Kamil Kraczynski/USA TODAY Sports

What we learned from Chicago Bears off-season practices

My complete off-season review of the Chicago Bears - based from viewing up-close the club's closed practices over the past month - as the team heads into training camp.

"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." -Donald Rumsfeld

Entering the 2016 season, there are a lot of unknowns about the Chicago Bears. Question marks surround this team at crucial positions, which makes it nearly impossible to predict how well the Bears will do this year. 

I've had the privilege of watching eight practices over the past month - three from rookie minicamp, three from OTAs, two from veteran minicamp - and I'm still unsure of how much the Bears will improve this season, if at all. 

There is clearly some serious potential at a number of those questionable positions, yet the floor is also very low at some crucial spots. 

At the end of the day, how Chicago's many different unknowns reveal themselves during the season will be the key to this team's success.

With training camp five weeks away, let's outline the numerous unknowns of the 2016 Chicago Bears. 

Known Knowns

A vastly improved ILB duo

Make no mistake, the additions of inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman in free agency will have a major impact on the success of the defense this year. Both demonstrated on-field leadership during practice and it's clear their past success has become contagious along the front seven. 

Trevathan has been the most vocal leader. He's as quick and elusive as he was in Denver, while his coverage skills are exceptional. 

Yet even more impressive has been Freeman, who surprised me with his prowess on passing downs. Freeman had a number of impressive pass breakups and looked more than capable of covering the team's running backs and tight ends. At the same time, he's shown the downhill aggressiveness against the run for which he's been known throughout his career. 

"We can feed off each other," Trevathan said during OTAs. "I've seen him around the league and I like the way he plays. I like his attitude and the way he hits the linemen and he hits fullbacks and he's just aggressive. That's what you want in a MIKE and a linebacker as well. He thinks he's faster than me but I doubt that. He's quick though and we're going to feed off that and we're definitely going to eat out here on this field."

With Trevathan and Freeman, inside linebacker went from arguably the weakest position on the team last season to its strongest position this year. 

A beefy, powerful defensive line

Akiem Hicks has been referred to as a "mountain" by his teammates and, when you see him up close, that description is more than accurate. At 6-5, 328, Hicks is absolutely massive. He combines that size with power and explosiveness, which means Hicks is going to command a double team the majority of his snaps. 

As the film shows, Hicks is adept at swallowing up offensive linemen, which is going to clog up run lanes and free up room for those new inside linebackers to make plays. 

"You’ve got to kick the first [offensive lineman's] butt. If you kick his butt then his buddy isn’t going to be able to get up [to the second level] as fast," Hicks said during OTAs. "That’s what we talk about when you say keeping guys off your backers, when you dominate one guy the other guy can’t leave just as fast, because then he’s exposing the rest of the play."

Freeman and Trevathan both believe they'll benefit from Hicks' presence along the defensive line. 

"He’s a mountain man, he’s a mountain. You can’t move him," said Trevathan. "I’ve never been, well I’ve been behind a couple, but he’s aggressive and instinctive and agile for a big guy. To see him in front of me and to not have linemen come up on me, it’s a great feeling. That’s what linebackers want, you want to roam around and just hit and attack. He’s got the right attitude. He’s a humble guy but like I said, we’re all hungry and he’s right in that category."

With Hicks soaking up linemen, second-year nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who lost 15 pounds this off-season, has been getting plenty of one-on-one looks. At a svelte 325 pounds and with immense power, Goldman has been taking advantage of those opportunities. 

During Tuesday's practice last week, he used one hand to put rookie G Cody Whitehair on his butt, then used a power rip move to drive C Hroniss Grasu four yards deep in the backfield. 

"It’s looking like a vicious front, because we have a combination of speed and strength," said Goldman, who feels the game has slowed down in his second off-season. "Things come quicker. In football everything is right now so when you can cut that out and know things like second nature, basically, it saves you a lot of time. It saves you a lot of thinking and makes you more comfortable."

Goldman had 4.5 sacks last season and looks like he's prepared to improve on those numbers, in addition to his duties as a centerpiece run defender. 

