Bears DB coach Ed Donatell looks to get quality from quantity

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USA TODAY

Bears DB coach Ed Donatell looks to get quality from quantity

If you check out the Bears roster right now, there are eight cornerbacks, eight safeties, and Deiondre Hall, whom they’ll try at safety but isn’t necessarily not a cornerback anymore, either.

Veteran defensive backs coach Ed Donatell was not given the supposed top cornerbacks on the free agent market, Stephon Gilmore and A.J. Bouye. But between free agency, the draft and a waiver wire pickup, he currently has six new faces in the secondary.

“I think we’ve got a group of guys that are gonna push each other and mold us into a nice unit,” Donatell said after Saturday’s Rookie Minicamp. “ It’s kind of on us to come through as a position group and when you become close as a group, that’s what we’re looking to do right now. We don’t look all the way to September, we’re looking at right now. I relish the challenge of us doing that, and it’s very doable. We have all kinds of good parts to put together, but there’s a lot of work to be done. Motivation is never a problem as a coach when you have that kind of competition.

“I love it. My biggest thing is to probe, and interview and find out what you know, who taught you. I’ll tap into all kinds of other guys’ good coaching. It’s an art, and a positive thing – not just your own stuff. Thinking off what they already know and fill in the rest. It’s an assessment, is what you do.”

And Donatell’s familiar working with new faces, and getting them to mold quickly. The evidence is in his time at San Francisco, although the 49ers had a much more star-studded front seven in front of them.

“We brought in Carlos Rogers who was a highly-drafted guy that hadn’t played to expectations. Donte Whitner was a highly-drafted guy. We brought in Perrish Cox, Tracy Porter who maybe didn’t have his hottest year the year before. They’re all different. But the guys that have success `buy in.’ And they get hitched up to what you’re doing. When they get hitched up, the probability’s very good (to have a good season).”

The proof: Rogers was a No. 9 overall pick by Washington who managed just eight interceptions in six seasons. In the first of his three seasons in San Francisco, he had six picks in 2011, when he made the Pro Bowl, and was second-team All-Pro. Cox, a fifth round pick in Denver in 2010, joined the Niners four years later and had five interceptions that fist season, after one the previous three years. And Whitner, a number eight overall pick by Buffalo in 2006, made two Pro Bowls from 2011 through 2013 with San Francisco.

Here are some quick Donatell thoughts on his secondary personnel, both new and returning:

Marcus Cooper

“He was a long press corner that we liked who was a good player at Rutgers with good size and speed. We tried to keep him (after the Niners drafted him in th seventh round) but he was taken off our practice squad. Was definitely a guy that we saw for the future. He went and got some good coaching in other places, and now he made the circle back.

“He was mature beyond his years as a young player and I’m not surprised his play spiked at his next couple places. He’s very serious about his trade and that usually leads to improvement. He was very serious. The only thing that mattered to him was football and meetings and how he’s progressing. He’s very detailed.”

Prince Amukamara

“We’ve got an experienced guy who’s played in playoff games. He’s got speed, explosion. But we start looking for career bests. So right now we’re looking to do the best things he’s done, put `em together and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Kyle Fuller

“I expect him to get back in there and compete. The essence of it is he’s been off a full year as far as games go. So we’ve gotta get his health back, and he’s heading that way, and get him back into things.”

Cre’Von LeBlanc

“He has a lot of the things that don’t get measured. Numbers don’t measure his instincts, how he sees the ball when it’s in flight. Numbers don’t measure how tough he is. You can’t find that measuring stick. He’s a very gritty young man, and he’ll make our team better.”

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Quentin Demps

“He’s really into it. He’ll bring his veteran experience and he’s coming off his best year. We want to repeat that and maybe take it up one step. Right now, he’s on a proper path and things are very positive for him. He sees well in the deep part of the field. After the ball’s snapped, this guy can see how things are moving, through traffic and that allows him to find the ball.”

Deiondre’ Hall

“It creates versatility. It stretches him a little bit as a young guy. I like that. He was a guy that could see downfield (while playing safety at Northern Iowa), and could track the ball. I felt some good instincts from the back end of the defense going forward. He’s a developing football player. I can paint a picture of him playing corner, paint another picture of him at safety. He was a young guy that was coming on, and it’s just unfortunate (the ankle injury that sidelined him), because he could’ve gotten some great experience down the stretch.”

Eddie Jackson

“There’s versatility. When guys come into (the NFL), it’s such a pass game, a cover game, that guys with corner experience really helps. Many times you’re playing with three corners out there, with all the sets and the athletic ability of tight ends. They’re almost wide receivers. So we need guys who can cover. He’s done that. I also like the level of ball that he played. They get great training there (at Alabama). Nick Saban was a doggone DB coach and he’s still got his hands in it, so those guys come in here really trained well for this level.”

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Friday's unit: the offensive line. 

1. Will Kyle Long and Josh Sitton flip spots, and will it be effective?

One of the more intriguing storylines to come out of the Bears’ offseason program was the possibility of a Kyle Long-Josh Sitton guard swap, with Long moving from right to left and Sitton to left to right. The prevailing wisdom is that Long’s athleticism would be better suited for the pulls needed at left guard, while Sitton has made Pro Bowls at both positions. But is it prudent for the Bears to make this switch with Long still recovering from November ankle surgery and some nasty complications that came after it? He’s shown he’s skilled enough to already make one position switch on the offensive line (from right tackle to right guard), so there’s no reason to doubt he couldn’t handle another so long as he’s healthy. We’ll see where he is next week. 

“You want flexibility,” coach John Fox said. “You don’t want as much flexibility as we had to use a year ago because we had to play so many guys due to injury. But we’re messing around with (Sitton) and Kyle both playing opposite sides, whether one’s on the left, one’s on the right. We’ll get those looks in camp, we got plenty of time.”

2. Can Charles Leno Jr. capitalize on a contract year?

Leno has been a pleasant surprise given the low expectations usually set for seventh-round picks. He started every game in 2016, checking off an important box for John Fox — reliability. Whether Leno can be more than a reliable player at left tackle, though, remains to be seen (if the Bears thought he were, wouldn’t they have signed him to an extension by now?). He has one more training camp and 16 games to prove he’s worthy of a deal to be the Bears (or someone else’s) left tackle of the future. Otherwise, the Bears may look to a 2018 draft class rich in tackles led by Texas’ Connor Williams and Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. 

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself,” Leno said. 

3. Will Hroniss Grasu survive the roster crunch?

A year ago, Grasu was coming off a promising rookie season and was in line to be the Bears’ starting center. But the Oregon product tore his ACL in August, and Cody Whitehair thrived after a last-minute move from guard to center. If the Bears keep eight offensive lineman this year, Grasu could be squeezed out: Leno, Long, Whitehair, Sitton and Bobby Massie are the likely starters, with Eric Kush and Tom Compton filling reserve roles. That leaves one spot, either for fifth-round guard Jordan Morgan or Grasu. The Bears could try to stash Morgan, who played his college ball at Division-II Kutztown, on the practice squad and keep Grasu. But Grasu doesn’t have flexibility to play another position besides center, which could hurt his case. 

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season.