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An inside look at the high expectations for Bears rookies in 2017

Coach John Fox received some criticism when he said the Bears are “closer than people think,” but forgive him if he had his rookie class in mind.

It could turn out to be a franchise-changing group.

But plenty must happen. The Sun-Times interviewed five assistant coaches to discuss what’s ahead for these promising rookies.

 OLB Leonard Floyd
First round, 9th pick

Bears OLB Leonard Floyd. (Getty Images)

What’s the next step?

Floyd’s progress begins with a better understanding of what it means to be a speed rusher and what opponents will do to counter him.

“There are only a half-dozen legitimate speed rushers in this league,” outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt said before listing Clay Matthews, Whitney Mercilus, Vic Beasley, Von Miller and Dee Ford.

“[It’s] guys that have turbo boosters off the edge, and Leonard fits as that kind of guy.”

Floyd’s development remains rooted in technique. His handwork has improved, speed-wise, which prevents linemen from setting their feet.

But Floyd still is learning how to shed blocks based on where the ball is going. Developing a better power rush is crucial, too.

Similar to other speed rushers, Hurtt said offensive tackles often are “inviting” Floyd to bull rush, knowing it’s to their advantage.

It’s frustrated Floyd and led to more improvisation. Hurtt reminds Floyd to stick to his rush plan.

“For him, his mindset is if I don’t make every play, I’m not playing good enough,” Hurtt said. “For me as a coach, I love that mindset. Don’t’ change from that. But secondly, keep your composure and understand that ain’t always true.”

It will work because …

Floyd will be better prepared for the grind of the NFL season. Minor injuries deterred his development. His concussions were the result of poor technique.

For Floyd, the optimism starts with the 6 ½ sacks he had over a five-game stretch. Hurtt said it was the result of stringing practices and games together.

The goal for Floyd is not so much to gain weight, but to harden his body. A full offseason adhering to individualized nutritional and fitness programs will help.

“The more you weight-train and run and put your body through that, you callus your body,” Hurtt said. “You get your body prepared for the wear and tear of what’s going to happen during the season.”

Hurtt said Floyd also is a young player with his priorities in order. Hurtt not only sees a good young father for two sons, but he said Floyd is going back to Georgia in the offseason to earn his degree.

“I always talk about what kind of person he is,” Hurtt said. “Just a first-class kid all the way.”

C Cody Whitehair
Second round, 56th pick

What’s the next step?

Offensive line coach Dave Magazu insists he not’s sure if Whitehair is a long-term fixture at center or if he moves back to guard.

“I know this: The kid’s a winner,” Magazu said. “He’s going to work at it. He’s going to compete at whatever position he plays. The guy just has a tremendous upside.”

But if Whitehair remains at center, the experiences he has gained is more than a starting point.

In one season, he has gone from never playing center in college to being a reliable, consistent performer in the NFL. He has Pro Bowl written all over him.

“It’s showing that as time goes on — and not that he’s not now — he’ll be able to take more command and be more of a leader, not just in this [offensive line] room, but on this football team,” Magazu said.

Whitehair has been caught off-guard by changes late in the cadence, but Magazu expects that to change next season.

“People aren’t born to be a center and have all that knowledge and experience,” Magazu said. “Here’s a guy who has never done it. So to play at this level and to play at the level he’s playing right now, it’s pretty impressive.”

It will work because …

Whitehair not only has the right physical makeup for center, but he can handle it mentally in the film room and with his calls and emotionally when adversity arises.

“He has good balance and he has good lower body strength,” Magazu said. “Obviously, he plays well with his hands. He has the right demeanor because he doesn’t get overly rattled. He can calm down and always regroup. I just think his whole chemistry and demeanor fits the position.”

Whitehair already has taken ownership of the line.

“If the left tackle doesn’t do something right or the right tackle or whoever, he’s like, ‘Ah, that’s my fault. I should have been clearer on a call or something,’ ” Magazu said. “I go, ‘Hey, you’re not responsible for every guy on the field.’

“No. 1, take care of your job, do your job first and then maybe worry about the others. He tries to do everything right.”

But that’s just who Whitehair is.

“He’s a good person,” Magazu said. “Sometimes we get all hung up on just on ability, but being a good person and a good guy, a good teammate, those things have a lot of value, and he’s all of that. I think the sky’s the limit for the guy.”

ILB Nick Kwiatkoski
Fourth round, 113th pick

What’s the next step?

Thrust into a starting role because of Danny Trevathan’s injuries and Jerrell Freeman’s suspension, Kwiatkoski’s learning process accelerated.

As a result, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires said Kwiatkoski has a strong understanding of the Bears’ defense. He handled the calls. Now he needs to diagnose offenses better.

“He’s spending more time on the opponents and understanding what they’re doing, what the formations are, tendencies and all that,” Pires said.

