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The 10 most important Bears for a successful 2017 season

Despite coming off a 3-13 season, the Bears have become more intriguing. 

Can coach John Fox make good on his turnaround promise in his third year?

Can rookie Mitch Trubisky usurp Mike Glennon at quarterback?

Can receiver Kevin White stay healthy? Linebacker Leonard Floyd?

Running back Jordan Howard vs. the Lions. (AP)

There’s more, too. All that said, here is the Sun-Times’ annual list of the 10 most important players for a successful season. The Bears report to Bourbonnais on Wednesday.

1. RB Jordan Howard

“Don’t put the cart before the horse.” It’s one of Fox’s favorite sayings. But it’s also a good way to look at what Howard means. He’s the horse; the cart is the offense, if not the team.

As Howard goes, the Bears will go. No player is more important.

Howard, whose style and vision perfectly fit the Bears’ run scheme, will be needed to ease the transition for Glennon or Trubisky. He’ll be needed to ensure that coordinator Vic Fangio’s retooled defense isn’t on the field an inordinate amount of time every week.

“Some people might feel like I might have been just a one-year wonder,” said Howard, whom Fox has tabbed for a more vocal role.  “That’s motivation to keep coming out here and working and improving my game.”

Howard knows what’s expected of him after becoming the NFL’s second-leading rusher as a rookie. His plan is to play around 225 pounds after exceeding it by 10 or more pounds last season. He wants fewer breaks and more snaps.

As impressive as Howard’s vision as a runner looked, that also has improved. He now has 20/20 vision after eye surgery this offseason. His hope is that he becomes a better receiver because of it.

2. OLB Leonard Floyd

A big season for Floyd comes down to staying out of the trainer’s room. He didn’t do that enough despite his success as a rookie.

“If he stays healthy, I feel good about him,” Fangio said.

By all accounts, Floyd has made the most of his offseason, too. It started with being patient with his recovery from a second concussion. Once his symptoms passed, Floyd went to work and added more strength and mass to his frame. His goal is to maintain a weight around 250 pounds.

He will continue to work on the proper tackling technique during training camp. His two concussions last season were a direct result of lowering his head and colliding with defensive lineman Akiem Hicks.

“I have to make sure I play every game,” Floyd said.

3. WR Cam Meredith

What about Kevin White? He’s our “3B.” A good season from White, the 2015 first-round pick, would go a long way in making this a good season for the Bears.

Their hopes for White remain high. They believe in his character. But the Bears also signed Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright and Victor Cruz to help offset any issues White has to work out.

Meredith is the undrafted gem from St. Joseph High School who is on the verge of big things. He, not White, is coming off a breakout season. He, not White, proved he can be a full-fledged route runner. He has the inside track at being the No.  1 receiver.

An old fantasy football tip calls for finding young receivers entering their third seasons after solid second ones. Meredith — who had 66 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns in 2016 — fits that bill, not White.

4. QB Mike Glennon

Glennon’s ability to ward off the start of Trubisky era is the most important story line of the season. Every mistake by Glennon will turn into calls for the rookie Trubisky.

But the Bears believe Glennon can be a starter. And with that belief — not to mention $16 million guaranteed — the team is ready to give him an opportunity to find success but also go through failures.

The Bears will lean on Howard and Fangio’s defense. As for Glennon, think of taller version of Brian Hoyer with a better arm. Ball security and sound decision-making are paramount.

5. C Cody Whitehair

Howard’s best game last season was in Week  8 against the Minnesota Vikings. He ran for 153 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries in a 20-10 victory. The most impressive part of it was that Howard did it with guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton out with injuries. The Vikings were third in total defense last season.

It helped to have Whitehair leading the way. His success as a rookie at center should be a major source of optimism.

Whether it’s changes on the line or at quarterback, Whitehair will be a stabilizing force right in the middle of the offense.

The Bears’ offensive line, if healthy, should be formidable. And Whitehair will be in charge of it.

6. LB Jerrell Freeman

Freeman needs to redeem himself after his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs last season. And the best way to do that is by making up for Danny Trevathan’s absence.

It’s unclear what to expect from Trevathan. He’s still in the middle of an arduous recovery after tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee in Week 12 of last year.

Second-year linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski showed promise and should be a solid partner for Freeman. But the defense will feature several new players. Freeman will have to get everyone in order in every practice and game.

7. TE Adam Shaheen

The Bears have received considerable contributions from draft picks every year under general manager Ryan Pace. With Trubisky biding his time, Shaheen is expected to provide them this season.

Shaheen’s selection in the second round was scoffed at because he played at Division II Ashland (Ohio), but he didn’t look overmatched during the offseason program. In fact, he stood out as a giant target for Glennon and Trubisky.

“Our scouting department did a great job as far as evaluating him,” Fox said. “He has a lot of the tools it takes to play in our league at his position.”

8. OLB Pernell McPhee

In 2015, McPhee was hailed as one of league’s best free-agent acquisitions before a bothersome knee derailed his season. At one point, there were doubts McPhee would ever be the same. But the Bears saw steady improvement in his play and movements after he returned in Week 7.

This year already is different for McPhee, who remains the brash, no-nonsense voice of the defense. He’s not coming back from knee surgery or in the early stages of a weight-loss plan. While he did require surgery for a torn left labrum in the offseason, he participated in the offseason program. 

9. CB Marcus Cooper

The Bears spent millions to retool their secondary, signing Cooper, cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Quintin Demps.

Cooper is a wild card. He played well enough for the Arizona Cardinals last year to be a Pro Bowl alternate. But interest in him in free agency was marginal. The Bears signed him to a three-year deal that could turn out to be a one-year, $6  million contract.

If Cooper is a success, though, the Bears might have struck gold with a young, emerging player. Cooper is 27.

10. QB Mitch Trubisky

There’s a real chance that Trubisky never plays this season. But his development will be closely monitored. In many ways, it’s everything.

It could be argued that Trubisky’s growth means more than what occurs in the actual season. Progress must be made in his transition from North Carolina’s shotgun-centric offense to the NFL.

2016 list

1. QB Jay Cutler
2. ILB Danny Trevathan
3. OLB Pernell McPhee
4. LT Charles Leno Jr.
5. RB Jeremy Langford
6. WR Alshon Jeffery
7. TE Zach Miller
8. ILB Jerrell Freeman
9. S Adrian Amos
10. DT Eddie Goldman

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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