Nobody but the most optimistic of Chicago Bears fans thought this team would be sharing the airspace that the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons have carved out for themselves this season but the Bears also weren’t expected to be found rolling in the NFL mud with the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars. It appeared that the 2016 season was ready to completely unravel before the Bears finally pulled themselves out of their death spiral to manhandle the Minnesota Vikings 20-10 and go into their bye week with a record of 2-6.
Despite the disappointments, there have been a few players who have distinguished themselves. The following have kept Bears fans interested so far in 2016.
Offensive MVP – Jordan Howard
Sit down Alshon.
Howard has made the starting running back position his own after the Bears let Matt Forte walk after last season.
The rookie fifth-round draft pick out of Indiana constantly keeps his legs driving, which is why he gains so many yards after contact. In the seven games he has appeared in, Howard has carried the ball 99 times for 505 yards and one touchdown while also catching 18 of his 24 pass targets for 177 yards and a touchdown.
Howard was awarded his first starting shot in Week 4 against the Lions and took advantage by busting through Detroit’s defense for 111 yards on 23 carries.
Four weeks later, against the Vikings, Howard earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors when he became the first back this season to crack Minnesota’s front seven for over 100 yards rushing. His 153 yards were the most the Vikings had allowed since Week 1 of 2015. Howard also caught all four of the passes Cutler targeted his way for 69 yards. His 202 total yards from scrimmage in that game was the most Minnesota had surrendered since Alshon Jeffery torched them for 249 yards in Week 13 of 2013.
Defensive MVP – Jerrell Freeman
Danny Trevathan received all the attention when the Bears made him their first free agent signing last March, but Freeman has been the hidden prize of the team’s 2016 free agent class after the Indianapolis Colts let him walk.
Freeman is tied for ninth in the NFL with 72 tackles. What’s even more impressive about that number is 31 of those tackles were made in pass coverage. Pro Football Focus currently rates Freeman as the best coverage linebacker in the NFL.
Freeman has played 98.9 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps and has held the middle of the defense together while Trevathan has struggled with injuries. He’s so important to Vic Fangio’s squad that Freeman is also the man with the headset in his helmet to call defensive plays.
Biggest Surprise – Josh Sitton
The surprise isn’t that Sitton has continued to play the guard position at a Pro Bowl level for the Bears, it’s that he was available to be signed at all.
In August, the Packers told him that they were ending talks with him on a contract extension then worried that Sitton could use that to become a clubhouse distraction.
After attempting to trade him, reportedly for a third or fourth round draft pick, and failing, they released him. Within 24 hours the Bears jumped in and signed the 30-year-old guard to a three-year contract before he could arrange visits with any other teams.
The Packers’ loss has been the Bears’ benefit ever since.
Biggest Disappointment – Kevin WhiteThis one is a tough call considering that White only appeared in four games this season before fracturing his left fibula and being put on injured reserve. The trouble is, in those four games he did little to justify why the Bears spent the seventh overall pick in 2015 on him.
It was acknowledged when the Bears brought him in that White needed to learn the basic route tree and his assignments within those routes, but it quickly became obvious that he had learned little last year while on season-ending injured reserve. He was also supposed to possess the speed to stretch defenses and provide more underneath space for other receivers to work in but has yet to flash that ability on the NFL level.
At the time of his injury, it appeared that White’s learning curve was trending up but unless he can stay on the field for an extended length of time, his career will be heading towards first round bust status.
Rookie of the Year – Cody Whitehair
Jordan Howard has already been named the offensive MVP, and it’s not wise to load a running back down with too much hardware (or retype the four paragraphs that you’ve already read at the top of the article). That’s why Whitehair’s work anchoring the middle of the Bears’ offensive line gets the recognition here that it deserves.
When the Bears picked Whitehair in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft it was with the idea that he would man the left guard position opposite right guard Kyle Long. They were so confident that would take place that they released 2015 starting guard Matt Slauson. Then, projected starting center Hroniss Grasu tore the ACL in his right knee and Whitehair was informed that the starting center job was his.
Whitehair struggled in his limited time at center during the preseason but he’s settled in between guards Sitton and Kyle Long and has made noticeable improvement in making accurate snaps and preventing the middle of Cutler’s protection from collapsing back in his face.
Whitehair is reaching a point in his development where Grasu may find himself a man without a position when he returns in 2017.