The Chicago Bears are entering the final week of their offseason program with the team’s mandatory minicamp scheduled to be held Tuesday through Thursday at Halas Hall.
The Bears have three open practices on the itinerary, then will break for the rest of June and most of July before reconvening in Lake Forest for training camp.
As minicamp begins, here’s the inside slant on three notable storylines.
1. Dialed in
A year ago at this time, Cole Kmet was an eager pupil, a rookie tight end whose early development was confined mostly to Zoom meetings. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, rookie minicamp, organized team activities and full-team minicamp were wiped off the schedule. Later, training camp was abbreviated by three weeks and all four Bears preseason games were canceled.
In short, the full opportunities for growth weren’t readily available. So it’s no wonder Kmet feels a little more energized this spring and summer as he has had more time on the field to work on his craft.
Kmet said after practice Wednesday that he is using OTAs to develop better cohesion with quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Justin Fields and to gain a better understanding of the offense.
“It’s things as simple as cadence,” Kmet said, “and how they articulate (things) in the huddle with what they’re seeing. The timing of throws and the routes is huge. Those are all things I think have been really beneficial. I’ve already seen, from Day 1 until now, a gradual increase (in comfort). It’s been really good for me.”
Kmet isn’t alone. Receiver Darnell Mooney, also a rookie in 2020, has been squeezing what he can out of OTAs and is looking forward to this week’s full-team minicamp as the offense looks to finish building itself a bridge to training camp.
“It’s just building that chemistry,” Mooney said.
It has been well-documented that most of the Bears’ best defenders have taken a pass on the voluntary portion of the offseason’s on-field work. The defense’s OTA attendance has been poor, especially with Sean Desai in his first season as a coordinator. Furthermore, considering the Bears defense has regressed from elite to just pretty good over the last two seasons, the decision of so many core players to skip OTAs is at the very least worrisome.
The roll call of key defenders missing from last week’s practice that was open to the media included Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Robert Quinn, Jaylon Johnson, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols and Angelo Blackson.
But even with the defense’s overall disinterest in and apparent indifference to OTAs, the offense has been dialed in on making needed improvements. While much of the spotlight has shined on the two new quarterbacks, the entire offense has pushed to work on its chemistry, timing and understanding of Matt Nagy’s playbook.
After the first session of organized team activities, right tackle Germain Ifedi explained why he opted to attend practices that the collective bargaining agreement labels as “voluntary.”
“Our group (up front) is all about camaraderie and working together on our combinations and all our communication together,” Ifedi said. “I knew when we came up here, [the coaches] weren’t going to run us into the ground. We were going to be at a teaching place to start.
“We’ve kind of ramped it up a bit. But we’re still working smart. That’s all we ever wanted — just to work smart and get better.”
Running back David Montgomery spoke passionately about the chip on his shoulder and his desire to become a top running back in the league.
“It’s no longer a chip,” Montgomery said. “It has been a boulder for a while now. It’s not about proving anybody wrong but proving myself right.”
For Montgomery, there’s a 2021 quest to become a more influential and tone-setting leader, something he’s working on during OTAs.
“It’s being able to stand behind what I say and allowing my words to carry a lot of strength when I speak,” Montgomery said. “That’s just (about) gaining trust with everybody and doing all the right things right all the time. You can’t be a half-assed leader. You’ve got to be a full-on leader and let the guys around you know you’re here for the greater good of the team at all times.”
Montgomery doesn’t seem to be alone in those efforts. Dalton has spoken openly about using OTAs to build timing with receivers and trust with all his teammates away from the field.
Center Sam Mustipher is emerging as a reliable leader on the offensive line and emphasizes the rapport and confidence that can build with a group willing to grind together.
After consecutive seasons of finishing in the bottom 10 of the league in total yardage and points scored, the Bears have a long way to go to become the high-powered offense they strive to be. But there are already signs that significant progress could become evident this season.
If the Bears’ can stabilize the left tackle position — paging second-round pick Teven Jenkins — a once-shaky offensive line quickly could become a quiet asset.
If Kmet and Mooney can experience the second-season breakthroughs their coaches are banking on, the Bears should have two more reliable playmakers to feed more often.
If Montgomery continues his ascent in a backfield that also welcomes newcomer Damien Williams and awaits the return of Tarik Cohen, the Bears running game is set up to make needed improvement.
That leaves Nagy and his coaching staff to search for quality depth beyond Allen Robinson and Mooney at receiver. And it ultimately leaves the Bears to bring the best out of their quarterbacks — Dalton in the short term and Fields whenever his time to start begins.
It’s far too early to forecast a major breakthrough from the offense. But there are reasons for legitimate optimism and a sense that this unit can become a top-20 offense before too long. The time investment the offense has been putting in during this phase of the offseason should not go overlooked or become undervalued.
2. ‘Rip your heart out’
Three weeks ago, we punctuated “Storylines” with a post-rookie camp passage on the deep ball prowess of quarterback Justin Fields. At Wednesday’s organized team activities practice, reporters finally had a majestic Fields deep ball to document. It came during seven-on-seven work, a touchdown bomb up the left sideline to Damiere Byrd.
With top-end speed, Byrd separated from rookie defensive back Dionte Ruffin at the end of the play. Fields’ deep dart, which was in the air for approximately 60 yards, dropped right into Byrd’s hands in the end zone and triggered a roar from the rest of the offense on the sideline. Several reporters in attendance immediately marveled at the beauty of the throw.
