Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the wide receivers

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the wide receivers

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. Wednesday's unit: the wide receivers.

1. Kevin White

Need we say more? Okay, we will. Or ... maybe not. You guys are already familiar with the career numbers for the 2015 seventh overall draft pick: Four games played. 28 games missed. 19 catches. 187 yards. Zero touchdowns. Two serious injuries and surgeries on his left fibula. Oh, and he’ll be working with three new quarterbacks and a third wide receivers coach in as many years. That. Is. A. Lot.

“It’s got to happen now,”  White said in June of a potential Bears career crossroads season. “I’ve got to turn it up. So to me, year three, it’s time.”

2. Who gets hot in the slot?

If Cam Meredith and White get through the preseason healthy (and with the Bears the past two seasons, a big “if”), the position battle turns to playing time in the slot, where Eddie Royal was supposed to be the answer in the Ryan Pace/John Fox regime. Ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Markus Wheaton was given the sweetest contract of a free agent trip (two years, $11 million, six million guaranteed) and has the most speed. Kendall Wright excelled with a 94-catch season with the Tennessee Titans under Dowell Loggains in 2013, until gradually sinking further into the doghouse. And Victor Cruz has the tape — two great seasons with the New York Giants. But the second of those was five years ago for the now-30-year-old, and he played a total of six games in injury-plagued 2014 and 2015 seasons. If this trio all proves something, and deserving of roster spots, that may only leave Josh Bellamy (who’s proven value on special teams) as the sixth receiver, along with White and Meredith.

"The more routes I run, the more I build a rapport with Mike [Glennon] and get myself out there learning the plays," Cruz said after his signing, "I think I have that potential to be the guy you saw a few years ago.

"We’ve got a lot of guys who are looking for opportunity," said Wheaton. "A lot of guys that are hungry and have something to prove."

3. An unexpected, immediate-impact surprise?

Deonte Thompson had 22 catches when pressed into action last season, and has a history with new wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni at Florida (2010), but now has competition after a year and a half as the primary kickoff returner. Rueben Randle had a 71-catch season three years ago with the Giants, helping them offset the loss of Cruz, but must overcome a “lazy” reputation after not hooking on with a team at all last season. Daniel Braverman was All-Bourbonnais a year ago, but the seventh-round rookie (and "future Wes Welker") got into only three December games, with zero catches. Wheaton-Warrenville South product Titus Davis (older brother of Titans' 2017 first-round pick Corey Davis) is only 24 and "retired" from New York Jets camp a year ago. A darkhorse (perhaps only for the practice squad) could be undrafted rookie Tanner Gentry, who has size (6-foot-2) and a catch radius after leading the NCAA with 49 deep target throws (22 receptions) from potential top 2018 draft pick Josh Allen at Wyoming last season.

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for special teams

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for special teams

With training camp starting in less than two weeks, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears position units heading into Bourbonnais. Today’s group: special teams.

1. Connor Barth, Year 2 (right?)

Robbie Gould had a bad finish to 2015, a poor preseason last summer and was shown the door in favor of Barth. When he got off to a shaky start, he heard it from Bears fans, but wound up recovering fairly nicely. Despite that, however, his 78.3 percent field goal accuracy (18-for-23) fell shy of his career 84 percent mark. If Barth has the same kind of preseason that Gould did a year ago, you’d have to think the personnel department will be keeping a close eye on the waiver wire. Right now, the competition is 28-year-old rookie Andy Phillips from Utah, who grew up playing soccer and was an Olympic downhill skiing hopeful (never having played high school football). Phillips connected on more than 80 percent of his field goal attempts with the Utes.

“I think every job is a competition,” said special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers in May. “You get to this level, and you’re looking at positions where there’s only one of them. All those guys understand that, not only from them competing with guys on this field in our camp, they’re competing with 31 other teams, and the guys on those depth charts.”

2. Kids in the (Return) Game

The Bears' leading punt returner last season was the now-departed, injury-plagued Eddie Royal and his 19 returns (one touchdown) came in just nine games. They could give cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc chances, but they’ll also give fourth round rookies Eddie Jackson and Tarik Cohen looks. Both will make this team and camp will sort out how much they’ll be relied upon on at safety and running back, respectively. Jackson had big-time success in that role at Alabama, but is coming off a broken leg. Cohen was mostly kept off returns his senior season at North Carolina A & T so he wouldn’t get worn down as the starting running back. One he did take, however, wound up with him scoring only to be called back by penalty.

Kickoff returns would seem to be pointing towards free agent signee Bennie Cunningham, whose 27.2-yard average with the Rams was third in the NFL and virtually matched his career average. He has the fourth-most kickoff return yardage since making the league as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Incumbent Deonte Thompson led the league with 35 returns a year ago and finished sixth in average at 23.0. But depending how healthy the wide receiving corps is through training camp, Thompson may be facing a numbers game at the position. Joshua Bellamy is a virtual lock to make the roster because of his Teams prowess. If Cam Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton, Victor Cruz and Kendall Wright all earn spots as well, where would that leave Thompson?

“He’s a good athlete, he’s had good averages and production in this league,” Rodgers said of Cunningham. “He’s a thicker body (5’10, 217), incredibly smart, a hard worker. There’s a lot to like about what he does. Contact balance is another thing he does well. He’s a compact player and he’s strong, so generally speaking, arm tackles aren’t something that’s gonna bring him down.”

3. Roster balance, with effective puzzle pieces.

After the oft-criticized Joe DeCamillis exited along with the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery Era, the Bears’ overall special teams rankings (as computed by the Dallas Morning News) rose from 26th in 2014 to 12th in 2015 under Rodgers. But last season, it slipped back to 27th. Their punt coverage sunk from 14th to last in the league and their kickoff return average plummted from third in the NFL two years ago to 18th last season. Their only improvement in the four units was in kickoff coverage. Finding effective parts during roster cutdown time is a balance that’s difficult to find for a team with such regular roster turnover. 

Dave Toub has been missed. But with a squad that’s been injury-plagued the past two seasons and will have an offense learning on the fly with a new quarterback, this phase must stay away from critical mistakes. That’s especially crucial  in the first month, when the defense will be tested by four high-powered offense in a 19-day span.

Report: Bears schedule visit with former Pro Bowl wide receiver Victor Cruz

Report: Bears schedule visit with former Pro Bowl wide receiver Victor Cruz

After releasing one veteran wide receiver on Thursday, the Bears will reportedly meet with another next week.

According to NFL Network's Kimberly Jones, former New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is scheduled to meet with the Bears.

After missing the entire 2015 season with a calf injury, Cruz bounced back to play in 15 games with the Giants in 2016. He had 39 receptions for 586 yards and a touchdown.

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Cruz, 30, has appeared in 67 career NFL games and has accumulated 303 receptions for 4,549 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Cruz helped the Giants capture the Lombardi Trophy in a victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. During the 2011 playoffs, Cruz had 21 receptions for 269 yards and a touchdown.

If the Bears sign Cruz, he'll join an already crowded wide receiver group which includes Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, Daniel Braverman and Rueben Randle