It may not feel like it, but the Bears are already entering their third week of this modified training camp for the hopeful 2020 NFL season.
Today, the Bears start their first day of the gradual ramp-up period, which allows coaches to be on the field, players to wear helmets and individual drills to take place, according to the Chicago Bears website. For the final two days of the ramp-up period (Aug. 15-16), teams can practice full-speed and have “7-on-7, 9-7 and 11-on-11 drills” with no contact.
Things are beginning to speed up, and for Bears veteran linebacker Danny Trevathan, an actual practice couldn’t have come any sooner.
“We haven’t had it, so guys are kind of fiending for it, scratching their neck to go outside,” Trevathan said during his video conference call. “All this walk-through stuff is necessary, but it’s slow. It’s not real football …”
What is real is the Bears are less than five weeks away from their first game of the season against the Lions. Before training camp suddenly ends and the regular season begins, here is the top defensive storyline for each position to watch out for as training camp continues.
Defensive Line — Adjusting without Eddie Goldman
There is no question the Bears’ defense will be missing a key contributor with Goldman opting out of the season. Losing the 6-foot-3, 318-pound nose tackle hurts the overall unit, but the Bears will have to find ways to adapt without him.
“Luckily we got good depth, and Ryan’s [Pace] done a great job building the roster,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said during his video conference call last Thursday.
Nine-year pro John Jenkins is one of those depth pieces that will play as the primary run stopper, and of course a healthy Akiem Hicks will be vital, but it’s Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols who need to step up for Pagano’s defense in order for the group to have success without Goldman.
In 2019, Robertson-Harris finished third on the team with pressures (16) despite only playing 51 percent of the defensive snaps, which was still more than Goldman’s 44 percent. In the offseason, Robertson-Harris signed his one-year contract tender for $3.3 million.
Nichols’ sophomore season was impacted by a broken right hand, but his rookie year provided much to be hopeful for from the former fifth-round draft pick.
Both Robertson-Harris and Nichols should see a significant increase in playing time this season, but it will still take time for members of the defense to get used to each defensive linemen’s playing style.
“Me and Ro [Roquan Smith] just got to adjust our game a little bit,” Trevathan said. “[Get] a feel for those guys. Linebackers have to play off those guys sometimes … I’ve played a little bit with them.”
Over the past two seasons, Goldman has only missed one game, so Robertson-Harrris and Nichols will have to make the most out of their practice reps in training camp to establish the proper chemistry with the rest of the Bears’ front seven to make the group a disruptive force this season.
Inside Linebacker — Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith anticipating big 2020 season
Injuries cut Trevathan’s and Smith’s 2019 season short. But the two are now healthy and ready to have a big third year together as the starting inside linebacker duo.
Trevathan played in just nine games before injuring his elbow against the Lions in Week 10, and the veteran was just starting to play some of his best football prior to the injury.
“I was just getting started …,” Trevathan said. “I’m being serious. I was just touching the tip of the ‘berg.’ I was starting to feel for the defense, get a feel for the inside backer for the defense. Now, I understand football so well. I know how to play the game mentally and beat people mentally as well as physically. So, I feel like I was definitely going to turn it up a couple notches last year.”
For Smith, his 2019 season ended in Week 14 against the Cowboys after he tore his pectoral muscle, but he has come into camp, according to Pagano, in “the best shape of his life.”
“I was definitely thinking coming into the season I wanted this to be my best season to the day,” Smith said during his video conference call. “So, I was just like I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens, regardless of how much work I have to put in …”
Although Trevathan and Smith are at different points in their career, each have some personal goals they want to accomplish.
“I want to be remembered,” Trevathan said. “Legacy lives on forever. You always want to leave behind something that can be remembered of yourself. People talk about you playing for the name on the front of your jersey as well as the name on the back of your jersey. So, I want to leave that out there because this is such a great tradition of linebackers the Bears have. I want to be up there in there. A Super Bowl would definitely put a stamp on that.”
With Trevathan in his ninth season, his opportunity to win that second Super Bowl is slowly closing.
As for Smith, who is just in his third season, the pressure isn’t mounting to win a Lombardi trophy just yet, but the former No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 draft is looking to continue making improvements in all areas of his game.
“I feel like there’s everything because everything can get better as far as run play I feel like that can get better,” Smith said. “I feel like pass coverage I feel like that can get better. I feel like everything in my game can get better because like there’s never a time where you just get complacent …”
Training camp is finally starting to pick up, and the last thing the Bears want is for Trevathan or Smith to get injured because they went all out in practice.
