Roquan Smith Among Bears Who Made the Leap Forward

Roquan Smith, Bilal Nichols and four more Bears have done enough in practices open to media viewing to warrant higher expectations
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With Bears practices moving behind the drawn curtain this week, there will be only coaches' testimony and Sunday afternoon to judge how they've progressed.

The two weeks of practices open to the media made for at least an objective, albeit untrained view of where Bears players have reached in development.

Several players took advantage of their opportunities to impress coaches and observers with their performances.

They've made the big strides toward success at a higher level.

Here are the Bears who appear to have made the biggest leap based on what they've shown in practices.

1. Roquan Smith

In virtually every single practice Smith did something to make you stand up and stare.

His pass rush in the run-blocking drill devastated backs. He made no pretense about where he was going and he was running right through them to get there. Smith still hasn't done much in pass coverage but in the screen game he wrecked numerous scrimmage plays by reading it quickly and getting there too fast for the play to even begin to develop.

"As far as run plays, I feel like that can get better," Smith said. "Pass coverage, that can get better. I feel like it's everything my game can get better because there's never a time where you can get complacent and feel like 'I do this at this level,' regardless of how well you're doing something."

After seeing some of the plays he made in practice, this is a frightening thought.

The true test will be when he has to blend in pass coverage during games. It's something the Bears will need him to improve at drastically this season.

2. Bilal Nichols

When Eddie Goldman opted out, Nichols became the new nose tackle and he's approached this task the same way he did playing defensive end as a rookie. Nichols has been physical, occupied blockers and then made plays in the backfield even when he didn't have Akiem Hicks beside him due to a quad injury. Nichols has refused to budge in short yardage and goal line.

"He's naturally starting to really understand it," defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. "Second year in the defense, third year in the league I think there's a natural progression there."

3. Javon Wims

After Wims caught less than 50% of the throws coming his way last year, his chances of making the roster seemed in question.

If the last week is any indication, cutting him wouldn't be a wise idea. Wims has started to use his great 6-foot-4, 220-pound size combined with his athletic ability to make plays. He's displayed this neat spin back move on catches over the middle to allow for yards after the catch. All he needs is opportunity.

"He looks faster, he looks quicker, he looks stronger in and out of his transitions," receivers coach Mike Furrey said. "Obviously we know he's got very good hands."

4. Riley Ridley

Ridley started slowly but there were few reps initially for all the receivers. When Allen Robinson went out with an ankle injury, Ridley lined up at the X position and his fortunes took off. He has deceptive speed and knows how to explode in and out of cuts in routes, and displays a real knowledge of the offense in terms of getting to spots where quarterbacks can find him.

"You know, we got out and try to take advantage of all our reps, whether A-Rob is there or he's not," Ridley said. "But it's big when he’s down to show the coaches and show the quarterbacks what you can do and how locked in you are."

5. Cairo Santos

A former Bear and former Chiefs kicker, Santos walked into Soldier Field Saturday and made every single kick he attempted. No need for excuses about the tricky wind or injuries. He had missed a couple kicks in a practice debut at Halas Hall, but both were in the 50-plus range. With Santos' start, Eddy Pineiro may need to recover quickly from the groin injury or get used to being a practice squad kicker. Santos played only parts of schedules the last last three seasons when he made 80%, 77.8% and 44.4%. He looks like someone who could be far more consistent if he gets the chance.

6. Ryan Nall

Not being one of the Nall fan club members over the last few years while Bears fans were going ga ga over him, it's tough to admit this. But Nall has improved. His running seems marginally better but where he has shown up best is in his versatility. He's now able to go to H-back or play a fullback type of position. Nall can be on the field when David Montgomery or Tarik Cohen are out there and this only complicates things for defenses. The running aspect is tough to judge because he hasn't had enough carries in live conditions yet.

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