Adam L. Jahns’ “Inside the Huddle” columns appear in game-day editions of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s 2017 draft class was ridiculed before the new players even arrived in Lake Forest. From talking heads on TV to anonymous executives and scouts in various reports, the criticism was ruthless.
“[Pace] just got fired with this draft,” an unnamed executive from an unnamed team told Bleacher Report on April 30.
“I don’t know anyone who likes [the Bears’] draft,” another anonymous exec told CBS Sports. “From the first pick on, we can’t figure out what they were doing.”
Then the preseason happened.
“I don’t think they’re saying that anymore, are they?” rookie tight end Adam Shaheen said. “What are they saying now?”
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky — the second overall pick after starting only one year at North Carolina — changed the narrative with an exceptional preseason.
And there was more. The rookie class has generated considerable buzz since trained camp opened, more than any other Bears draft class in recent memory.
“We’ll just continue to rise with each other,” running back Tarik Cohen said.
Added safety Eddie Jackson: “We feel like we haven’t proven anything yet.”
As everyone waits on Trubisky, here’s a look at what’s ahead for Jackson, Cohen and Shaheen early on this season.
The rangy ballhawk
Jackson, the fourth-round pick from Alabama with the surgically repaired leg, doesn’t want your praise. He won’t listen to it.
“Even if people look at me like, ‘Yeah, this guy can get his hands on the ball,’ to me, I’m like, ‘That’s one play,’ ” Jackson said. “I feel like nothing is earned yet. I haven’t done anything. This is when it all counts.”
His combination of speed and instincts made him an early standout in camp. Beyond continually making plays, he covered ground quickly.
But what earned him the starting job next to Quintin Demps was what coach John Fox called “a good football IQ.”
Said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: “[It was] just learning the defense, learning his assignments and what we’re expecting out of him.”
Jackson’s goals are to be more physical and a better tackler — demands Fangio makes of all his safeties. This was a criticism of Jackson’s play at Alabama.
“I didn’t like it, but I felt like I gave them a reason to say it,” Jackson said. “If you watch film, I wasn’t being as physical as I could be. I kind of did that to myself. I put that on myself.”
The mismatch problem
Cohen — a fourth-round selection from North Carolina A&T, who’s listed at 5-6 — broke out with 77 yards on 11 carries in the Bears’ second preseason game against the Cardinals’ starters.
“I feel like that was really my NFL debut,” he said.
But it might not be an indication of how Cohen will be featured when Jordan Howard is active. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said there are a “select group” of plays for Cohen.
“We’re excited about the role he’s going to fill,” Loggains said. “He’ll be a nice complement to the group.”
Cohen still is viewed as a change-of-pace back because of his quickness — and a mismatch problem for linebackers and many safeties in pass coverage.
That didn’t show up in the preseason, when Cohen didn’t catch one pass. But expect that to change Sunday against the Falcons.
“[Loggains is] really using what I’m good at in the offense,” said Cohen, who had 98 catches for 945 yards over four years in college. “I should be making a lot of plays for what he draws up for me. I’m really confident in his scheme.”
Cohen, like Jackson, figures to be an option as a punt returner, though special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers said how they’re used will depend on the situation.
The threat in waiting
Shaheen is the rookie with the most to prove. A 6-6, 278-pound second-round pick from Division II Ashland (Ohio), he’s currently third on the depth chart at tight end.
“He’s going to fill a role for us right now, and [tight end is] a deep position for us, so we’re fortunate that we can develop a talented player,” Loggains said. “He’ll have a role, and that role will continue to grow as he’s ready to take on more.”
He’ll have a place on special teams, including being the “wing” on the field-goal unit, while his size makes him a looming threat in short yardage and the red zone.
Unlike Jackson and Cohen, Shaheen played in all four preseason games; the Bears wanted to expose him to as much as possible since he came from a small school. His pass-catching skills didn’t show up, but the intent was for him to focus on his blocking.
“I thought I got a lot better just on assignment and technique,” he said. “The biggest part was just knowing some of the plays and who I’m going to, who I’m working with and what the landmark is. That stuff, I see that a lot more. I understand it. It helps with everything.”
Shaheen admittedly battled nerves in the preseason, too.
“I’ve settled down a lot with those four games,” he said. “I’m just excited to go out and play now.”
@chiadam23 : How do you feel about Kyle Long not being named a captain? Big deal or no big deal?
A: This isn’t a big deal, and Long would tell you that himself. While it might be surprising to fans that he wasn’t voted a captain, players tend to gravitate toward the most seasoned and decorated members of their respective position groups. That’s Josh Sitton for the offensive linemen. He’s the elder statesman at 31 and has been to four Pro Bowls. Beyond the captains, coach John Fox also uses a leadership council to help get his messages out and to gauge the vibe in the locker room.
@TJ_Shouse : What do Bears do about OLB depth with [Lamarr] Houston gone and [Pernell] McPhee’s health? Is [Isaiah] Irving good enough to be that extra guy if needed?
A: Irving isn’t good enough yet, which is why he’s on the practice squad. He might have been impressive in the preseason with three sacks, but he still requires time to develop. That said, outside linebacker is a very thin position, especially when taking into account McPhee’s injury history. There are ways to address depth during the season, but the big moves will come after it. Outside linebacker should be a priority in free agency and the draft. The Bears need Leonard Floyd to stay healthy this season.
Clearing the way
In an era of high-flying, pass-happy offenses, the Bears want to pound opponents in an old-school way and have kept four tight ends, along with fullback Michael Burton.
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains prefers to have a fullback on the roster for flexibility and to give opponents more looks to prepare for.
“There are benefits to not everything being a one-back [formation], where [the defense is] just fitting gaps,” Loggains said. “They’re having to play some two-back runs.”
Paul Lasike appeared in 10 games last season, but Burton is better. His goal is to establish a rapport with Jordan Howard. It helps that he was a record-setting running back in high school before becoming a fullback at Rutgers.
“You’ve got to be able to run and read the plays as if you are the running back,” Burton said. “You’ve got to know the front. You’ve got to know where the linebackers are flowing; the safeties, where they’re aligning. It’s all those certain things. You can read it as if you’re the running back, except you’re just not getting the ball.”
It’s important, though, that Burton do more than just smack around linebackers. His versatility will keep him active on game days.
“You’ve got to be able to run-block, but you’ve got to be able to run routes, catch the ball, be versatile and obviously play special teams, because that’s very important,” Burton said.
Some QB talk
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is known for his candor, which made his comments about rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky all the more interesting. Asked for his thoughts on Trubisky after the preseason and facing him in practices, Fangio was almost too measured. Of course, the last thing he wants to do is further ignite an already red-hot quarterback debate.
“I saw a guy that improved,” Fangio said. “Definitely made steps and improved. I will say that, and I will limit it to that, but he definitely improved, which is what you want to see.
“Everybody thinks they’re a quarterback expert, and I don’t want to add to that pile of people.”
Special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers said it was a “worthwhile look” to claim kicker Roberto Aguayo off waivers and have him compete against Connor Barth.
“He’s a fantastic talent,” Rodgers said. “He’ll still have a career in the league. When you’re going through stuff, until you solve it, it’s hard to make the decision to go in that direction, as far as your roster goes.”
Aguayo had replaced Barth in Tampa Bay after the Buccaneers drafted Aguayo in the second round in 2016. The extra motivation for Barth was worth it.
“That first day Roberto was there, Connor was lights-out in practice,” Rodgers said. “We had a field-goal period, and then there was a lot of situational stuff and he was nails; he hit everything. We like where he’s at.”
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