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Kevin White hopes to stay on field for what could be last stand with Bears

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The career of Kevin White hasn't gone as anyone planned since the Chicago Bears selected the wide receiver with the seventh pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

Here is really all anyone needs to know: White has only 21 career receptions because he has missed 43 of 48 games.

Beset by injuries even before his rookie season, 2018 could be White's last chance in Chicago. Because of his inability to stay on the field, the Bears predictably declined White’s fifth-year option -- worth $13.9 million -- in early May, but White’s base salary ($2,693,597) for the upcoming season is fully guaranteed.

“I’m motivated every single day, with or without the option,” White said.

Here's the strange part: At least through offseason work to date, there seems to be some cautious optimism from new coach Matt Nagy and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky that White can redeem himself.

“He’s committed,” Nagy said. “He’s dedicated. He wants to be a really good wide receiver. When you have somebody that has that want, we as coaches need to give him every opportunity to succeed.”

White’s lone offseason session with reporters was brief and devoid of much real insight. He appeared as tired of questions about his injury history as everyone who follows the Bears.

He called the new offense "exciting" with "explosive routes." He said he could build coaches' confidence in him by "being available."

When asked what he has learned after dealing with so much adversity in a relatively short period, White responded that he’s “built Ford tough.”

Advertising slogans aside, White has had a rough go of it in Chicago. As a rookie, he developed an offseason stress fracture in his left shin that the Bears initially attempted to let heal on its own. When White continued to feel discomfort during training camp, however, the club opted to shut down their first-round pick for the season. Doctors inserted a steel rod into White’s tibia to stabilize the injury.

White was healthy to begin the following season, but he landed on injured reserve in Week 5 due to a high ankle sprain that resulted in a fractured fibula in the same leg.

White, 25, then suffered a fractured scapula in last year’s season opener.

Upon accepting the Bears' head-coaching job, Nagy made no public promises to White in terms of playing time. But as Chicago’s offseason program has progressed, it’s clear the Bears are giving White every opportunity to carve out a sizable role on offense.

Whether White stays healthy long enough for Nagy’s plan to come to fruition is another matter entirely.

Experience matters

White’s injury problems are twofold.

The first obstacle White must overcome is the lack of quality reps he has received at the NFL level.

“When you’re missing games and not getting game reps, you’re also missing practice reps, you’re not competing, and when you don’t compete over long periods of time, your development starts to plateau,” ESPN NFL Insider Matt Bowen said. “He hasn’t even had the opportunity to come close to reaching that perceived ceiling.

“Rookie wide receivers struggle all the time in the NFL. They do, because they get beat, they get handled, and they get locked down. But if I’m a young receiver, I need that to happen so I can learn from it and use the experience to allow me to get better. But White just hasn’t had as many experiences where he can go back and look at tapes from his first or second season. There’s not enough tape there, really. It’s almost like he continues to start over every year. That’s really hard to do mentally. And it’s hard to do physically.”

The Bears’ next order of business is determining whether White still possesses the freakish physical skills that made him a top-10 pick.

White ran a blistering 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in 2015. White’s outrageous test scores, coupled with the 109 balls he caught for West Virginia the previous fall, convinced Bears general manager Ryan Pace that the 6-foot-3 wideout was too talented to pass up with the seventh overall selection.

But what toll have three surgeries in three years taken on White’s body?

“I don’t know," White said. "Watch the film, I guess.”

At least for White’s sake, last year’s season-ending injury wasn’t to a leg.

“I don’t have to learn how to run, walk and jump again,” White said last week at OTAs. “It’s a lot easier to come back.”

'We're all starting from the same point'

White arrived in the NFL with limited route-running knowledge based on the offense he ran in college.

“At West Virginia, they had a limited route tree,” Bowen said. “Don’t get me wrong, it was an ideal route tree for that system, but limited in terms of transitioning to the NFL. You see slant routes, shallow routes, bubble screens, tunnel screens and fade routes at West Virginia. That’s more of a spread look. The thinking is, 'Let’s get our best athlete the football in his hands and let him play.'”

Again, White’s inability to stay on the field stunted his growth as a route runner under the old John Fox regime. It’s impossible to become a better route runner without the benefit of game experience or practice reps.

“Availability is so important in this league,” Bowen said. “To get better you have to play. You have to get beat up a little bit as a young player in this league. You have to get knocked down as a wide receiver and go up against the likes of Patrick Peterson and Jalen Ramsey and learn how to win those matchups.

“You have to learn how to make contested catches, learn how to adjust your body with a pro quarterback, win on double moves and catch the 50-50 balls.”

The good news, for White, is that Nagy brought a different route tree with him from Kansas City.

In essence, White and the rest of Chicago's receivers -- minus tight end Trey Burton, who played in a similar scheme in Philadelphia -- began the offseason on equal footing.

“Reps are the key to everything,” Trubisky said. “With this new offense, we all started from the same point, moving on, so Kevin has done really well in this offense. The more reps he can get, the better, and it’s definitely nice to see. We’ve got to keep improving that chemistry and groove this offense.”

While NFL offseason programs are noncontact affairs, White appears to have performed well in voluntary workouts. With No. 1 wide receiver Allen Robinson slowly working back from a torn ACL, White spent much of OTAs lining up outside and catching passes from Trubisky.

“Kevin has worked hard at [his route running],” Nagy said. “He’s somebody that you’ll see stay after practice and take those extra reps if it’s a route he didn’t have the correct footwork on. Maybe he was two steps off on a seven-step route and he took five steps, so he’s going to go back out there and run the route with seven steps the right way ... or maybe he dropped the football.”

‘Built Ford tough’

Another serious injury to White -- whether in the preseason or regular season -- would derail any hope of a comeback. But since it’s impossible to forecast injuries, the Bears have taken a wait-and-see approach with him.

“I come out here every day and work,” White said. “Whatever happens, happens.”

On the field, White looks as enthusiastic as ever. There is definitely a new vibe on offense at Halas Hall, and White has been among the skill-position players to stand out against the Bears’ seasoned defense in 7-on-7 and full-team 11-on-11 drills.

“Kevin, he’s coming out really hungry, which is great to see -- lot of passion. He looks great out there, and he’s just coming in every day with an open mind ready to work,” Trubisky said. “He wants to be coached, he wants me to just communicate with him every play, what I see, what he sees, and we’re talking on the field, off the field, what he can do to get better.”