Thomas Gibbons reviews the Bears rookie class from the 2016-2017 season by evaluating their rookie campaign and their role going forward.
Leonard Floyd, OLB, first round
Ryan Pace moved up to draft Leonard Floyd. The Bears were sold on the Georgia product and made sure he would be wearing the orange and blue in the fall of 2016. Floyd played at various spots in college but he was at his best off the edge so he was a perfect fit for the 3-4 defense in Chicago.
Early in training camp, Floyd struggled to stay healthy. From sickness to shoulder problems, he was off to a rough start in Chicago. Coming in a bit small in his frame, the Bears got him on a nutrition plan and gained about 20 pounds. As the offseason is now under way, it’s very important Floyd adds more muscle and continues to grow physically.
Floyd appeared in twelve games his rookie year, missing four games mainly due to two concussions. Missing games and practice hurt his development in the beginning of the season. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was asked on how Floyd could improve after a quarter of the season and he simply said, “he needs to be available.” And over the course of the year, Floyd began to miss less and less and showed flashes of what he can be in the NFL.
Floyd’s speed off the edge gave people visions of how great he can be as a pass rusher in the NFL. His athleticism and his use of hands against opposing offensive tackles showed exactly why he was a first round pick in the 2016 draft. In his rookie campaign, Floyd racked up 7.0 sacks which was third among rookies. Floyd’s biggest game against the Packers at Lambeau Field on October 20th. He had 2.0 sacks and recovered his own forced fumble in the endzone for a touchdown. Floyd put together a solid campaign, but you have to wonder what else could have been accomplished if didn’t miss so much time.
Getting stronger this offseason is the undoubtedly the biggest need for Leonard Floyd. If he was not getting around offensive tackles, he was getting manhandled by them. The offseason is also a time to focus on his tackling technique, something that fell threw in the Giants game leading to a very scary scene on the field. Floyd needs to prepare his body like never before to avoid injury next season. Floyd missed 11 full practices, something that hurt his development in a big way. The Bears have a lot of plans for his speed, he now needs to have a successful offseason to be a big part of the defense in year two of his NFL career.
Cody Whitehair, OL, second round
The Bears traded back twice in the second round and so far it turned out to be a great decision. Whitehair was the best lineman on Kansas State a year ago and performed very well at the combine. Whitehair was drafted as a guard, but was moved to center just before the start of the regular season to make room for Josh Sitton. Whitehair settled in well and playing in between two pro bowl guards helps a lot. The Bears have credited him with his dedication to improving and especially his selflessness.
Whitehair played very well all season and showed his strength and dominance. And watching tape all season, Whitehair is a perfect fit for the Bears zone scheme. With a healthy Kyle Long and Josh Sitton next year, the Bears will work to be one of the best interior lines in football.
Looking ahead to next season, Whitehair and Hroniss Grasu should be a healthy competition for the starting center spot for the 2017-2018 season. While I expect Whitehair to keep the spot, the Bears could get creative and move guys around for Whitehair did play guard in college. But even if that does not happen, having depth at the offensive line position is key to success in the NFL.
Jonathan Bullard, DE, third round
The Bears continued to add young players to fit their 3-4 scheme in round three by taking Bullard from Florida in the third round. Bullard got a lot of attention in camp and during the preseason but when it came to the games that counted, he did not stand out. Bullard was benched for the 49ers game and Fangio said “he just do not feel he is ready yet and needs to develop more. Bullard has to learn a different style of play as a defensive end in Chicago then he did in Florida.
The Bears speak highly of how fast he is off the snap, but like every defensive lineman, he needs to work on owning his gap and his hand placement. The offseason is a time for Bullard to work on technique and add more weight. With multiple contracts up, mainly C.J. Wilson and the likely departure of Mitch Unrein, Bullard can move up into a bigger role next season if he puts the work in.
Deon Bush, S, fourth round
Deon Bush brings a very aggressive style of play to the table which he showcased during his time at the University if Miami (FL). His ball skills were not the best, something he even talked about in training camp as something he needs to improve on.
Bush was inactive four of the first five games of the season after dealing with a hamstring injury that shortened his rookie training camp. Bush later started six games at strong safety and was not that much of an upgrade. The Bears sought a change to try and produce turnovers and it failed. There were countless miss coverages and poor technique that got him pulled off the field in games this season. Even though mistakes were made, Bush has great athleticism and the Bears like his work ethic. The Bears staff believe he can be a starter one day and a big offseason will help him get closer to that goal.
