The final practices of the offseason are in the books now that Chicago Bears mandatory minicamp has concluded.
The next time we’ll see the Bears on the practice field will be at training camp in Bourbonnais.
With six weeks of inactivity ahead of us, let’s review thoroughly the three practices of mandatory minicamp, highlighting players to focus on once camp opens on July 29.
OLB David Bass
Bass finished strong last season, picking up a sack in each of the final two contests, and he’s carried that over this offseason.
Now playing outside linebacker, Bass showed explosiveness and quickness as a pass rusher, consistently beating OT Michael Ola around the edge.
On Tuesday, Bass picked off a pass from QB Jimmy Clausen a few feet from where the pass was released, and nearly did it again a few plays later. Yesterday, Bass pulled off the same feat, snagging a Clausen pass after leaping in the face of the quarterback.
Out in space, Bass’ athleticism shows and he’s clearly caught the eye of the coaching staff.
“I think he’s worked very hard,” head coach John Fox said. “[Outside linebackers coach] Clint Hurtt and [defensive coordinator] Vic [Fangio] have done a good job working with those guys and teaching them. I think sometimes new is better and he’s taken to it pretty well.”
Bass must leapfrog a lot of veterans to find a place on the 53-man roster but he’s taken the first step toward significance in 2015.
Martellus Bennett skipped every voluntary practice this offseason and it showed this week. He was rusty and out of sync with in the offense, and demonstrated hands of pure steel. Bennett is clearly far behind the rest of his teammates in terms of his preparation for the upcoming season.
Kyle Fuller has looked less like the cornerback we saw in training camp last year – who dominated both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in 1-on-1 drills – and more like the defender who was beaten routinely during the second half of the 2015 campaign.
Jeffery had his way with Fuller in practice, beating him on nearly every route, which is concerning. Bears fans better hope the beating Fuller took last year doesn’t carry over to this season.
LONG ON VERSATILITY
The first-team offensive line is currently missing both offensive tackles and, in general, most of the backups have not been all that impressive.
As a result, the coaching staff inserted Kyle Long, a two-time Pro Bowl guard, at both right and left tackle.
Long must refine his technique but after watching him up close at tackle for four practices, it’s clear he’s more than athletic to play on the edge. In fact, his agility and quickness are likely more valuable at tackle than at guard.
Long and the coaching staff say the move to tackle is temporary but it might be hard to move him back inside the more he progresses on the edge.
It is clear the new coaching staff does not play favorites when it comes to veterans and rookies. In fact, it appears this regime is more than willing to start a rookie or second-year player over an experienced athlete if they feel the youngster make the team better.
For example, Brock Vereen took first-team reps over Ryan Mundy all week, Christian Jones is the starter at inside linebacker over Mason Foster and Marquess Wilson was starting ahead of first-round draft pick Kevin White in OTAs. Even Sam Acho, a four-year veteran, has taken more starter reps at OLB than the league’s active career sack leader, Jared Allen.
In addition, Kyle Fuller’s struggles have led to increasingly more first-team reps for 21-year-old Al Louis-Jean.
Injuries have opened the door for these inexperienced players. If they can show up on the practice fields of Olivet Nazarene University and take advantage of their opportunities, the Bears may be a much younger team this season.
MCCLELLIN IN CHARGE OF DEFENSE
Believe it or not, Shea McClellin is the man in charge of Vic Fangio’s defense. McClellin is the club’s starting middle linebacker, he makes all of the calls in the huddle and is present in dime packages, when only one LB stays on the field.
Jon Bostic hasn’t practiced all offseason due to an undisclosed injury and the staff has asked McClellin to take on a substantial leadership role. Think about it: McClellin is the playing the role Patrick Willis played under Fangio in San Francisco.
“I think he's a smart, young player,” John Fox said. “I think he's been moved around. I think he's been in some different systems. I think he's adapted pretty well. We'll get to see where that goes when we get to training camp.”
McClellin has shown good movement from his new spot on the field and has been very disruptive as a blitzer. Going into the final year of his contract, is this the year the former first-round pick makes good on his draft status?
“I'm just going to take it as another year,” said McClellin. “I'll just do the best that I can, that's all I can do. Nothing else matters. I don't really feel the pressure; pressure comes when you're not prepared, so I think we'll be all right.”
