Injuries have forced Bears’ youngsters into prominent roles
BY ADAM L. JAHNS Staff Reporter October 12, 2013 12:28AM
Chicago Bears cornerback Isaiah Frey (31) and Chicago Bears free safety Chris Conte (47) tackle New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (88) in the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Updated: November 14, 2013 6:34AM
Bears rookie defensive tackle Zach Minter had two Giants linemen — center Jim Cordle and left guard Kevin Boothe — to beat, but his hands got away from him.
And they went straight into Cordle’s face.
“The ref warned me, too, ‘You know, you did it once, but you did it again,’ ” Minter said. “They went back up, and they had to call me for it. That’s just another thing I have to work on, keeping my hands in front of my face and not up in someone else’s.”
It was one learning experience in a game filled with them for some rookies. And there will be many more to come.
“Now I know the speed of it,” Minter said. “Now I know I have to read my keys faster than I do in practice and faster than I did in the preseason. It’s just keys, keys, keys.”
The Bears wanted to get younger, but on their terms. Injuries have led to the debuts of rookies and other young players, such as cornerback Isaiah Frey, and given them opportunities to become major contributors.
It makes for an interesting reality for the Bears: Their young players are gaining invaluable experience, but they’re still a team built to win now.
It will be the learning curves and contributions of the first- and second-year players that will go a long way in determining how 2013 goes for the salary-cap-limited Bears. If there is one prevailing positive, general manager Phil Emery appears to have definitely hit on some picks.
“It’s going to be exciting to see where we’re going from here and how this is all going to work itself out as we move on,” coach Marc Trestman said.
The Bears opened with nine rookies on their 53-man roster. They’ve all made their debuts in the first six games, including Minter, running back Michael Ford and cornerback C.J. Wilson, all undrafted free agents, and defensive end David Bass, who was claimed after being cut by the Raiders.
A youth movement already was in full swing offensively with first-round pick Kyle Long and fifth-rounder Jordan Mills beating out veteran competition to make up the right side of the offensive line. Second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery has blossomed into an impact player.
But it’s on defense where the process was supposed to be gradual. Injuries have changed that.
It all goes back to camp, when nickel back Kelvin Hayden was lost with a torn hamstring. Frey, a sixth-round pick in 2012 who hadn’t played in an NFL regular-season game until this season, replaced him.
Second-round pick Jon Bostic is now the starting middle linebacker with D.J. Williams out with a ruptured pectoral tendon.
“Going in, I’m going to make mistakes,” Bostic said. “But, really, it’s learning from those mistakes.”
Up front, the season-ending ACL injuries of defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins and the nagging toe injury of Stephen Paea have led to an even more youth-filled predicament.
Not only is second-year defensive end Shea McClellin playing more, but Minter, Bass, Christian Tupou and Cornelius Washington — all rookies — are competing for available snaps. Minter and Bass played against the Giants.
The Bears also have been lucky that Landon Cohen, a five-year veteran with only six starts to his name, has played well enough after being signed off the street after Melton was injured to earn compliments from Trestman.
“I thought Cohen did a good job again mixing it up,” Trestman said. “Minter got a few shots and held the point pretty well. Bass got some penetration, got near the quarterback a couple of times.
“So we’re excited about working our [young] guys — the next man up. We’ve got to continue to work at getting better.”
They have no other choice.