Kiddie pool tight ends

Tight end is easily the shallowest position on the team. 

Zach Miller looks very good and has made a number of impressive plays in the passing game, many against Trevathan, who is solid in coverage. Miller is going to be an important part of the offense this year. 

Yet Miller's injury history will have Bears fans on the edge of their seats every time he takes a hard hit, because the depth behind him hasn't shown much. 

Ben Braunecker, the undrafted rookie out of Harvard, made a few plays in rookie minicamp but he doesn't appear to be as athletic or fast as his test scores indicate. 

Rob Housler has looked the best of the backups but he was already banged up during veteran minicamp. 

The Bears signed Tony Moaki last week, so it's clear head coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace see the need for an influx of tight end talent. Bottom line: Miller needs to stay on the field. 

Cutler or bust

Brian Hoyer is the best backup quarterback the Bears have had in a decade, and arguably the best backup QB in the NFC. Yet Hoyer has shown a deep floor. He has playoff experience, and there's value in that, but he threw four interceptions in that playoff game, a 30-0 blowout loss at home to the Chiefs. 

This off-season, Hoyer has been very inconsistent, although he looked his best last week, so he's showing improvement. He's a better option than Jimmy Clausen by far but Hoyer has been very average to this point. 

Time well spent for Jeffery

A lot was made of receiver Alshon Jeffery opting not to participate in voluntary OTAs. A player who missed seven games last year due to three different soft tissue injuries, many worried about whether or not he would be at his peak physically to start mandatory minicamp. 

We can put those concerns to rest. Jeffery looked like his usual self through two practices last week, which is to say a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver. He appears to be in better shape and he was just as dominant on the practice field as he's always been. 

The Bears and Jeffery have until July 15 to come to terms on a long-term contract, or else Jeffery will play on the franchise tag this year, which would likely be his final season in Chicago. However it plays out long-term, Jeffery looks like he's ready to post another Pro Bowl season in 2016.

Known Unkowns

Sketchy secondary

In the secondary, the Bears did little more than retain Tracy Porter in free agency, then added three mid- to late-round rookies in the draft. 

At corner, the defense will be banking heavily on Porter and Kyle Fuller to find consistency out wide, while second-year corner Bryce Callahan will once again man the slot. Yet the depth beyond those three is highly questionable. 

Fuller sat out veteran minicamp for undisclosed reasons. With him out, the coaching staff moved Callahan out wide and put Demontre Hurst, who played safety last year, in the starting nickelback role. While Hurst has nickel experience and Callahan was serviceable last year, that's not ideal starting cornerback unit, but that's exactly where the Bears will stand if Fuller or Porter get hurt. 

At safety, Adrian Amos, who played the most defensive snaps on the team his rookie season, is almost fully recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. He'll assume his starting role, yet it appears the other starting spot is open for the taking. 

The frontrunners right now are Harold Jones-Quartey and fourth-round rookie Deon Bush, who has made a number of plays the past month. Chris Prosinski, Omar Bolden and sixth rounder DeAndre Houston-Carson will have their opportunities in the preseason but all are down on the pecking order heading into camp. 

First-time first rounders

The fate of the Bears this season will be influenced heavily by the club's last two first-round picks. 

After missing all of his rookie season, Kevin White appeared healthy during off-season activities. That alone is a huge plus for Chicago's offense. 

Yet White had to knock off some serious rust the past month, which included a handful of dropped passes that should have easily been caught. He also lacked chemistry with Cutler, with the two failing to connect on a number of deep balls. 

The good news is that White is finding ways to get open and he did finish minicamp on a strong note. On one of the final snaps of Tuesday's practice, White climbed the ladder on a Cutler laser, finally showing off the athleticism we've heard so much about. 

"I think the sky is the limit. He’s an unbelievable kid," Cutler said. "You know that every day he comes to work he’s going to give you everything he has. His demeanor on or off the field doesn’t change. Physically he can do anything he wants. He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s got good hips. He can get out of breaks. It’s just a matter of him mentally getting there so that he can use all of his ability instead of thinking so much."

