By Chris Emma–
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (CBS) — A loud cheer came from the sidelines of Bears training camp late in Wednesday’s work. It’s what receiver Kevin White had been waiting a year to hear.
When White was on the sidelines last season, watching the Bears play his rookie season without him as he recovered from a leg fracture, it was a daunting task to stay positive. White wanted so badly to be on the field and making plays. Finally, he’s back and impressing in practice.
That loud cheer came with a stellar catch by White, in which he separated from two defenders with his pure speed and hauled in a Jay Cutler deep ball.
“I feel really good,” White said. “It’s good to be out with the team. Really, no complaints. I’m trying to grind everything out and get better each and every day.”
The Bears have built an offense around Cutler, which meant drafting White with the No. 7 pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. In his first year as general manager, Ryan Pace believed White could be an impact player for his team, replacing Brandon Marshall opposite of Alshon Jeffery.
So, how productive can White be this season? That’s the question many Bears fans are asking themselves as they watch the young receiver practice.
The 24-year-old White stands at 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, and his top-flight speed aids his potential.
One of the most natural projections for White has been Falcons star Julio Jones, who has become arguably the top receiver in football. White and Jones are both 6-foot-3 and have been clocked with sub-4.4 speed. Jones was selected with the No. 6 pick of the 2011 draft, and White went seventh last spring.
As a rookie, Jones recorded 54 receptions for 959 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. He benefited from lining up opposite Roddy White, like White will with Jeffery.
Jones settled into the NFL well as a rookie, establishing himself early on while playing the role of No. 2 receiver. Last season, he hauled in 136 passes for 1,871 yards and eight touchdowns.
Back in 2012, Jeffery joined the Bears as a projected weapon and had a debut season mired with injuries. Jeffery recorded just 24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, then responded in 2013 with a career-best 89 catches for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns in a full 16-game season.
When the Bears moved Marshall to the Jets last offseason, they did so with the intentions of making Jeffery the new No. 1 target — the jury’s still out on that due to health concerns — and adding White as the No. 2.
The Bears would love to see White make the kind of impact that Amari Cooper did last season. The two will be compared throughout their careers, having gone in the top 10 of the same draft class.
Last season, Cooper posted 72 receptions for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns as one of the top rookies in football. He made an instant impact for the Raiders.
Leading up to the draft, there was speculation as to whether the Bears would be inclined to take Cooper over White if the scenario presented itself. Then the Raiders eliminated that possibility.
White is a vital part of the Bears’ future, projected to be a standout receiver who will be a primary piece to their plans on offense in 2016 and beyond.
While Jeffery ideally draws the No. 1 cornerbacks, White will have a chance to take advantage of matchups. Back in 2013, the Bears’ tandem of Marshall and Jeffery combined for 189 catches. Anything near that level of production between Jeffery and White would be tremendous.
White’s connection with Cutler is growing each day, and the Bears hope that will translate to production on the field. White could be in line for at least 70 catches and more than 100 targets (Jeffery was targeted 148 times in 2013 and 145 in 2014).
The Bears would be thrilled to see White post Cooper numbers in this de facto rookie season. If he were to become a Jeffery or even a Jones, their future would be quite bright.
There have been plenty of cheers early on, perhaps just the first glimpse of those in White’s young Bears career.