The Chicago Bears have had great success with starting defensive backs since drafting Mike Brown, one of the best safeties in team history, in the second round in 2000.
Charles Tillman (2003), Nathan Vasher (2004), Chris Harris (2005), Kyle Fuller (2014), Adrian Amos (2015), Eddie Jackson (2017), and Jaylon Johnson (2020) all stepped in during their first seasons and started successful careers. But you have to go all the way back to 1971 to find a draft that delivered two Week 1 rookie starters in the secondary: cornerback Charlie Ford and free safety Jerry Moore.
That’s the plan this year after freshman general manager Ryan Poles used two second-round picks on defensive backs: Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon and strong safety Jaquan Brisker of Penn State. They’ll be indoctrinated into Coach Matt Eberflus’ defense during this weekend’s rookie mini-camp at Halas Hall, and the basics of the schedule will allow them to make a quick transition as the draft class joins veterans in the offseason program.
Nothing is handed to the draft picks, but the depth map at each position is thin. And while choosing the defensive backs didn’t address the obvious offensive needs on the line and at the wide receiver, the Poles matched the need with value by adding Gordon and Brisker.
Even with one of the best pass rushes in the league in 2021, the Bears struggled massively in the secondary, finishing 27th with 7.6 yards allowed per pass attempt. Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 103.3 against the Bears, the worst rating in the NFL.
Gordon, drafted with 39th pick, and Brisker, selected 48th, visited Halas Hall together for the design for the first time, beginning a relationship that has taken off over the past week.
“It’s been great,” Brisker said. “You know, just talking to him, making sure we have the playbook and stuff like that, just making sure I have that chemistry with my teammate.… Making sure we’re both comfortable and we can play fast on the field, and off the field that we have a good relationship.”
Brisker has an intriguing combination of size — 6-foot-1,199 pounds — reach and decisiveness to match a personality that could help him develop quickly as a leader.
Gordon left training early Friday with cramps, but is expected back on Saturday. In addition to learning the terminology used by the coaching staff, the rookies should leave on Sunday with an understanding of the techniques to use, along with a basic understanding of the game book.
Jackson, the free security and a remnant who should qualify for a runway, described the new defense as “simpler.”
“It’s not too many eyes here, eyes there,” Jackson said. “You just see what’s in front of you and play.”
That doesn’t mean it will be easy for the rookies to adapt, but it’s not as complicated as what the Bears did under previous defensive coordinators Vic Fangio, Chuck Pagano and Sean Desai.
The Bears will have more defined coverages with basic landmarks, fundamental rules that apply, safety lanes and a clear understanding of where aid and leverage are for the cornerbacks. It’s not too complicated and it doesn’t change much with movement or movement through the attack, which is huge for many of today’s teams. The bears can maintain the integrity of their defenses without having to react to movement.
Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams will be using late rotation with the defensive backs — which the Bears didn’t do much when they played Lovie Smith’s version of the Tampa-2 — but not as much as the team has done for years.
The Bears have a new contender to play nickel cornerback after signing former Baltimore Raven Tavon Young to a $1.365 million one-year contract. Young, 28, played well for the Ravens but missed 15 games in 2020 due to injury and was sidelined with injuries throughout the 2017 and 2019 season, so durability is a legitimate question.
“We’re still working on that,” Eberflus said when asked if Young fit the schedule.
It’s also worth wondering which side the cornerbacks will play on. Johnson spent most of the past two years on the right when he didn’t fit a specific wide receiver. He could be shifted to the left as Gordon played on the right on Friday. But that’s all work in progress for Eberflus and Williams.
“Left (cornerback) is where the ball goes that way,” said Eberflus when asked about the strategy for side-selecting his cornerbacks. “But when you do the stats, I don’t know if that’s true because I’ve looked at that several times. We’ll find out all that as we go. That will be a process through OTAs, the mandatory mini-camp and then all the way to the training camp.”
If Gordon and Brisker manage to handle what they’re being coached well and turn a profit, they’ll definitely be in the mix when the decision time comes in late August and early September.
“I watch NFL all the time and I’m constantly someone looking for corrections,” said Gordon, who has not allowed a touchdown reception with the Huskies for the past two seasons. “I look, what can I do to get better? So when I watch NFL games, I’m going to take pieces from the game if they’re doing well — or if they’re doing poorly, I’m not going to. Just learn consistently.”
A weekend introduction to the defense is the first step to something the Bears haven’t seen in more than 50 seasons.