By Chris Emma–
(CBS) In the latest lost season of Bears receiver Kevin White’s young NFL career, there was a highlight buried away.
One might even say it’s prevailing hope that the 2015 first-round pick could become what the Bears hope. Because after two surgeries on the same left leg compared to just three games finished in two years, any hope is something to grasp.
In late September, White went airborne and showed his sheer athleticism to snag a football from Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne, reaching his right hand past the defender then deflecting it to himself before securing it to the ground.
White then jumped up from the AT&T Stadium turf and unleashed some pent-up emotion.
“How in the world?” legendary NBC broadcaster Al Michaels said of the nationally televised catch.
Later, in the aftermath of the Bears’ 31-17 loss to the Cowboys, White expressed how his confidence was there. He wouldn’t be playing hesitant anymore. Finally, White was arriving.
One week removed from the reception, White’s season was suddenly over. He suffered a fractured fibula and high-ankle sprain and would require another surgery.
After two years, all we know of White is his potential.
“It’s just unfortunate, but it’s the name of the game,” White said. “Just got to fight back and stay patient and mentally stay tough.”
To his credit, White has never publicly shown frustration with his situation. He’s kept his head up and stayed smiling, as hard as that must be.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace has continuously referenced White’s positive outlook on life and football. He’s been pleased with how the 24-year-old White has weathered adversity, but Pace and the Bears also much recognize their reality.
White was drafted No. 7 overall to be a playmaker on which this team could rely. Pace felt White could replace Brandon Marshall opposite Alshon Jeffery. Two years later, the Bears can’t count on White in planning their future.
Pace swears that the injury is “100 percent recoverable,” and White believes he will return the same player, but who’s to say two surgeries will allow him to run at 4.35 speed again? Can he still soar above to bring down a pass?
The Bears drafted a dynamic athlete who could go up and get the football or race past cornerbacks to make a big play. It’s unclear whether White will truly return from his rehabilitation as the player the Bears sought — no matter what they both say.
“When you come off of a major injury like this, it’s a matter of getting your body aligned,” Pace said. “I think again there’s a gate analysis to make sure your hips and your hamstrings are ready to play at that speed.”
In contrast to their expressing frustrations with 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller, the Bears are invested in White. They certainly aren’t giving up on him. White has potential to be a great player in this league. Comparisons to Julio Jones followed him from the draft, with that great combination of size and speed. He could return in 2017 as just the player the Bears expected they had.
But the Bears must be wary of what they have in White. That starts this offseason with the critical decision on Jeffery, who produced just two touchdowns this past season under the franchise tag. With White still an unknown — plus Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson likely on their way out — Jeffery becomes more essential to the Bears.
Even if Jeffery isn’t what the Bears want, he seems to be what they need. Questions to White’s sustainability put the team in a tough spot in deciding their future.
Disappointment was clear when Pace walked into the Halas Hall media room in early October and shared the news that White would again be placed on injured reserve. It wasn’t the same guy who was thrilled in unveiling his first draft pick as general manager that spring of 2015.
Now, Pace and the Bears must move forward acknowledging that White is nothing more than a mystery. They must be wary of what he can become.
Right now, White is only potential and that one great highlight.