Kwiatkoski’s ability to break up a screen by the Packers and make a tackle for a loss is what can happen.

“He’s a one-time guy,” Pires said. “You give it to him. He’ll get it. He’ll go back through it. He has a good understanding of why we’re doing things.”

Because of his strength, Kwiatkoski has stood out more as a rusher than in coverage. His understanding of leverage and where his help is in zone-match concepts requires work.

“He’s got a lot of flights of stairs to climb,” Pires said. “But his foundation is good right now.”

Pires makes his expectations clear.

“The next step with any great linebackers I’ve been around is now you have to affect the game,” Pires said. “Now you’ve got to change the game. How can you do that? It’s what play can you make to change that game, whether it’s another tackle for loss, it’s an interception, force a fumble, a sack.

“You can’t miss those opportunities. The good ones don’t miss those opportunities. He’s not there yet with that phase. He’s working in that direction. Now, its, ‘OK, Nick, did you change the game today in a positive way?’ That’s where he has to get to. That’s the next level of linebacker.”

It will work because …

Pires said Kwiatkoski has already earned the trust of his veteran teammates not because of his natural physicality, but his knowledge.

“When he first started, it’s like an anything else, there’s anxiety,” Pires said.

“If you tell us to make the right adjustment, are you going to give us the right adjustment? Are you going to put us in the right spots? That’s how you gain the respect.

“That’s what he’s done good job with, with the calls, with the checks. He’s on point with those things. Now you get the respect from the veterans.”

RB Jordan Howard
Fifth round, 150th pick

What’s the next step?

Running backs coach Stan Drayton points to a number of areas. He’s not where he needs to be as a route runner or as a pass blocker.

But Drayton believes Howard can be a more explosive runner, and that bodes well for the future. It starts with improving Howard’s gait once he hits the second level. He tends to run like he’s still waiting for a hole to open.

“It’s good in the run game, but at some point when you’re going to be an explosive player you’ve got to be able to open that thing up and change your speed,” Drayton said. “Tight spaces no problem, but getting into fifth gear is a little tougher.”

Sustaining it requires work, too. Drayton calls it “speed endurance.”

“I’m not saying he needs to go run track in the offseason,” Drayton said. “I just think he needs to get in more shape to be able to sustain his speed for a longer period of time.

“Because if you look at some of these explosive runs during the course of the season, they should be touchdowns.”

It will work because …

Howard has a “very high give-a-care factor,” Drayton said. “He takes criticism to heart. What I’ve learned is not everybody wants to hear the bad stuff, he don’t necessarily care to hear the good stuff.”

When Howard had troubles with drops earlier this season, Drayton said he used every free moment he had in practice to catch passes.

“If there’s a glitch or weakness in his game, it bothers him,” Drayton said.

Howard’s running style already is the perfect fit for the Bears’ zone-blocking concepts. It starts with his patience and vision. Making long runs longer would take him and the offense to the next level.

“Whatever speed it is, it times up perfectly with our blocking scheme and our offensive lineman,” Drayton said. “The stars aligned in regards to his tempo in the backfield, and then the execution the offensive line has to go through to make a play work. All of that is a very natural thing for him, but it’s very, very fitting.”

CB Cre’Von LeBlanc
Undrafted

What’s the next step?

Secondary coach Ed Donatell said the team doesn’t know if LeBlanc is a better fit for cornerback or nickel back. But they’ve learned he can handle both spots.

With LeBlanc, an undrafted waiver-wire pick up from the Patriots, everything starts with his approach to preparation.

“It takes tremendous focus and study,” Donatell said. “To be able take on both of them, we’ve seen some guys do it, but it means you’re really investing and working your tail off.”

Donatell said a goal is to accelerate his learning curve because of his approach. It’s meeting his demanding ways.

“He’s capable of coming back next year like a four-year player because he’s so mindful,” Donatell said.

It will work because …

Donatell already has seen results. LeBlanc’s pick-six against the Lions was a direct result of his incessant study habits and his natural ball skills.

LeBlanc also has broken up nine passes in eight starts.

“He’s got a great ball clock,” Donatell said. “He’s good at the finish.”

Donatell also points to how LeBlanc handled getting beat by Packers receiver Jordy Nelson for a 60-yard gain, a heart-breaking play that led directly to a loss.

“He takes everything really hard that isn’t to his standard — not so hard that it affects him the next time, but about as hard as you want him to take it,” Donatell said. “The biggest thing is this guy owns up and sees how he’ll play it differently the next time.”

A full offseason program spent with Donatell will enhance matters.

“You can take him farther as a player because he’s willing to invest time and he’s got stamina,” Donatell said. “It’s his stamina to prepare, not stamina to run sprints or things like that. It’s to focus and watch tape and keep doing it and not get worn out.”

Does he ever tell LeBlanc to go home?

“I can’t do that,” Donatell said. “I can’t let him outwork me.”