LAKE FOREST, IL — In head coach Matt Nagy’s initial days working with Chicago Bears players, reorganizing pains occurred much as they do with any project in its infancy.
One of them hit running back Jordan Howard a little harder.
Known more for his straight-ahead power style, Howard showed at Tuesday’s first day of minicamp that he could maneuver – although he was dodging questions and not tacklers.
At one point in the offseason, social media made it seem a rift was developing between the team and Howard. Deemed a back who might not fit the style of offense Nagy ran at Kansas City because of problems catching passes, Howard was rumored to be on the trading block.
When an Instagram account of Howard’s had all the Bears photos pulled from it, the uproar built.
Now the photos are back.
“Wasn’t nothing to it,” Howard said. “Just a story people made up.”
Howard was evasive when asked if he removed the photos and put them back later.
“I don’t know. Did I?” he rhetorically asked the media.
More important, Howard seemed set to go forth as he, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and receivers learned the basics of an attack that was explosive in Kansas City.
“They told my agent they had no plans to trade me or anything like that,” Howard said. “So that’s comforting.”
Howard admittedly displayed problems hanging onto passes in the old offense under former head coach John Fox and coordinator Dowell Loggains.
“Yeah, I have had struggles receiving, but anytime people doubt me, they just push me to do better and improve,” Howard said. “That is definitely one thing I want to improve on.”
Nagy said if receiving is not part of Howard’s strengths, it can be improved.
“Anything that he does that’s a weakness, we’re going to try to focus on that and try to get it better,” Nagy said. “So just because he struggles in one area, whatever that is that we all have, we’re going to get him better.
“So to sit here and say he doesn’t fit this offense, I don’t think is very fair.”
Nagy called Howard as close to a feature back as the Bears are going to have this season.
“We’re very strong at that position,” Nagy said. “To have [Tarik] Cohen there, as well, you’re seeing all these teams that are out there right now — they’re going with multiple backs.
“So to sit here and say a feature back? Yeah, he’s going to be the guy that lines up and gets the ball. But at the same time, we’re crazy if we use one back. That’s not gonna happen. We’re gonna use multiple backs.”
In the first practice, Howard hauled in four passes during non-contact scrimmages or seven-on-seven, and dropped none.
A Chiefs player under Nagy helped sell Howard on the attack and settled him down.
“Yeah, I definitely looked at what Kansas City does,” Howard said. “I talked to [running back] Kareem Hunt a little bit during the Super Bowl week and he was telling me about the offense and I am pretty excited about it.
“He just said that we’re going to have fun. Coach Nagy is not scared to do anything and he said we’re going to have fun with it.”
Howard made clear the direction he’s going, and it’s with the program.
“Yeah, like, any time you have a change you can either go about it one or two ways,” Howard said. “You can either resist it. If you resist it, a lot of people are probably not going to be here. Or you can embrace it.
“So a lot of us we’re embracing it. We’re excited for the change because it’s something new and you get excited about new things. So I’m very excited about it.”
It would be difficult not to be excited, Howard said, largely due to Nagy’s enthusiasm.
“He’s a fiery guy,” Howard said. “He’s hungry. He’s ready to win now. We’re not in like a rebuild mode. He wants to win now.”
Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky surprised Nagy with his grasp of the offense after his first time running it in practice and some limited time studying it.
“I pulled him aside and just told him really how amazed I was at how he got through this first day. He was impressive,” Nagy said. “I don’t want to put too much on him but at the same time he needs to understand that was pretty good with what just happened.
“Not just Mitch, but the rest of the offense because we’ve never been together. So we weren’t sure how it was going to be just getting in the huddle, walking up to the line of scrimmage and saying ready, set, go. And the guys all around — the centers, the linemen, the running backs lining up — very few mistakes.”
Trubisky was not to be made available to the media until the end of the three-day minicamp.
Unlike several players coming off surgeries, wide receiver Kevin White is apparently close to 100 percent and is taking part in practices virtually without limitation.
The team’s 2015 first-round pick, White has played in only five games because of three season-ending injuries including a shoulder blade broken in last year’s opener. Nagy thinks building confidence is White’s primary goal.
“Right now I thought [he] looked sharp,” Nagy said of White. “He played fast. He showed strong hands. He’s a big, physical guy.
“Confidence, right? I said it earlier, how do you get out of this [minicamp] thing with confidence? He did a good job.”
The decision not to match New Orleans’ offer for restricted free-agent receiver Cameron Meredith was made in part because of a knee issue. Meredith is coming off both a torn ACL and a torn MCL suffered last year in preseason.
“His biggest question mark is of his injury with his knee,” Nagy said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. You’ve got to see where you’re at with that. And then you’ve got to go into the [offensive] fit and where he’s at and different things.
“That, again, I’m not going to get into the details of, but I will say this: The way we left our meeting with him, both sides understood where we were going. And I wish nothing but the best for him.”
Defensive lineman Rashaad Coward has switched positions to guard on offense. The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder got into one game last year for the Bears.
“Some of our coaches on both sides [wondered] does he have any ability to play offense,” Nagy said. “Where he was at on the depth chart on defense, we said, ‘You know what? Let’s take a look at seeing what he can do on offense.’ What better time than right now to get him with [offensive line] coach Harry [Hiestand] at the start here of really Phase 1, Phase 2, OTAs and see what he can do.”
Losing right defensive end Mitch Unrein in free agency created a hole the Bears have filled by turning to third-year lineman Jonathan Bullard.
During Bullard’s first season, progress was slow. But he seemed to make strides with more playing time last year.
“There’s no question in my mind that he has the talent,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “One thing that he’s picked up as of late and last year, as well, is just his work ethic. I think that he now knows what it means to be in the NFL.
“You can be here today and gone tomorrow. So you’ve got to be able to put your best foot forward at any moment and I think that he’s ready to take on that position.”
Hicks sees continuity as a huge plus for a defense with lofty goals. Keeping coordinator Vic Fangio was key, he said, even if the team has let go of pass rushers Pernell McPhee and Willie Young.
“I would say I think our defense has a good foundation and just keep building on that and getting better,” Hicks said.
The goal after finishing 10th on defense last year?
“Top 10 last year, looking for top five,” Hicks said.
Guard Kyle Long is sitting out practices while recovering from shoulder, ankle and neck injuries. He was replaced in the starting lineup at right guard by newly-acquired lineman Earl Watford. Eric Kush played left guard and Cody Whitehair was the center. Kush missed all of last year with a torn hamstring.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson is among the players sitting out at minicamp. The free-agent acquisition is not expected to begin practicing until later in the spring or possibly even training camp due to the ACL injury he had at Jacksonville early last season.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan missed the start of the voluntary minicamp for personal reasons. He was replaced by John Timu in the starting lineup, alongside Nick Kwiatkoski on the inside.
Linebacker Leonard Floyd is sitting out minicamp while rehabbing from a dislocated knee suffered last season. The first-team defense lined up in minicamp with Sam Acho and newly-acquired linebacker Aaron Lynch at the starting outside linebacker spots.