It seems that with every season, without fail, unknown scrubs that barely cracked the roster in the first place transform into a premier contributor or a former early-round pick finally adjust to the professional game and prove themselves worthy of that high pick.. Naturally, as the sport of football relies heavily on coaching and system to squeeze production out of players rather than inherent talent, stars align and the NFL treats us with stories like Case Keenum, Todd Gurley, and Nelson Agholor.
And despite a few dismal seasons, the Bears have genuinely garnered some dark horse hype after a couple of promising drafts and tenacious offseason, seeing them properly address some stark weaknesses. Though the Bears themselves may not have their breakout season just quite yet, that doesn’t mean any young guns won’t. Laced with youth and budding potential, the Bears have multiple candidates who could take a massive leap this upcoming year.
So in order to get a feel for the players to watch for this season, let’s lay out some breakout candidates for the Bears.
Mitchell Trubisky, Quarterback
This one genuinely goes without saying. The Bears never expected him to have a “take the league by storm” rookie year considering he had only thirteen games in college under his belt. Thrown into a run-heavy offense with next to no weapons, Trubisky had been set up to fail. But even through offensive dysfunctionality, he still set the Bears rookie record for passing yards and passing completions.
And after realizing the glaring void of weapons or general system help, general manager Ryan Pace set out on a mission to surround their franchise quarterback with the finest supporting cast a man could get. They revamped the receiver corps, bringing on the services of former Pro Bowler Allen Robinson as a number one target on top of the speedster Taylor Gabriel and trading up in the draft for the feisty Anthony Miller from Memphis.
They bolstered the offensive line with the selection of Iowa guard James Daniels in the second round and enlisted former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich to revitalize the gameplans. Most importantly, though, the Bears recruited quarterback whisperer Matt Nagy for the head coach spot. After enduring three seasons of an evasive football mind stuck in 1960, the Bears finally embraced the revolution.
After taking the reigns of a mediocre Kansas City offense headlined by Alex Smith, he had improved Smith’s yards per game average from 178.5 yards to 231.4 yards and brought his interception rate from 2.9 percent to 1.4 percent. His next project will obviously be Trubisky, who should flourish under Nagy’s wing. A raw skill set, the former UNC passer will take plenty of polishing to develop properly. But now with the arsenal and coaching around him, no quarterback in the entire league is more set to breakout more than Trubisky.
Adam Shaheen, Tight End
Coming from a small DII school in Ashland, it didn’t come as much of a surprise Shaheen needed to adjust to the NFL game. Couple that with former head coach John Fox’s system relying heavily on blocking tight ends, which was never Shaheen’s forte and a painfully green rookie quarterback under center, it is really hard to fault him for a placid rookie year. Even in such a restrictive offense, he still pulled off three touchdowns on twelve catches and cemented himself as a red zone threat despite all of this holding him back.
But now with a full year under his belt and a radically different, tight end centric system surrounding him, he is a clear breakout candidate for not just the Bears little circle, but for the league as a whole. With Zach Miller’s career tragically over, Shaheen will be depended on plenty more than his rookie year, something he will be able to handle. In college, he displayed awesome athleticism and stellar hands for a six foot five inch, 270-pound tight end, pulling in sixteen touchdowns and 867 receiving yards.
Though this has not entirely translated to the NFL yet, Shaheen had a ton of room to grow. Under Nagy’s tight end adoring system, he very well could be similarly utilized as a Travis Kelce, a player who flourished under Nagy’s lead. Expecting a sizable leap from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, Shaheen will reap the benefits and grow into an exceptional offensive threat.
Leonard Floyd, Pass Rusher
While Floyd’s injury woes aren’t Kevin White scale, he has still been thoroughly whacked by the injury bug. His sophomore season came to an abrupt end after spraining both his MCL and PCL after ten games and had concussions and calf ailments sprinkled throughout his rookie year, limiting him to twelve games. As a result, he has yet to achieve his first-round pedigree. He hasn’t been necessarily unproductive but 11.5 sacks in two seasons haven’t exactly hit the mark for a first-round selection.
He slowly began to hit his stride last season until a freak collision with teammate Kyle Fuller against the Eagles skidded him to a halt. Long and athletic, Floyd has the ideal frame and tools to develop into a fantastic pass rusher. He just hasn’t taken the next step yet. This upcoming season, however, looks to be a different story. After shedding nearly every effective pass rusher in the offseason, Pace has wholeheartedly given Floyd the keys to the pass rush.
With only an unproven Aaron Lynch as the only other true pass rusher, Floyd will be relied on heavily to chase down quarterbacks. Great NFL defenses get to the quarterback and the Bears defense will live or die by Floyd’s next step. Factor in an awaiting fifth-year option decision still up in the air and the former ninth overall simply has to be primed for a massive season.
Jonathan Bullard, Defensive End
Bullard falls in nearly the same category as Floyd. It seemed as if Bullard needed a little bit more time to adjust to the NFL game, understandable with a large defensive lineman learning curve. But now expected to be thrust in a far larger role with Mitch Unrein in Tampa and little else in the pass rush, Bullard could be on the cusp of a breakout year.
He had his moments last season, forcing a fumble and batting down a couple of passes in only three official games started. He even registered a sack against the Eagles. Given a whole year in the spotlight, the former third-rounder could evolve into a reliable presence opposite Akiem Hicks.
A violently disruptive defensive lineman while at Florida, Bullard required a little bit of marinating to become fully accustomed to the professional game. This season will have his growth on full display.
Kevin White, Wide Receiver
While injury after injury has all but sapped any promise White may have had coming out of West Virginia, though it would be unfair to entirely count him in his final chance at an NFL career. While early, White has drawn much praise from Trubisky and even as high as head coach Matt Nagy during OTAs.
“He wants to be coached,” Trubisky said. “He wants me to communicate with him every play — what I see, what he sees. And we’re talking on the field and off the field (about) what he can do to get better.”
“He’s working hard at it,” Nagy spoke about White. “He’s somebody you’ll see after practice stay and get those extra reps….He’s dedicated. He’s committed. He wants to be a really good wide receiver.”
While merely practice compliments, any positivity emanating from the former seventh overall can’t be discounted, especially in comparison to his disheartening career up to this point. Touted as the second best receiver behind Amari Cooper in the 2015 draft, White had every physical trait to be a great receiver. Combining 4.35 speed with six-foot three-inch height, White’s athleticism and wild catch radius earned him comparisons to the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald.
None of that has paid off and there’s no telling if it will. But staring down the barrel of near-guaranteed free agency after the Bears declined his fifth-year option and next to nothing to entice general managers to take a swing on him, it’ll be hard to imagine him simply rolling over. But with more than twice the number of games missed in his career than catches to his name, hopefully, health will not decide his fate yet again.