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Class in session: A closer look at four Bears draft picks vying for early roles

BOURBONNAIS — Another day of training camp was another day without rookie linebacker Roquan Smith. But while Smith holds out, other 2018 draft picks have settled in — and impressed, at times — at Olivet Nazarene University.

‘‘[The rookies] have done well because there’s been no complaining,’’ coach Matt Nagy said Sunday. ‘‘They know that every rep that they get counts. They’re getting limited reps right now. In any type of team group or team period, there’s some areas where they’re not getting any more than three reps in a group.

‘‘To get in a rhythm is hard for them, but they’ve done a good job understanding, listening and asking questions from the veteran players as to how they can get better by getting the mental reps that they get.’’

Here’s a closer look at four draft picks as they find their way in their first camp:

Bears rookie receiver Anthony Miller. (AP)

An instant sensation

Anthony Miller isn’t the first rookie receiver to impress in camp. It seemingly happens every year. But Miller’s emergence should feel different.

Miller isn’t a seventh-round pick or an undrafted free-agent signee. He’s a second-round selection the Bears traded up for — and the team is treating him as such.

‘‘They threw me in the fire, whether it was in the film room or out here,’’ Miller said. ‘‘They expect me to compete and be with the ones because they expect a lot of me.’’

Nagy and his offensive staff are treating Miller similarly to running back Tarik Cohen.

‘‘I’m everywhere on the field,’’ Miller said.‘‘‘It’s just like Memphis. I’m in the slot, outside. Sometimes I’m in the backfield. They’re giving me every opportunity to perform and get the ball in my hands.’’

So far, so good. Miller has been an early standout, beating veteran defensive backs and making big catches every day.

‘‘I didn’t come here to sit on the bench,’’ Miller said. ‘‘Whatever they throw at me, I’m going to catch it. I’m prepared for the challenge. I think I’m going to have a good season this year.’’

Earning his keep

Not much has changed for offensive lineman James Daniels, the 39th overall pick, since the offseason program. If he’s going to start at left guard, he has to beat out veteran Eric Kush.

Daniels still rotates between guard (second team) and center (third team). After playing primarily center in college, the most significant adjustment is understanding where the backs are running behind him.

‘‘It’s been good,’’ Daniels said. ‘‘I just have to know when I’m at center I have to do things a different way than when I’m at guard.’’

Daniels has connected with Kush and Cody Whitehair because of his situation. Kush and Whitehair also can play both positions. Kush has been extremely helpful, even though he’s Daniels’ main competition.

‘‘Things that [offensive line coach Harry Hiestand] doesn’t say, [Kush] will say it,’’ Daniels said. ‘‘I really appreciate how he’s trying to help me.’’

Hiestand, though, says plenty as he runs his linemen through rigorous individual drills. Daniels said Hiestand coaches the offensive linemen who play defenders in drills as hard as the line he’s in charge of building.

‘‘He wants the defensive players to play just like how the real defensive players play,’’ Daniels said. ‘‘So if we’re on defense, he wants us to come off the ball, read blocks, fit where the linebackers are going to fit, doing those things.

‘‘We had something like that [at Iowa], but it’s nowhere near to the detail to what coach Harry does.’’

Sparring with a star

Defensive lineman Bilal Nichols spends part of his days callusing his hands and arms during handwork drills with Akiem Hicks. They’ve been paired for individual drills since the offseason program.

‘‘He pushes me to work extremely hard,’’ said Nichols, a fifth-round pick. ‘‘Since I’ve been pairing up with him, I’ve really gotten better and better in every drill that we do.’’

Jonathan Bullard should be the starting five-technique end opposite Hicks in the base defense. It took Bullard, a third-round selection in 2016, time to win over defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. But Nichols is needed to fill out the rotation with Roy Robertson-Harris.

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‘‘One thing I love about coach Vic is he really harps on technique,’’ Nichols said. ‘‘He demands you be a technician. The more technique you have as a player, the better you’ll play.’’

It helps to spar with Hicks but also to listen to his advice. Hicks watches Nichols closely during team drills.

‘‘One thing he’s really helped me out with a lot is understanding the formation of the offense and what possible things I can get out of that formation, which is very huge for me being a rookie, understanding that early and getting a jump on that,’’ Nichols said.

Fitting right in

Kylie Fitts should feel fortunate. Not only are the Bears looking for a young pass rusher to contribute, but Fangio is very hands-on with the outside linebackers.

‘‘It’s improving my technique, so I can contribute to my pass rush,’’ Fitts said.

For Fitts, who got to backup quarterback Chase Daniel for a ‘‘sack’’ in team drills Sunday, improving his handwork is a must.

‘‘In college, I kind of lacked ‘hands,’ ’’ said Fitts, who taken in the sixth round. ‘‘To see that now in my pass rush and to continue to work on my hands differently, with the two-arm swipe or the long-arm chop, it’s added a couple of moves on my pass rush.’’

Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch’s hamstring injury has resulted in more opportunities for Fitts to face better offensive linemen early in camp.

‘‘It’s a really good competition, from Leonard [Floyd] all the way down to us rookies,’’ Fitts said. ‘‘All of us have really good specialties.’’

Want your Bears training-camp update without delay? Each day of summer practice, Sun-Times Bears beat writers Patrick Finley, Adam Jahns and Mark Potash will share exclusive insights on the workout and interviews in a livestream conversation at
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