Seventeen months ago, newly hired Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox underwent a roster restructuring and held the No. 7 pick in the draft to help kick it off. With a team made up of aging veterans that just went 5-11, Pace and Fox had a number of possible directions to choose from, and the first pick would define so much of the vision that would follow.
The Bears took wide receiver Kevin White from West Virginia that day to replace the departed Brandon Marshall, but they did it with a bigger idea in mind. In the 6-foot-3, 215-pound wideout who could blaze a 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds, they saw an element of downfield speed their roster lacked. White would be the first selection of a movement toward bringing speed and athleticism to different parts of the field, even sometimes at the expense of size and strength, such as with 2015 third-round center Hroniss Grasu, 2015 fourth-round running back Jeremy Langford and 2016 first-round outside linebacker Leonard Floyd.
Seventeen months later, the Bears are still waiting, watching, eager for that talent to burst. After White missed his entire rookie season with a stress fracture in his shin, his steady climb to the field is complete. He’s out there and starting, just as he and they envisioned he would back in April 2015.
“I think it would be a good fit, being on the other side of Alshon Jeffery, trying to win the jump balls and be also kind of a speed guy to get the tunnel screens and stuff like that,” White said the day before he learned the Bears were taking him with the No. 7 pick.
Becoming the player they all envisioned is looking like more of a process. White had an up-and-down first full preseason and a mostly down first game against the Houston Texans on Sunday. He caught 3 passes for 34 yards on a team-high 7 targets, with the long of the day a 19-yard post route against incredibly soft zone coverage late in the fourth quarter of a 23-14 loss.
White’s “downs” seem to be the transitional type. He helped cause a Jay Cutler interception on Sunday when he failed to continue his whip route to the sidelines, leaving only a defender waiting there for the pass. He displayed similar struggles to get open and make plays in the preseason, leading Cutler to describe the second-year wideout’s current state as “growing pains.”
This is White’s true rookie season after he lost the last one to injury, and all along he’s been trying to shift away from the simple, quick-hit spread offense he ran against soft coverages in the Big 12. The Bears activated White for practices late last season and kept him in the locker room and around the team throughout, treating the year as a redshirt type to keep him engaged and learning the playbook. Studying lines on a sheet and actually getting the route options and techniques down in the split second of game action are obviously different tasks.
Some rookie wide receivers break out with major impact immediately, such as Amari Cooper and Stefon Diggs did last year for the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings, respectively, and as Odell Beckham Jr. did for the New York Giants the year before. Their pro-style offenses in college made the transition smoother.
Receivers from spread offenses tend to have mixed results. Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans collected 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie in 2014 and actually struggled more in his second year last season. Dallas’ Dez Bryant essentially had a year off between Oklahoma State and the NFL and had a slow rookie season in 2010, with his 561 yards and 12.5 yards per catch only fractions of his future Pro Bowl-worthy output.
White offers a case that’s happening around the league right now but doesn’t have many past studies to follow. He’s coming off a redshirt year that he spent with the team that drafted him in the first round. Fellow 2015 first-round receivers like Miami’s DeVante Parker and Baltimore’s Breshad Perriman are in the same spot, although their progress is currently being stunted by injury issues. White has been limited recently with a hamstring injury, but it didn’t keep him from playing the most snaps of any Bears skill player in Week 1.
His struggles with the transition are taking place on the field in crucial moments for everyone to see. The Bears want to be patient with him, understanding it’s his first year on the field, but the makeup of their offense might make it difficult. Last year’s Bears offense survived the onslaught of receiver injuries by leaning on its running backs and tight ends. Both of those groups diminished severely in the offseason, with Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett traded to the New England Patriots and Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte signing with the New York Jets. The replacements for them were minimal — the Bears drafted Indiana running back Jordan Howard in the fifth round to bring a power element — and the starters now replacing them might not be as ready for feature roles as the Bears were hoping.
The gap has to be made up somewhere, and that’s where the receivers come in. Jeffery, White and slot receiver Eddie Royal are healthy and playing together in ways they never were last year. On Sunday, Jeffery and Royal flashed the abilities they’ve long had, combining for 8 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. But neither one is going to win by burning a cornerback deep, stretching safeties out of the box and creating underneath space, the kind of diversification that makes for a great offense and elevates running backs and tight ends who aren’t overpowering in their own rights.
White was supposed to be that player. The Bears need him to be that player soon, as Jeffery plays out a franchise tag year before likely hitting the free-agent market. Through one redshirt season, one preseason and one start, White is still a work in progress, and just how fast he progresses might dictate whether the Bears can be a playoff contender or the limited group they appeared to be in Sunday’s loss.