MCPHEE, ROYAL QUALITY ADDITIONS
Pernell McPhee is going to play a large role in the success of Chicago’s defense this season. He’s an imposing outside linebacker (6-3, 280) with very good speed and quickness.
On one snap, McPhee lined up across from RB Jacquizz Rodgers in man coverage and ran stride for stride with him down the sideline. Think about that, McPhee is roughly the same size as former Bears DT Henry Melton and he kept pace with a 5-6 running back.
Fangio has big plans for McPhee as well and has already begun moving him all over the field. In limited snaps last season for the Ravens, McPhee racked up 7.5 sacks. If he still looks this good once the pads come on the third day of training camp, McPhee might surpass that sack total by mid-season.
On the other side of the ball, WR Eddie Royal is the player most expected him to be: a shifty slot receiver who has built-in chemistry with QB Jay Cutler. Royal’s quickness out of the slot gives Chicago’s offense a dimension it has lacked the past few seasons, which will open up space for the flanker and split end, as well as provide Cutler a reliable security blanket.
“[My past success with Cutler] didn’t come easy,” Royal said. “It wasn’t like we just got on the field and everything just happened. We put in the work, the extra time in the film room, doing all the little things so that it would pay off on Sundays. That hasn’t changed so far. We’re putting in the same amount of work, if not more right now, just trying to do everything that we can do so that we’re successful in Sundays.”
CUTLER NEEDS TO STAY HEALTHY
Jay Cutler isn’t a perfect quarterback but he’s talented and has shown dominance in short stretches during his career.
The same can’t be said for any of the other quarterbacks on this roster, including primary backup Jimmy Clausen, who has struggled in offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s system.
Clausen has looked hesitant and he lacks accuracy. In addition, he’s had issues with some of the basics, which includes twice colliding with a running back on routine handoffs.
Additionally, David Fales still struggles on passes that require better-than-average arm strength and does not look like a player who developed much on the practice squad last season. In fact, Fales is in serious danger of losing his PS role to undrafted rookie Shan Carden, who has a stronger arm.
Ego Ferguson was selected in the second round last year based on his long-term potential, as he was not a highly accomplished player during one year as a starter at LSU. He had a ho-hum rookie season but Ferguson looks ready to take a substantial step forward this year.
He’s lost at least 10 pounds and has transferred that weight loss to increased quickness on the field. Ferguson is a player tailor made for a 3-4 system, either at nose tackle or at 5-technique, and will play a major role under Fangio this season.
The Bears have yet to conduct a single padded practice, yet the club is nursing a host of injuries to impact players. OLBs Lamarr Houston (ACL) and Willie Young (Achilles) are still recovering from their major injuries, although both have been working out individually and appear on the road to recovery.
In addition, Kevin White, Jermon Bushrod, Jordan Mills, Jon Bostic and Alan Ball, all potential starters this year, did not suit up last week.
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN BOURBONNAIS
Mitchell, who spent six weeks on the club’s practice squad and who finished the year on the 53-man roster, had a very strong minicamp. Mitchell made a number of plays, showing good anticipation and closing speed. He’s high on the list of practice squad candidates for 2015 and could crack the 53-man roster with a strong training camp and preseason.
Langford is stuck in a crowded backfield but so far, only Matt Forte has showed as much burst as the fourth-round rookie. Langford has also demonstrated reliable hands as a pass catcher, which was one of the knocks on him heading into this year’s draft. Jacquizz Rodgers is just a guy, so if Langford can shine in the preseason, he could easily secure the backup RB role.
TEs Zach Miller and Dante Rosario
Behind Martellus Bennett will be a heated battle in Bourbonnais between Zach Miller and Dante Rosario for the backup tight-end position. Bear Pascoe will likely fill the blocking role, which will leave just one roster spot for either Miller or Rosario. Both players have similar skill sets and could make decent complimentary weapons in two-tight-end sets. Whichever one emerges as the bigger playmaker in August will secure that role.
Washington is working as a third-team 5-technique defensive end, yet the two players directly in front of him, Brandon Dunn and Will Sutton, have been little more than mediocre. Washington is an extremely powerful player who has flashed his potential as a pass rusher in the past. A strong training camp could move him up the depth chart and onto the final 53.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.