For Floyd, concerns about his size and upper body strength will exist until the pads come on in training camp. Then we'll have a clearer picture of his all-around skill set. 

Yet in terms of athleticism and movement ability, he's a beast. The Bears have used him as as much in coverage as they have a pass rusher and he has excelled in space. His tipped pass 15 yards down the field led to an interception that closed out Tuesday's practice. Not many NFL outside linebackers can make those types of plays. 

"He definitely has that feel where he can get down really low, rip through, come around the corner and he definitely has the speed," said Akiem Hicks. "He’s going to build more strength the more he plays and the more he’s here. I look forward to seeing what that kid can do."

Restructured O-line, for better or worse

The Bears will enter the 2016 season with five new starters at each position along the offensive line. Change along the front five has been necessary for a while, yet there are legitimate concerns at every position but right guard. 

Kyle Long is back at guard where he belongs and the battles he has had with Hicks this past month have been great theater. Those two bring the best out in each other and it's only going to continue once the pads come on. 

Yet beyond Long, is Charles Leno reliable enough to play left tackle, can Hroniss Grasu be stouter at the point of attack, will the real Bobby Massie please stand up, and what can we expect from rookie Cody Whitehair? 

Whitehair has taken his lumps during off-season activities, as has Grasu, who looks bigger but not stronger. 

This unit is loaded with question marks individually and they are clearly in the initial stages of building chemistry. If these five are unable to jell, then all those pretty weapons at the skill positions won't mean anything. 

Wide open backfield

After allowing Matt Forte to walk in free agency, the assumption has been that Jeremy Langford - who finished second on the team last year with 537 rushing yards - will be handed the role as the club's starting running back. 

That doesn't appear to be the case, as the Bears are clearly going to make Langford earn that primary spot in the backfield. He's been one of three running backs rotating with the first team, alongside Ka'Deem Carey and Jacquizz Rodgers, who both have seniority over the second-year ball carrier out of Michigan State. 

Langford is clearly the most explosive of the bunch but he's far from a polished product. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry last year and dropped eight passes, which creates justified concern about his ability between the tackles and on passing downs. 

Carey has shown good power as a runner, while Rodgers is very good on passing downs, both as a blocker and a receiver. 

And we haven't even mentioned rookie fifth rounder Jordan Howard, a downhill ball carrier who should provide immediate value in short-yardage situations. If Howard shines in the preseason and improves as the regular season progresses, the Bears are going to let him eat, which is going to cut into Langford's touches. 

Langford is going to be a part of the backfield in some capacity but what exactly his role will be, and how important he'll be to the offense as a whole, is yet to be determined. 

Unknown Unknowns

Champagne Supernova

The Bears are a 6-10 team in the second year of a major roster overhaul. In addition, the coaching staff showed last year they do not play favorites and that the best players, regardless of experience, will see the field on game days. 

With so many roster positions up for grabs, it's going to create a champagne-level of bubble spots coming out of training camp. Currently, the Bears lack legitimate depth at every single position outside of outside linebacker, and possibly the defensive line. Beyond the projected starting lineup, there is nothing but competition. 

That should be a good thing, as competition typically brings the best out of athletes, yet that also means there are a ton of unknown unknowns as we approach Bourbonnais. Back-end roster decisions may not seem important but when you consider the Bears' recent injury history, a lot of these back-end roster players could play significant roles on either offense or defense this season. 

Prepared for Injury?

The injury bug has been a constant the past three seasons in Chicago. Last season, 13 Bears finished the year on Injured Reserve, most of whom were projected starters heading into the season. 

There's no way to avoid injuries, so while we fret every day about the starting lineup, the backups are just as important, as most will see the field at some point this year. 

That's concerning at a number of positions where the Bears clearly lack depth. Tight end, offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback and safety, these are the weakest areas of the team in terms of depth. If the starters go down, the Bears will struggle to find any consistency. 

The unknown unknown of injuries hangs over every team but for a transitional rosters littered with question marks, like the Bears', it's an even more ominous black cloud. 


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