Veteran castoffs. Hungry youngsters. Now a slew of injuries. Sorting through the Chicago Bears’ patched-together receiving corps.


It was set up to be a routine moment Saturday morning, a quick screen from Justin Fields to N’Keal Harry on the first play of a live tackling 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 bending and buckling.

Harry was in instant agony. He couldn’t get back to his feet on his own or put even an ounce of weight on his left leg as he was helped back inside Halas Hall.

You can bet Fields’ stomach dropped. As did offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s.

The Bears already were practicing without Byron Pringle, who is dealing with a quadriceps injury that could keep him out for the rest of the preseason. Rookie Velus Jones Jr. also remains out with an undisclosed injury the team is classifying as day to day. And veteran Dante Pettis is out as well.

So much for the Bears’ efforts to solidify a patched-together receiving corps. Instead, Fields, Getsy, coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles are shifting into troubleshooting mode with a position group that already faced major questions when training camp began. Now the injury bug has bitten — just as the week of the first preseason game arrives.

Suddenly the Bears’ challenge to find Fields as many quality playmakers as possible has grown even more difficult. In turn, the second-year quarterback’s development might be impeded.

During practice Sunday, the injury issues left Darnell Mooney and Equanimeous St. Brown as the only obvious first-unit receivers and a cast of others mixing in as needed.

Eberflus has yet to offer updates on the specifics or severity of Harry’s injury. But an educated guess says it’s likely 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 giant window of opportunity to claim a significant role.

Now, as the Bears march toward their Sept. 11 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, their receiver depth chart is even further unsettled.

Coming off an 81-catch, 1,055-yard season, Mooney is the clear 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 reboot can revitalize their careers.

For Eberflus and Poles, it has become a real grab bag. Reach in and see what you might pull out.

  • The Bears have high-profile free-agent signees in Pringle, 28, and St. Brown, 25, each starting over after leaving MVP quarterbacks to chase bigger roles.
  • They have veteran castoffs Pettis, David Moore and Tajae Sharpe looking to jump-start 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 such as 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 might be able to get.

‘They’ve got to make plays’

With so much to sort through, Poles was asked last month what he would zero in on through August as he assembles his Week 1 roster.

“One, they’ve got to make plays,” he said. “Two, they’ve got to know the playbook and be where they’re supposed to be. I’ll lean on (receivers coach) Tyke (Tolbert) and Luke to coach those guys up and we’ll see where the room goes.”

With so many players looking to establish themselves at once, Poles has felt the hunger emanating from the receivers room.

“All of them (have something to prove),” he said. “It’s just at different levels. Maybe it’s to prove they can play or proving they can sustain success over multiple years. Everyone has a chip on their shoulder to prove they are that guy. We’ll see.”

The evidence being put on practice video has been important. Production in preseason games will be critical too. A sprinkle of good luck and good health also would be nice.

In some ways, Harry entered camp as the most intriguing of the newcomers, a physical specimen at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds with an ability to make eye-catching contested receptions and a hunger to prove he still can be a standout in the NFL.

“You read about a guy when you’re in the draft process,” Getsy said at the start of camp, “but then he gets in front of you and you’re like, ‘Whoa! He’s a big, thick dude!’ I mean, he’s an impressive guy (physically). But I’m even more impressed with his mentality and how he came in here. He came in here with a purpose.”

Getsy appreciated Harry’s drive in learning a new system and, more so, his ability to absorb so many new plays and concepts quickly. Still, over three seasons with the New England Patriots, Harry never hit his stride. He played in 33 games, didn’t jell with quarterbacks Tom Brady, Cam Newton or Mac Jones and left with 57 career catches, 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 interrupted his climb. After all, his rookie season was derailed by an ankle injury in training camp, and he later was sidelined by a hip issue. Over time his ability to pick up Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense was questioned, and his limited role reflected as much.

Harry’s inability to create separation consistently was another negative. His size and presumed power never really showed up in games, and his compete level on contested catches rarely looked the way it was supposed to.

Harry declined to offer any self-reflection about why his three seasons with the Patriots fizzled the way they did. Instead, he reminded himself to look through the front windshield and not into the rearview mirror as he tried to earn a role.

“I feel like I’m at a very good place mentally,” he said when camp began. “I put in a lot of work this offseason and I’m ready for it to show. … I want to show how dominant I can be as a player in the NFL.”

Instead, Saturday’s setback likely rerouted Harry’s career yet again.

A golden opportunity

At this stage, the Bears can ill afford to worry about the players who aren’t available when the process of identifying receivers who can help Fields most remains so crucial.

St. Brown, for example, has familiarity with Getsy from their three seasons together with the Green Bay Packers. And that has given him a head start in absorbing the Bears offense.

St. Brown steadily has built trust and timing with Fields thanks to his understanding of the playbook.

“He really doesn’t make mistakes when it comes to running the plays,” Fields said. “He’s definitely always in the right spot.”

Even with only 37 catches and 543 yards in his first four seasons, St. Brown already might be tightening his grip on a significant role.

Pringle still figures to be a major part of the plans as well, assuming he is able to get back on the field before Week 1. The Bears have expressed optimism in his run-after-catch abilities, willingness as a blocker and potential to experience a career breakthrough with a larger role than he ever had with the Chiefs.

“I know what he was behind in Kansas City,” Poles said. “And I know every time his number was called, he was productive, he was dependable and he’s tough.”

Pringle knows the competition for roles within the receiving corps is intense but has vowed not to get caught up in that.

“I don’t care who is ahead of me. I don’t care who is on the side of me. 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 figure to involve Jones heavily in the passing attack — once he’s healthy — and will intensify their examination of the depth chart when the preseason begins Saturday with a home game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

That will be followed by road exhibitions against the Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns, providing ample video for the front office to analyze.

Will St. Brown and Jones dazzle the way they hope to?

Will Pettis or Sharpe, Newsome or Finke have bigger flashes when the lights come on?

Will the Bears reach the end of this month with greater confidence in the receiving corps?

Or will they be scouting the waiver wire during cuts week to find other possible puzzle pieces?

“We’d all love to sit here and say we have everything solidified and that we’re just sharpening all our tools,” Getsy said. “But we’re in the phase of starting something special here. These guys have bought in to 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 believed he had restocked the roster with enough passing-game playmakers to accelerate Fields’ development.

“I don’t think you ever have enough,” he said. “But I’m happy with the guys who are in the building. And we’re going to stay active trying to find playmakers and continue to make this competitive.”

Poles admitted his enthusiasm in looking at his receiver group on paper eventually must be supported by weeks of on-field evidence from training camp practices and preseason games.

“There are a bunch of steps along the way,” he said.

The process continues.



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