Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each Bears position group heading to Bourbonnais. Today’s group: the running backs.

1. Can Jordan Howard get to the Starting Gate healthy?

By now, there’s no question the franchise’s all-time leading rookie rusher can do it. And after the fifth-rounder answered some durability questions last season, the last thing the Bears need is Howard to be banged-up or unavailable heading into a brutal first month of the season. If the Bears are to compete against the likes of the Falcons, Buccaneers, Steelers and Packers, they’ll need their ball-control game to be effective behind the league’s second-leading rusher last season. The humble star spent the offseason trying to get even better, from eye surgery, to finding ways to get through the second level and outrun defenders.

“Just improving on the little things, my conditioning, my weight, catching passes,” Howard said at last month’s minicamp. “And looking for ways to finish runs better. I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up.”

2. Spark from Sparty

Jeremy Langford entered last season as the starter following an impressive rookie season of his own, looking like the heir to Matt Forte as he split time with the veteran. But after 28 carries the first two games, the Michigan State product injured an ankle in Week 3 at Dallas after gaining 31 yards on only three carries. He was never the same once he came back, totaling just 31 carries for 84 yards. He remained out of team work during minicamp last month, working out individually on the side in an effort to be full-go for Bourbonnais. Howard took the ball and ran with his opportunity once Langford went down. But it’s not reasonable for him to carry the entire workload once the season begins, unless Dowell Loggains is asking for trouble. Langford returning to his rookie form will help.

3. The 3 C’s

That’s Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Ka'Deem Carey. Carey heads into his fourth season, having bought into special teams roles and being fearless charging into opposing defenders, even pancaking a few in his time here. But unless he finds a way to make himself a core performer on Teams, or if Howard, Langford, Cohen, or Cunningham suffers an injury, one doubts the Bears would enter the season with five running backs, especially if they decide to keep a fullback around. Cohen provides his unique skillset as the “human joystick” third down threat and potential as a returner. The latter is what Cunningham’s built his career upon, and has a similar build as Carey.

“I think it’ll play a key role and benefit me,” the 5-foot-6, 179-pound Cohen said of his stature and waterbug-like moves being a part of the offense. “The linemen are going to be bigger and it’ll be really hard for defenders to see behind my linemen. I didn’t necessarily want to be bigger (growing up), but I wanted to beat the bigger kids.”

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.

#BearsTalk Pick Six: Results of most important storylines from Bears minicamp

#BearsTalk Pick Six: Results of most important storylines from Bears minicamp

Earlier this week, JJ Stankevitz and Chris Boden picked six things they were interested in keeping their eyes on heading into the Bears' final off-season workouts, a mandatory three-day minicamp. Here's what they found:

1. Roll Call

The good news? It appears the team escaped without any new injuries (though calling off Thursday's final scheduled practice prevented a head count). John Fox provided a little more information than usual in running down where things stand with players who we saw on the field, but were not done yet with rehab and recovery: Danny Trevathan (torn patellar) and Zach Miller (broken foot) are on schedule, but Fox said would be "cutting it close" to be ready for the first training camp practices. He said Kyle Long (ankle surgery) was still “six to seven weeks away" from being able to rejoin his teammates on the field. Wideout Cam Meredith (thumb) and backup quarterback Mark Sanchez (knee) were still expected to be ready on time. No specifics were given about Josh Sitton (chest), but the player seemed positive he'll be ready. No timetables were given for Marcus Cooper (soft tissue) nor Lamarr Houston (unknown), neither of whom were even on the field over the course of the first two days.

— Chris Boden

2. Mike Glennon’s command of the offense

Glennon had a lot thrown at him over the last few weeks, which were his first opportunity to dive into Dowell Loggains’ offense and actually run some of its plays in a practice setting. Glennon exited the offseason program feeling much more comfortable with the Bears’ receivers, and felt confident in the on- and off-the-field chemistry he developed with his teammates. Overall, Glennon feels like he’s on solid footing heading into training camp in late July.

“There's been some good things, there's been some thing we need to work on but just overall getting more comfortable in the offense, getting just every rep counts,” Glennon said. “Every time I'm out there is probably the first time I've run the play in this particular offense, so every time I’m out there it matters, and the more we do that, the more we'll grow as an offense.”

— JJ Stankevitz

3. "Tru” at No. 2

By this set of eyes, I didn't see a whole lot of overall difference between Mitch Trubisky (as he moved up to the "twos" with Mark Sanchez's injury) and Mike Glennon. Neither was head and shoulders above the other as both were victims of their share of drops from the wide receiver corps. What's also hard to equate is the level of talent each had him around him in various drills when the offense went up against the defense, as injuries and competition made personnel on both sides a merry-go-round. Then there's also the original play-calls and defensive looks each respectively was given. Personally, however, at this point on the results I saw, I didn't see Trubisky as being that far behind Glennon. Then again, this is not training camp, the preseason, or the regular season. It's still way too early to fire the flames for a true quarterback competition and reverse the stated intention to bring the rookie along slowly.

— Chris Boden

4. Where does Kevin White fit?

The Bears did plenty of mixing and matching with their receiver group this week with Cam Meredith sidelined. Expect that to continue in training camp as the Bears continue to allow the likes of White, Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, Victor Cruz, Deonte Thompson to compete against each other with an eye on settling on a top two or three by the end of August. But what’s clear is while the Bears have players who have previously had success in their receiver unit, White is the key to this group — if he can live up to the promise he showed coming out of West Virginia, it’ll open up plenty for the Bears’ offense. But that’s a big if for a guy who’s only played four games in two years.

— JJ Stankevitz

5. The first thing for the secondary

At this stage of the year, the defense is usually ahead of the offense, and the Bears were no different than the NFL norm this week. Developing a ballhawking mentality won’t happen overnight for this secondary, but OTAs and veteran minicamp were important for developing a trust among defensive backs that’ll help this unit mesh better when the pads come on during training camp. Cornerback Marcus Cooper was the most notable absence from this group, and while rookie Eddie Jackson wasn’t able to fully participate, he was praised by coach John Fox this week.

“He’s wired right, he understands the game, in the classroom setting, questions and answers, he gets it,” Fox said. “He’ll get plenty of time in Bourbonnais.”

— JJ Stankevitz

6. The ‘Baby’ Bear

Yes, the only game equipment they were wearing this week were helmets, and these weren't game situations played against angry, opposing defenses. But fourth round draft pick Tarik Cohen showed enough quickness, burst, and evasiveness that could make the 5-foot-6 part of this fall's offensive package. Between Cohen and tight end Adam Shaheen, there's a bit of encouragement that while the wide receiver situation sorts itself out, any immediate contributions from this pair separated by more than a foot in height could add options for a unit desperately seeking players opposing defense's have to account for.

— Chris Boden