After practice, coach Matt Nagy smiled widely in recapping that small but still significant sequence from Fields.
“He has that mentality of rip your heart out,” Nagy said.
Nagy struggled for three years to get Mitch Trubisky to consistently play with that attacking and aggressive mindset. But that shouldn’t be a problem for Fields, whose confidence in his deep ball is matched by his arm strength and accuracy down the field. In that one small snapshot, on that one big throw to Byrd, Nagy and his coaching staff were again allowed to dream about an offense with the needed firepower to create more explosive plays and more long touchdowns.
“That ball just took off,” Nagy said. “We talk about air time, when the wide receiver looks like he’s covered to everybody in the stadium but when that ball touches the top of the stadium and starts coming down, the wide receiver separates. That’s what happened on that ball. And (Byrd) made a hell of a catch. Those are the ones we like to teach off of film.”
Fields’ desire to throw it deep and ability to consistently do so successfully will eventually add a crowd-pleasing and eye-catching dimension to a Bears offense that has been all too stagnant and inconsistent for the last two seasons. When Fields entered the draft early out of Ohio State, talent evaluators raved about how his deep ball offered receivers with elite speed frequent opportunities to truly show off that elite speed.
As a speedster himself, Mooney is eager to be on the receiving end of Fields’ deep shots in the months and years ahead. To this point, Mooney has caught less than a handful of Fields bombs. But already he’s revved up.
“The very first one he threw up to me, I was smiling midroute,” Mooney said. “It was just seeing the ball in the air and where it was placed. … It’s a beautiful ball, man. He knows where he wants to put it, and it’s very accurate.”
3. Love fest
It can be argued that one of the most important storylines to the Bears’ future is currently evolving up in Green Bay, where six weeks of Aaron Rodgers drama has given way to a blast of Jordan Love intrigue.
Rodgers’ disgruntlement with Packers management has been public since late April. The three-time MVP chose to skip OTAs and minicamp with many who are tapped into the organization surmising he never will play for the organization again.
(That’s still crazy to fathom, right?)
Last week, as the Packers wrapped up their mandatory minicamp without the reigning league MVP, Love took center stage, delivering a series of attention-grabbing highlights and later meeting with reporters over Zoom for the first time since last summer.
“I have to get myself ready to play and be able to go out there and take charge of the team and be able to perform at a high level,” Love said.
That process is underway. And in a football-obsessed landscape like Green Bay, it seems every snap Love takes is being microanalyzed.
Wow moments? Sure. There were several, according to the observations of those who attended Packers practice Wednesday when Love got hot, hit a series of deep shots and had one assistant coach fanning him off.
Later in the day, Love led a 70-yard touchdown march in a two-minute period, capping things with a red-zone TD pass to Allen Lazard.
“It was fun out there,” Love said.
But it hasn’t been a nonstop fireworks show. Accuracy issues have been apparent. The inevitable inconsistency of a young quarterback has surfaced. The idea that Love is anywhere close to filling the shoes of Rodgers seems outlandish.
Longtime Packers reporter Rob Demovsky attempted to sum it all up on ESPN’s “NFL Live” on Wednesday afternoon. “Watch him one day and he looks like he’s light years away from being ready,” Demovsky said. “Watch him the next and it looks like he might be able to start right now.”
That kind of roller coaster promises to continue. For a while.
Don’t forget, after Love was drafted with the No. 26 pick in 2020, he didn’t have rookie camp or OTAs or a full training camp to accelerate his growth. The entire NFL 2020 preseason schedule was canceled.
The last time Love threw a pass in a game was in Utah State’s 51-41 Frisco Bowl loss to Kent State before Christmas in 2019. Now the Packers have to prepare Love to potentially face the New Orleans Saints at a packed Superdome in Week 1 in September. As their starter.
Love has vowed to have himself ready for that debut if the team’s standoff with Rodgers doesn’t resolve itself. That’s why this latest stretch of spring practices was so crucial.
“This is a time where I’m getting a lot of extremely valuable reps that I might not have been getting in a normal circumstance,” Love told reporters. “So I’m just going to take it day by day. ... I was drafted here to play quarterback, so I’ll definitely be ready Week 1.”
After Wednesday’s success, Love was eager to build on the momentum.
“Good days build confidence,” he said. “Then it’s just stacking good days on top of each other. Obviously, anything you do where you’re performing at a high level, it’ll definitely take your confidence up and let you be more comfortable and play smoother.”
Even with all the melodrama with Rodgers adding to the tension and pressure in Green Bay, Love noted how beneficial it was for him to spend his otherwise unusual rookie season with a front-row seat to Rodgers’ 4,299-yard, 48-touchdown campaign.
“It was awesome,” Love said. “Not a lot of people get to say they were able to sit behind the MVP of the league. Being behind him, I was able to learn a lot, see a lot of different things and just see where his game is at. He’s been in the league a long time. He’s learned a lot of things and seen a lot of different things. So he has a lot of knowledge. Being able to be behind him and try to soak up as much as I could was definitely very valuable.”
The Packers have been on the doorstep of the Super Bowl in each of the last two seasons. With Rodgers back in the huddle, they would be an NFC favorite again. Without him, those Lombardi Trophy hopes would be decimated for next season.
Love will wait patiently to see how everything unfolds. But with it seeming more and more likely that Rodgers is moving on, the second-year quarterback faces substantial pressure to be ready. A high-profile week of minicamp only offered a glimpse into the demands and scrutiny Love might soon face on a weekly basis.