Larry Mayer and Eli Kaberon of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Sunday's season opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
Offense: Receiver Kevin White
Replacing receiver Cameron Meredith, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, will be a group effort. But the Bears especially need White to step up and become the player they envisioned when they selected him with the seventh pick in the 2015 draft. The 6-3, 216-pounder looks to rebound after missing 28 of 32 games over his first two seasons with two leg injuries.
"We need him to have a good year," said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. "He's made progress; saw it in preseason, saw it in camp, saw it in OTAs. I think he still needs more reps and more exposures, but he's trending in the right direction to being the player we think he can be."
White was productive when healthy last year, catching a team-leading 19 passes before suffering a season-ending injury in a Week 4 loss to the Cowboys. The 19 receptions were the most ever by a Bears player in his first four NFL games. Asked about White emerging as the Bears' No. 1 receiver this season, Loggains said: "He's going to have to be because he's the guy with experience and he's talented and he should be in a featured role."
Defense: Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd
After recording seven sacks in 12 games during a promising rookie year, Floyd appears bigger, stronger, faster—and primed to have a breakout season. The ninth pick in the 2016 draft excelled in training camp and the preseason and will look to continue his momentum against quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
"I'm really excited," said general manager Ryan Pace. "It's really just another year of development with the coaches. Coming out of Georgia, a lot of these guys are just speed rushers. Speed, speed, speed. He's always had the unbelievable edge speed and the ability to bend the corner. But now you throw in his inside counter moves and the ability to go speed to power, it makes him difficult to defend. And he's a really good run player too. His strength has improved. His weight has improved. He feels very comfortable to me right now and he's going to be a huge, huge player for us."
Floyd leads what should be an improved Bears defense that performed well in the preseason but still needs to generate more takeaways after mustering an all-time franchise-low 11 last year. A consistent pass rush from Floyd and fellow outside linebackers Willie Young and Pernell McPhee should create opportunities for a revamped secondary to make more plays on the ball.
Offense: Running back Jordan Howard
In Week 1 a year ago, Howard was a healthy scratch for the Chicago offense, failing to earn a single snap in the game against the Texans. Eventually Howard saw his way to the field, then to the starting lineup, and eventually to the runner-up spot in the NFL in rushing yards. Howard's 1,313 yards on the ground were the most ever by a Bears rookie. He also got better as the year progressed, gaining more than 5.0 yards per carry in each of the final four games of the 2016 season.
This year, Howard will not be on the sideline when the Bears kick off the season. Instead, he'll be the key part of the offense, expected to pick up where he left off a year ago. Howard didn't touch the ball much in the preseason, with only 15 carries, as Chicago's coaches looked to limit his wear and tear. Against the Falcons, he may have that many attempts by halftime. Atlanta allowed 4.52 rushing yards per play in the 2016 regular season, among the most in the NFL. Howard's ability to gain yards on early downs will make life easier for Mike Glennon and the entire Chicago offense.
Defense: Safety Quintin Demps
The Bears were last in the NFL in takeaways last season, with only 11. To improve in that category, Chicago went out and made some changes to its defensive lineup in the offseason, making several key additions. One of them was safety Quintin Demps, a 10-year veteran with 18 career interceptions, six of which came a year ago for Houston. Not only is Demps a playmaker, he will help out against a talented Atlanta passing attack.
With reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Matt Ryan under center and All-Pro Julio Jones split out wide, the Falcons can cause havoc to opposing defense. In 2016, they averaged 8.23 yards per pass play, highest in the league. Demps will be one of several Bears whose task on Sunday will be to limit long plays down the field. The Bears allowed 50 pass plays of 20 or more yards a year ago, which ranked right in the middle of the league. The Falcons will be one of the toughest passing attacks Chicago faces all year, so Demps will be relied upon to slow down Ryan, Jones and company by making key plays on the ball.