All the public buzz about how good Kevin White looked at practice last week was quickly followed by spattering of buzz-kill designed to manage expectations. But, why? There are plenty of reasons to think White is going to have a big year for the Bears.
The big knock on White is that he’s raw because he played in a spread offense in college. Here’s a news flash: over half the teams in the league — including the Bears — run a high percentage of spread concepts. The Bears had 21% of their passes travel behind the line of scrimmage last year and Jay Cutler threw from the gun nearly 86% of the time. Bill Belichick reshaped his entire offense around what he learned from Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly. Even classic West Coast guys like Mike McCarthy have incorporated spread concepts. It’s a safe bet that most of the people saying White won’t make an early impact also said the same about Marcus Mariota.
This is the league now.
Rookie receivers used to struggle because there was a huge difference in the way the game was played in college and the NFL. That isn’t the case anymore. This isn’t Calvin Johnson playing most of his career in an option offense then having to learn Mike Martz’s scheme.
White admits that he has a lot to learn, but he’s more polished coming out than Demaryius Thomas – who only knew how to run straight in college – was. Thomas now catches over 90 passes for over 1,300 yards every year, even with inferior route-running. For the most part, the routes White ran in college are going to be the routes he’s going to run in the NFL.
The thought that players need to be able to run a “full route tree” is antiquated. 69 percent of the routes Alshon Jeffery ran last year were nine routes, curl routes or slants. You can expect pretty much the same with White, just with more screen passes thrown in there.
What White did best in college was attack on screen passes. When the ball came his way, he got to it and then made people miss. His speed made him a threat to score on any play. He was also tough in the red zone, given his size and ability to catch the ball in the air. Considering the high percentage of screen passes the Bears throw and the difficulties they had in the red zone last year, White seems likely to make a big impact in those two areas alone.
One thing I keep coming back to with White is that he was largely considered to be among the best prospects at his position in the last decade. He happened to be coming out with Amari Cooper, another elite prospect. Cooper and White were almost unanimously considered the best since A.J. Green and Julio Jones. Considering Green, Jones and Cooper all had immediate impacts, there’s little reason to think White won’t.
That’s the biggest thing to remember with White. He isn’t just a first-round pick. He was considered a truly elite prospect. Since 2006, he’s one of three receivers to be picked in the first round (important to note how high they were picked because of guys like Stephen Hill who couldn’t catch) who measured at least six-foot-two, 215 pounds and also ran a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash. The others are Calvin Johnson, Thomas and Jones. Pretty good company.
Take it a step further and you see the receivers who have been picked in the top-10 since 2010 have mostly all been successful. The only exceptions are one guy who was a horrendous reach (Tavon Austin) and one guy who has been kicked out of the league, but was great before then (Justin Blackmon). The others (Green, Jones, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Cooper) averaged around 1,000 yards as rookies and, you could argue, only Jones had anything close to the quarterback play White is going to have.
The thing that has made the biggest impression on me regarding White is the fact that the Bears aren’t saying anything to limit expectations. Typically, with any rookie, you hear talk about them having to learn. With any player coming off injury, there’s talk about easing them back in. With White, the talk has all been about how they can’t wait to “unleash him,” as Ryan Pace said.
What the Bears have in White is a player with immense physical talent and an incredible work ethic. Those guys tend to work out. One thing nearly every beat writer noted was that White was in Cutler’s ear throughout the practice sessions they were able to watch. Even when the team wasn’t practicing, they were inseparable. There’s a good chance that White will learn to run all of the routes he’ll be asked to run and, better yet, run them exactly how Cutler likes them run. Even if he doesn’t, the Bears can scheme one-on-one opportunities for him and no defensive back in the league is going to like being matched up with a player of his size, speed and physicality.
White isn’t a finished product. The best we see from him likely won’t come in his first year, but that’s OK. The Bears are going to put him in position to succeed and he’s going to take advantage of it immediately.