Chicago Bears

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the defensive line

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the defensive line

With training camp starting later this month, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ units heading into Bourbonnais. Today’s group: The defensive line. 

1. Will Eddie Goldman stay healthy?

When healthy, the 6-foot-4, 320 pound Goldman has been a run-stopping menace in the defensive interior. But “when healthy” is critical here: An ankle injury limited Goldman to only six games and a total of 198 snaps last year. It’s not a coincidence, then, that with Goldman largely absent, Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranked the Bears’ run defense 28th out of 32 teams in 2016. John Jenkins was signed to back up Goldman, but the Bears need the former Florida State Seminole to be as healthy as possible in 2017. 

“We missed him and he was, I think, primed to have a good season,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said in May. “So if we can get him back to where he was, and a little bit better, I think we'll have a good player there.”

2. What kind of a player will Jaye Howard be?

The versatile Howard broke out in 2015 with 5 1/2 sacks, which earned him a two-year, $12 million deal from Kansas City. A hip injury limited him to only eight games last year, though he wasn’t particularly effective when healthy, notching just one sack and 24 tackles. The Bears signed Howard after Kansas City released him in the spring, hoping to add someone who could be a starter in Fangio’s base 3-4 and provide flexibility in nickel packages. If Howard is healthy and re-captures the form he had two years ago, then his one-year contract is a steal; if not, he at least can provide some depth at a cheap price. 

"I'm definitely coming out here with a chip on my shoulder," Howard said during OTAs. "Me and (Akiem) Hicks are already pushing each other. We're looking to have a big year and hopefully we can stay here together. Just watching him on film last year and what Jay Rodgers was able to do with him (career-high seven sacks), I'm hoping I can take my game to that next level as well."

3. Can Jonathan Bullard put a disappointing rookie year behind him?

Howard, Bullard and Mitch Unrein will compete to start alongside Hicks and Goldman, and ideally for Rodgers and Fangio, it’ll be a close competition. But that’ll only happen if Bullard can flush a meek rookie season (one sack in 296 plays) and prove he was worth 2016’s 72nd overall pick. Whiffing on on a third-round pick isn’t a disaster, but for a Bears team trying to build through youth, getting something out of Bullard would certainly be nice. 

“He understands more of what’s expected of him playing in the NFL, in the trenches,” Fangio said. “I don’t think he was quite ready for that last year, both physically or mentally. Emotionally I think he’s more ready. We’re hopeful that he does well.”

Can Markus Wheaton fix what ails the Bears’ offense?

Can Markus Wheaton fix what ails the Bears’ offense?

Markus Wheaton was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and wasn’t on the Bears’ injury report Thursday, signaling that the 5-foot-11, 189 pound speedster will make his Bears debut Sunday against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s not the solution for the Bears’ offense, but he could be part of it. 

For an offense that’s woefully lacked someone who can reliably stretch the field, Wheaton can at least provide the threat of going deep. Two years ago, while with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Wheaton averaged 17 yards per reception. Mike Glennon’s longest completion this year went for 22 yards. 

“It definitely adds another dimension,” Glennon said. “It’ll be great having Markus back.”

But Wheaton only played in three games last season (four catches, 51 yards) and, at his best, averaged 48 catches, 696 yards and four touchdowns a year from 2014-2015. Is it fair to expect Wheaton to be a big part of the Bears' offensive solution given he hasn't played much recently, and was limited to only a handful of reps in training camp and preseason practices due to a pair of freak ailments?

Maybe not, but with the Bears 0-2, he's the best hope they have at a skill position. 

Wheaton needed an emergency appendectomy the first weekend the Bears were in Bourbonnais — “I thought I had to poop,” Wheaton said, maybe providing too much information, before realizing the excruiating pain in which he was in was something worse. Shortly after returning to the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University, Wheaton fractured his pinkie finger in gruesome fashion (he said the bone was sticking out) when he was awkwardly grabbed while trying to catch a pass. 

That Wheaton broke a finger wasn’t only significant for his ability to catch passes. Consider what his former quarterback — Ben Roethlisberger — had to say about what makes Wheaton an effective deep threat:

“He’s got a very good ability of using his hands,” Roethlisberger said. “When you’re trying to stretch the field, you’ve gotta have some little techniques to help you get open because DBs can run as much as receivers can. So you gotta be able to use your hands to swim, kinda, get some swiping, get the hands off, I thought that he really had some good technique when it came to the deep ball and getting away from DBs.”

Roethlisberger and Wheaton shared a good rapport in Pittsburgh, with the quarterback clearly communicating to the receiver what he expected timing-wise in his routes. It’s been a challenge to develop something similar with Glennon given the lack of practice time, but Wheaton said putting in extra work after practice has helped. 

If Wheaton and Glennon can get on the same page, perhaps that can lead to at least some deep ball attempts. The Bears have to find a way to prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box and focusing on stopping Jordan Howard, who only has 59 yards on 22 carries this year. 

“We're going to face overpopulated boxes, we know that,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “There's going to be seven, eight guys in the box every time and we have to execute better and it comes down to that.”

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, only three of Glennon’s 85 pass attempts have traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The only completion of those was Sunday’s garbage-time touchdown to Deonte Thompson, which was caught near the back of the end zone. 

The threat of Wheaton going deep won’t be enough, though. Glennon still has prove he can complete those deep balls — the last time he completed a pass of 25 or more yards was on Nov. 2, 2014 (though he’s only attempted 96 passes since that date). 

But Wheaton feels ready to go and is confident he can do his job — which, in turn, could, in a best-case scenario, help his other 10 teammates on offense do their jobs, too. 

“It’s been a long time coming,” Wheaton said. “I’m excited and hopefully this is the week.”

Kris Bryant is all aboard the Mitch Trubisky bandwagon

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AP

Kris Bryant is all aboard the Mitch Trubisky bandwagon

Count Kris Bryant among the Chicagoans who are calling for Mitch Trubisky to start at quarterback for the Bears.

OK, that may be a bit extreme as Bryant simply said he would supporting giving Trubisky a "shot", but still:

After a rough game for incumbent starting QB Mike Glennon last week, most of Chicago has been clamoring for the No. 2 overall pick to get some snaps under center.

Why wouldn't the crown prince of Chicago baseball get in on the noise?