Emma: Bears’ Future Tied To Their First-Round Question Marks

By Chris Emma–

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — NFL types know well to never entirely judge a young player until after three seasons of work.

Development takes constant reps, which start in the offseason, carry to the practice field and — of course — only count in an NFL stadium. No rookie can ever be deemed a bust until afforded the opportunity to improve.

But there are certainly signs of potential early on, with the doses different for each player. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is looking like a Rookie of the Year candidate, though Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is making quite the case, too.

Houston has few problems thus far, with rookie receiver Will Fuller making an impact for the Texans offense. As DeAndre Hopkins gets doubled, Fuller keeps getting open.

Some rookies become instant stars in the NFL. It doesn’t take much to realize they are made for this league. Look at Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who recorded eight picks as a rookie — as many as the Bears had in 2015.

Peters was picked 11 slots after the Bears chose receiver Kevin White out of West Virginia with their No. 7 selection in 2015. There was no telling that Peters, the Defensive Rookie of the Year, would be this good, though scouting beliefs can confirm that potential will become reality. The Bears picked White believing that his potential was worth the selection, even without much evidence that it would be fulfilled.

Wednesday saw the Bears place White on injured reserve for the second straight season, this after suffering a fractured fibula caused by a severe left ankle sprain. He can return after eight weeks, though it’s likely that his second season is over after just four games.

“He was obviously down,” Bears coach John Fox said of White. “It was kind of news. It started out as a high ankle sprain. They looked at it even further and the fibula was fractured and we gotta deal with it. There are a couple different options and we’re looking into that now.”

Through just four games, White is completely unknown. He finally began to play with confidence in Sunday’s win over the Lions, but then suffered the ankle injury. He didn’t play at all in 2015, his rookie season.

The Bears’ future is full of unknowns as their top picks fail to develop. Cornerback Kyle Fuller, the first-round pick of Phil Emery in 2014, had three interceptions in his first three NFL games and has just three since. Fuller is currently with White on IR after an August knee procedure, and only one can be designated for a return this season.

Now three seasons into his NFL career, Fuller has yet to consistently look like a first-round pick. When defensive coordinator Vic Fangio came to Chicago in 2015, he wasn’t convinced with Fuller.

Then there’s Leonard Floyd, the raw pass-rushing talent out of Georgia taken with the No. 9 pick of this past draft. General manager Ryan Pace jumped up two spots to get Floyd. Fangio was allegedly “pounding the table” for the pick.

Fangio’s frustrations with Floyd’s lack of development are clear each day. He used the word “incomplete” again Wednesday.

“He’s a work in progress,” Fangio added.

When asked what Floyd needs to develop as a pass rusher, Fangio simply said, “To be healthy.”

Look through the list of Bears first-round picks of the past decade and you’ll see why this franchise has struggled. Greg Olsen was a terrific selection in 2007, though eventually traded to Carolina because Mike Martz couldn’t find use for the tight end. 2008 first-rounder Chris Williams struggled with injuries and 2011 first-rounder Gabe Carimi just struggled. Shea McClellin was a reach in 2012 when selected as a defensive end and is a reserve linebacker now.

Kyle Long is the outlier, a three-time Pro Bowl player through three seasons. Sadly, his strong play hasn’t mattered much without better personnel around him.

The Bears believed they had game-changing players picked the past three years. None of those three have fostered much optimism.

Fuller has often looked lost in the secondary, getting beaten badly more than any first-round pick should. What makes that pick hurt more is that Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald went just one pick before.

White is now likely to miss the remainder of another season, with just four uninspiring regular-season games under his belt. When White returns from this injury, who knows if that speed will be the same after two serious injuries — and possibly two surgeries — to that lower left leg.

Floyd has left one of his biggest fans frustrated. Fangio believed he and outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt could develop Floyd. Health is one issue — though it’s aches and pains, with nothing severe — but his inconsistency is present when on the field. Fangio hasn’t held back his early disappointment.

Meanwhile, the young Bears are 1-3 and looking to develop players to build some semblance of a future. Cody Whitehair has worked well at center, Jordan Howard has hope at running back, and Deiondre’ Hall may be a mid-round steal. Pace found players in 2015, with defensive lineman Eddie Goldman looking fine his rookie season and Adrian Amos assuming a role at safety.

When Pace assumed the general manager’s office, he had hoped to make the Bears younger and better. They certainly have youth, but it’s not improving just yet. Pace has to hit on his first-round picks, but White and Floyd have been mostly injured and largely inconsistent. Fuller is also hurt and has plenty to prove when he returns.

Much of the Bears’ future relies on these young players reaching their first-round billing. That’s merely the start to becoming a more competitive team. It will take three years of work for Fuller, White and Floyd to be entirely judged.

The early returns aren’t promising.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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