Nick Kwiatkoski, inside linebacker, fourth round
A bad hamstring injury kept Kwiatkoski out most of training camp. He found his way on the field on special teams to start the season. He had two forced fumbles vs. the Vikings at Soldier field on October 31st and it was all up from there. Due to Danny Trevathan’s torn patellar tendon and Jerrell Freeman’s suspension, Kwiatkoski started the final six games and averaged 8.2 tackles per game. His instincts and aggressiveness made him standout and he even called the defense while Freeman was on suspension. He provides strong depth at the linebacker position and should have a big role going forward.
While Trevathan recovers from his injury, Kwitkoski is in line to work with the starting group all offseason which will suit him well. And when Trevathan returns, Nick provides a strong backup at the position and should be a huge factor on special teams next season.
Deiondre’ Hall, cornerback, fourth round
Hall suffered a severe ankle injury during practice and it caused him to miss eight games. Hall only played 79 defensive snaps, including the preseason. His NFL career did not start how he wanted it but his ceiling is very high and the Bears believe he can be a great player for them. He has natural ball skills and has long arms which is great for his position. Hall is also always very confident and that is very important when it comes to overcoming an injury like his. He has a big offseason ahead as he has a lot to learn regarding technique and route concepts. He is a great tackler and adding more muscle to his frame will only improve his play at the defensive back position.
Jordan Howard, running back, fifth round
Jordan Howard opened up the season third on the depth chart behind Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey. Am injury Langford early in the season allowed Howard to burst on the scene and did he take advantage of it. Howard not only now holds the Bears rookie rushing record, but he finished second in the NFL with 1,313 rushing yards. Howard exemplified excellent vision and constantly finished his runs with aggression. Howard looked the best in the zone scheme being able to read blocks and find running lanes. The Indiana product was the storyline of the Bears 2016-2017 season.
Howard needs to become an all-around back, mainly in the passing game. He had multiple drops and his routes were average. There is always room for improvement in pass protection as that factors into being an all-around back in the NFL.
Jeremy Langford, if healthy and improves, should find his way to rotate at the running back position. Langford is a threat in the passing game and should fine reps on third and long situations. But if he were to fall off the map or constantly be hurt, Howard could see majority of the workload like his rookie season.
DeAndre Houston- Carson, safety, sixth round
Houston Carson was activated for eight games and played 110 special teams snaps. The team believes he can be a leader on the unit and we should see more of him next season.
Houston-Carson has moved to Chicago full-time and will look to be around Halas Hall as much as the rules allow him too. He has embraced his role on the Bears and wants to be the best he can be. Special teams techniques will be a focus as he looks to make a big jump from year one to year two.
Daniel Braverman, wide receiver, seventh round
Braverman has great hands which got him some cheers at training camp. But that was about it for the rookie from Western Michigan. Braverman was only active three games, only on the field for 17 snaps, and left the season without a catch. Braverman could see time returning punts if he continues to work on his game. From what is going around, he has a great work ethic and that could void well for him next season. As for returning punts, I would say that is his best shot at making the roster come next September.
Ben Braunecker, tight end, undrafted
Braunecker was a standout at Harvard, but he was unable to show off his route running and catching ability for the Bears his rookie season. Braunecker saw 146 offensive snaps and blocked for most of them. He progressed as a blocker and the Bears like how smart he is. Getting stronger will get him more offensive snaps next season.
Cre’von LeBlanc, cornerback, undrafted
The Chicago Bears claimed LeBlanc off waivers from the Patriots during final cuts. The Bears had a few joint practice with the Patriots during training camp which allowed Ryan Pace to find LeBlanc. LeBlanc ended up playing 65 percent of the defensive snaps. Despite a slow start, LeBlanc was dedicated to get better and became a quick learner. He is undersized at the position at 5-foot 9 but his quickness and athleticism allowed him to make plays on the ball. He got a pick six vs the Lions which was the highlight of his rookie season.
LeBlanc deserves a lot of credit for spending training camp with another organization, learning to play the nickel corner then moving to starting cornerback all as a rookie in the NFL. Ryan Pace likes him a lot too, the proof is there after giving up the deep ball to Jordy Nelson and Pace went to talk to him after the game. He has to work on technique but LeBlanc right now I would say has the starting nickelback position almost locked up for the Bears next season.
Ryan Pace and the Bears coaching staff put together a very good rookie class along with a productive free agency period. As they move into year three of the Fox era, the offseason is as important as it ever was before. After going 3-13, a lot of positions and players need to be evaluated and the biggest needs (QB, CB,S) have to be addressed and the 2016 rookie draft class/undrafted free agents was definitely a step in the right direction.