potential as a future swing tackle but he’s still a work in progress. With the club committed to Eben Britton and Michael Ola, there doesn’t appear much room for Leno, which makes him a perfect candidate for the practice squad this season.
Jones is a big, powerful defender who worked mainly with the second team at outside linebacker during camp. He moves really well and has shown good athleticism, yet Jones has looked very lost on numerous occasions.
Still, Jones is a quality NFL player who will likely get snatched up if the Bears try to sneak him on the practice squad. Jones is battling for the sixth linebacker spot with Jordan Senn and Jerry Franklin. Senn will likely stick due to his value on special teams, meaning Jones has two more games to convince Chicago’s coaching staff to keep seven linebackers on the final 53-man roster.
OL Michael Ola
Ola has been one of the biggest surprises of the offseason. While technically a rookie, Ola has professional experience in the CFL, where he played one season under Marc Trestman. With the Bears, he’s worked at every position along the offensive line except for center. That type of versatility gives him a lot of value.
On the field, Ola has been very steady working at right tackle with the starters. He’s definitely in the running to be the club’s swing tackle and could secure a roster spot with a strong showing against the Seahawks.
CB Al Louis-Jean
Louis-Jean is a long, athletic cornerback who is only 20 years old. He’s shown steady improvement during camp and had a very strong outing in the first preseason game. Cornerback is the deepest position on the roster and Louis-Jean is still a project, but he definitely has long-term potential. A year on the practice squad will do him well.
RB Jordan Lynch
It was a great story but Lynch isn’t an NFL running back. He’s definitely an athlete, so there might be a place for him somewhere in the league, but it won’t be in Chicago.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.