It was set to be a routine moment on Saturday morning, a quick screen from Justin Fields to N’Keal Harry on the first play of a live tackle period at Chicago Bears training camp.
But after Harry caught Fields’ pass and headed upfield, linebacker Nicholas Morrow hit the receiver low, with Harry’s left leg bent and sprained.
Harry was in instant agony. He was unable to get back on his feet or put an ounce of weight on his left leg as he was helped back to Halas Hall.
You can bet Fields’s stomach fell out. So is offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
The Bears were already practicing without Byron Pringle, who is dealing with a quad injury that could sideline him for the rest of the preseason. Rookie Velus Jones Jr. also remains sidelined with an undisclosed injury that the team classifies as day-to-day. And veteran Dante Pettis is also out.
So much for the Bears’ efforts to solidify a patched-up receiving corps. Instead, Fields, Getsy, coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles are shifting into problem-solving mode with a position group that was already facing big questions when training camp began. Now he’s caught the injury bug, just as the week of the first preseason game arrives.
Suddenly, the Bears’ challenge of finding Fields with as many quality playmakers as possible has become even more difficult. In turn, the second-year quarterback’s development could be hampered.
During practice Sunday, injury issues left Darnell Mooney and Equanimeous St. Brown as the only obvious first-unit receivers and a cast of others were mixed in as needed.
Eberflus has yet to offer any updates on the details or severity of Harry’s injury. But an educated guess says it’s likely to be significant, derailing the 24-year-old’s efforts to revive his career with a fresh start in Chicago.
That would be a bummer for the 2019 first-round pick who believed the Bears would be a good fit while also recognizing a huge window of opportunity to claim a major role.
Now, as the Bears head into their Sept. 11 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, their receiving depth chart is even more shaky.
After an 81-catch, 1,055-yard season, Mooney is clearly the No. 1, the most proven and productive receiver at Halas Hall. But behind him is a mix of young players trying to break through and veterans hoping a restart can reinvigorate their careers.
For Eberflus and Poles, it has become a real bag of surprises. Come closer and see what you could get.
- The Bears have high-profile free-agent signings in Pringle, 28, and St. Brown, 25, each starting fresh after leaving MVP quarterbacks to pursue bigger roles.
- They have cast-off veterans Pettis, David Moore and Tajae Sharpe looking to boost their careers in a newly implemented system.
- They have a third-round draft pick in Jones, who has the versatility to fill many roles and the speed to turn heads.
- And they have young, hungry players like 2021 sixth-round pick Dazz Newsome, undrafted rookie Kevin Shaa, third-year journeyman Chris Finke and veteran Isaiah Coulter fighting for whatever piece of the pie they can get.
With so much to figure out, Poles was asked last month what he would focus on through August as he puts together his Week 1 roster.
“One, they have to make plays,” he said. “Two, they have to know the playbook and be where they’re supposed to be. I’m going to lean on (receiver coach) Tyke (Tolbert) and Luke to coach those guys and we’ll see where the room goes.”
With so many players looking to establish themselves at once, the Poles have felt the hunger emanating from the receiving room.
“All of them (have something to prove),” he said. “It’s just on different levels. Maybe it’s to show that they can play or show that they can sustain success for several years. They all have a chip on their shoulder to show that they are that guy. We’ll see.”
The evidence that is being put into the practice video has been important. Production in preseason games will also be critical. A dash of good luck and good health would also be nice.
Somehow, Harry entered camp as the most intriguing of the newcomers, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound physical specimen with the ability to make flashy contested catches and hungry to prove he can still excel in the competition. NFL.
“You read about a guy when you’re in the selection process,” Getsy said at the start of camp, “but then he gets in front of you and you’re like, ‘Wow! He is a big thick guy! I mean, he’s an impressive guy (physically). But I’m even more impressed with his mentality and how he got here. He came here for a purpose.”
Getsy appreciated Harry’s drive to learn a new system and, even more so, his ability to quickly absorb so many new moves and concepts. Still, during three seasons with the New England Patriots, Harry never quite caught up with him. He played in 33 games, didn’t mix with quarterbacks Tom Brady, Cam Newton or Mac Jones and walked away with 57 career receptions, 598 yards and four touchdowns.
In some league circles, the idea of Harry emerging as a standout in Chicago was far-fetched even before this weekend’s injury cut short his rise. After all, his rookie season was derailed by an ankle injury in training camp, and he was later sidelined with a hip problem. Over time, he questioned his ability to pick up Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense, and his limited role reflected that much.
Harry’s inability to consistently create separation was another negative. His presumed size and power never really showed up in the games, and his competitive level in contested sacks rarely looked like it was supposed to.
Harry declined to offer any self-reflection on why his three seasons with the Patriots flopped the way they did. Instead, he reminded himself to look through the front windshield and not the rearview mirror as he tried to land a part.
“I feel like I’m in a really good place mentally,” he said as camp began. “I put in a lot of work this offseason and I’m ready to show it. … I want to show how dominant I can be as a player in the NFL.”
Instead, Saturday’s mishap probably threw Harry’s career off course once again.
At this stage, the Bears don’t have the luxury of worrying about unavailable players when the process of identifying receivers who can help Fields the most remains so crucial.
St. Brown, for example, is familiar with Getsy from his three seasons with the Green Bay Packers. And that has given him an edge in absorbing the Bears’ offense.
St. Brown has been building trust and time with Fields thanks to his understanding of the playbook.
“He doesn’t really make any mistakes when it comes to executing plays,” Fields said. “It’s definitely always in the right place.”
Even with just 37 receptions and 543 yards in his first four seasons, St. Brown might already be tightening his grip on a big role.
Pringle also appears to be a big part of the plans, assuming he can get back on the field before Week 1. The Bears have expressed optimism in his running skills after the catch, disposition as a blocker and potential to experiment. a career breakthrough for him with a bigger role than he ever had with the Chiefs.
“I know what was behind it in Kansas City,” Poles said. “And I know that every time his number was called, he was productive, reliable and tough.”
Pringle knows the competition for receiving corps spots is intense, but he’s vowed not to get caught up in it.
“I don’t care who’s in front of me. I don’t care who’s by my side. I don’t care who’s behind me,” Pringle said. “I only worry about myself because if I worry about them, that will make me lose focus on the task at hand.”
The Bears also plan to heavily involve Jones in the passing game once he’s healthy and will step up their depth chart examination when spring training begins Saturday with a home game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
That will be followed by road showings against the Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns, providing ample video for the front office to dissect.
St. Brown and Jones will dazzle the way you expect?
Will Pettis or Sharpe, Newsome or Finke have bigger flashes when the lights go up?
Will the Bears arrive later this month with more confidence in the receiving corps?
Or will they be exploring the waiver cord during clipping week to find other possible pieces of the puzzle?
“We’d all love to sit here and say we’ve got everything solidified and we’re just sharpening all our tools,” Getsy said. “But we are in the phase of starting something special here. These guys have bought the right mindset. And the competition brings out the best in all those guys.”
On the opening day of camp, Poles was asked if he thought he had replenished the roster with enough passing playmakers to hasten Fields’ development.
“I don’t think you ever have enough,” he said. “But I’m happy with the guys that are in the building. And we’ll stay active trying to find playmakers and continue to make this competitive.”
The Poles admitted their eagerness to watch their receiving corps on paper eventually has to be backed up by weeks of on-field evidence from training camp practices and preseason games.
“There are a lot of steps along the way,” he said.
The process continues.