The Chicago Bears have had a lot of success with rookie 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 began successful careers. But you have to go all the way back to 1971 to find a draft that produced two Week 1 rookie starters in the secondary: cornerback Charlie Ford and free safety Jerry Moore.
That’s the plan this year after first-year general manager Ryan Poles used two second-round picks on defensive backs: cornerback Kyler Gordon of Washington and strong safety Jaquan Brisker of Penn State. They’re getting indoctrinated in coach Matt Eberflus’ defense during rookie minicamp this weekend at Halas Hall, and the basics of the scheme will allow them to make a quick transition when the draft class joins veterans in the offseason program.
Nothing will be handed to the draft picks, but the depth chart at each position is thin. And while choosing the defensive backs didn’t address clear offensive needs on the line and at wide receiver, Poles did match need with value in adding Gordon and Brisker.
Even with one of the best pass rushes in the league in 2021, the Bears struggled mightily in the secondary, ranking 27th with 7.6 yards allowed per pass attempt. Quarterbacks had a 103.3 passer rating versus the Bears, the worst figure in the NFL.
Gordon, drafted with the 39th pick, and Brisker, selected 48th, visited Halas Hall for the first time together before the draft, beginning a relationship that has taken off over the last week.
“It’s been great,” Brisker said. “You know, just talking to him, making sure that we’ve got the playbook down and things like that, just making sure I have that chemistry with my teammate. … Making sure that we’re both comfortable and that we can play fast out there on the field. And then also off the field that we have a good relationship.”
Brisker has an intriguing combination of size — 6-foot-1, 199 pounds — range and hitting ability to go with a personality that could help him develop quickly as a leader.
Gordon left practice early Friday with cramps but is expected back Saturday. Besides learning the terminology the coaching staff uses, the rookies need to leave Sunday with an understanding of the techniques they’ll be asked to use along with a basic understanding of the playbook.
Jackson, the free safety and a holdover who should be in line for a starting job, described the new defense as “simpler.”
“It’s not too much 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 adjust, 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 base landmarks, fundamental rules that apply, alley fits for the safeties and a clear understanding where help and leverage are for the cornerbacks. It’s not overly complex and it doesn’t change a lot with motion or movement by the offense, which is huge for a lot of today’s teams. The Bears can maintain the integrity of their defense without having to react to movement.
Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams will use late rotation with the defensive backs — which the Bears didn’t do a lot of when they played Lovie Smith’s version of the Tampa-2 — but not as much as the team did the past several years.
The Bears have a new candidate to play nickel cornerback after signing former Baltimore Raven Tavon Young to a one-year, $1.365 million contract. Young, 28, played well for the Ravens but missed 15 games in 2020 because of an injury and was sidelined for the entire 2017 and 2019 seasons with injuries, so durability is a legitimate question.
“We’re still working through that,” Eberflus said when asked about Young’s fit in the scheme.
It’s also worth wondering which side the cornerbacks will play on. Johnson spent the majority of the last two years on the right side when he wasn’t matching a specific wide receiver. He could be shifted to the left side as Gordon was playing the right side Friday. But all of that is a work in progress for Eberflus and Williams.
“Left (cornerback) is where the ball goes that way,” Eberflus said when asked about the strategy of choosing sides for his cornerbacks. “But if you do the stats, I don’t know if that’s true because I’ve looked at that several times. We’ll figure out all that as we go. That’s going to be a process all the way through OTAs, the mandatory minicamp and then all the way into training camp.”
If Gordon and Brisker do a good job of processing what they’re being coached and make gains, they will surely be in the mix when decision time comes in late August and early September.
“I watch NFL all the time and I’m constantly a person that’s looking for corrections,” said Gordon, who did not allow a touchdown reception the last two seasons with the Huskies. “I’m watching like, what can I do to get better? So when I’m watching NFL games, I’m taking pieces from the game if they’re doing good — or if they’re doing bad, that’s not what I’m going to do. Just consistently learning.”
A weekend introduction to the defense is the first step toward something the Bears haven’t seen in more than 50 seasons.