If this tandem can stay healthy throughout the course of the 2020 season, there’s no telling how good they can be.
Outside Linebackers — Finding a reliable backup for Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn
Game planning how to protect the quarterback from Mack and Quinn will be no easy task for offensive coordinators this season. However, when one of starters goes out for a breather and the backup comes in, opposing offenses can use that to their advantage.
The Bears have three outside linebackers who will be competing for the No. 3 spot throughout training camp: Isaiah Irving, Barkevious Mingo and Trevis Gipson.
It really doesn’t matter who ends up winning the job as long as that individual can, at the very least, do what is asked of them in Pagano’s defense.
Irving is now in his fourth season with the Bears and has one sack in 33 games. He hasn’t had many opportunities on defense in the past three years, playing in just 285 total snaps, but Irving hasn’t capitalized when he did fill in for various starters.
Mingo, who the Bears acquired in free agency, is a former first-round draft pick who has failed to live up to his draft status. Now on his sixth team in the last six years, Mingo has a chance to be a contributor on a stout Bears’ defense. In 2019, Mingo only registered 83 defensive snaps, but he did show some versatility, playing 30 snaps at left OLB and 30 on the right side while also playing 21 snaps in the box, according to Pro Football Focus.
Gipson was drafted in the fifth round in the 2020 NFL Draft. At Tulsa, he primarily played as a defensive linemen with his hand in the dirt, but the Bears will utilize the 6-foot-4, 253-pound rookie as a standup outside linebacker in Pagano’s defense.
For this season, the options for the backup outside linebacker position aren’t the most exciting (even though it will be interesting to see how Gipson develops), but whoever plays the most consistent in training camp will get the first opportunity to contribute on the defense when the regular season begins.
Cornerbacks — Competition at No. 2 CB Spot
When Pagano said that second-round draft pick Jaylon Johnson has been “a little bit limited” in training camp so far, this wasn’t the news Bears fans wanted to hear.
Johnson has had three surgeries on his shoulders — one on the left and two on the right — with his most recent surgery coming in March. Johnson’s limitations in training camp, whatever that looks like, does give third-year pro Kevin Toliver and former first-round draft pick Artie Burns more opportunities to leave some lasting impressions on the Bears’ coaching staff.
On top of Johnson having to face two players with NFL experience to win the starting right cornerback position, he also is at a disadvantage because of the COVID-19 pandemic limiting practice time.
“They are starting behind the eight ball so to speak …,” Pagano said. “Fortunately, we are pretty deep at that spot … So the good thing is it’s not like he has to come in and he has to be the No. 2, No. 3 guy right now …”
Given the physical limitations and the practice limitations, it wouldn’t be surprising if Johnson didn’t start to begin the season. However, when Johnson is fully healthy and is acquainted with Pagano’s defense, there is no question he should be the corner opposite of Kyle Fuller.
For now, though, the vacant cornerback position is anyone’s job.
To help establish the winner of the cornerback competition, head coach Matt Nagy has said in Zoom meetings that he is working on a practice schedule that will emphasize competition.
Johnson, Toliver and Burns will get the most out of this limited training camp by consistently facing wide receiver Allen Robinson in one-on-one situations. Whoever does the best job of covering the Bears’ No. 1 wideout should be named the starter.
Safeties — Tashaun Gipson vs. Deon Bush
On April 30, when Gipson signed a one-year deal with the Bears, it seemed it was a forgone conclusion the eight-year veteran would be the starter alongside Eddie Jackson.
That narrative has slightly changed now that training camp has arrived.
“It’s going to be a great competition …,” Pagano said. “When we talked to Tashaun about coming, we laid it all out there, and we talked to Deon, and said OK here’s how it’s going to roll. They’re going to get equal number snaps with the ones, and they’re going to have to come in here and compete day after day after day.
“It’s going to be a little bit different obviously with no preseason, but we’re going to create the competition and create the situations to where we can do an honest eval on those guys and give them both an opportunity to win that job.”
As many people who have listened to The Chicago Audible podcast know, I was comfortable with Bush being the starter prior to Gipson signing with Chicago. In the past two seasons, Bush has only played 277 total defensive snaps and 696 total in his career, so there is still much to be seen from the fifth-year player.
Gipson on the other hand comes in with plenty of experience and production at the safety position. His 23 career interceptions are a testament to that.
It’s also worth mentioning the Bears signed safety Marqui Christian Tuesday afternoon. More than likely, Christian will make his impact on special teams, especially since Jordan Lucas opted out of the season.
Like many other positions on this Bears’ roster, there will be a true competition to see who will be named the starting safety for Week 1 of the season.