LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The Chicago Bears used their top two draft picks last month to remake a unit that desperately needed change.
Chicago’s secondary was among the worst in the NFL in 2021. The Bears ranked last in passer rating allowed (103.3) and gave up the second most yards per pass attempt (7.6) . They finished with the third-fewest interceptions (8), five of which were made by a safety and only one by cornerback Jaylon Johnson. Of the 31 passing touchdowns allowed by Chicago (tied for second most in franchise history), a cornerback was the closest defender of 27, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which was the highest in the NFL.
So the Bears took on defensive backs with their first two picks: Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon at No. 39 and Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker at No. 48. The pair are on track to become the first group of recruits to start Week 1 in Chicago High School. since the early 1970s.
Chicago’s 11-man draft class — and undrafted free agents — merged with the veteran squad for the first time this week when OTAs began. At the start of practices, nothing was handed to Gordon or Brisker. The rookies rotated with the substitutes in training on Tuesday, but it may not be long before they have a chance to grab the starting roles.
“Kyler has been on fire for the past two days,” coach Matt Eberflus said Tuesday. “The guy has amazing ball skills. He played well in defense and we are very impressed with him.
At the start of the offseason, the Bears had two starters back in the secondary in Johnson and safety Eddie Jackson, who is hoping to recover from an interception drought that dates back to Dec. 29, 2019. Although they didn’t not played until the four-year, $58.4 million extension. which he signed in January 2020, Chicago’s new regime has kept Jackson in the fold, banking on what Eberflus called a “clean slate” to help the veteran get back into shape.
“I think it’s probably one of my worst seasons,” Jackson said of 2021. “I gave up too many deep balls. I’m just trying to get that out. The little things with your eyes , breaking on the ball, attention to detail. Little things, little corrections that you could make.”
Landing a solid safety with Brisker’s versatility should benefit Jackson. Brisker was one of two FBS players last season to play 400 snaps at safety, 100 snaps at inside linebacker and 100 snaps at slot corner, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He also played 78 snaps at outside linebacker.
With such versatility, the Bears could decide to play Jackson more frequently at deep safety and put Brisker, who recorded 152 tackles, 7.0 tackles for a loss, five interceptions and 19 pass breakups in three seasons, in the box. where he thrived. at Penn State.
“I feel like old school security,” Brisker said. “I like to be physical, but at the same time I can show my versatility in the back-end. I can attack the ball, I can cover, and then obviously in the box, I love to hit. I like to tackle and take blocks.
Johnson is entering his third year as a pro and is coming off a strong season, in which he totaled 46 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and nine passes defended.
“It’s a complete reset,” Johnson said. “Everything I’ve done in the past with the other coaches, with the other staff, it really doesn’t mean too much. The movie isn’t going to lie to you, but at the end of the day they want me to show them what I can do in person to move forward.
Eberflus, who has spent the past four seasons as the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive coordinator, brings a philosophy built on turnovers (the Colts had 33 in 2021, one shy of league leader Dallas). Both Jackson and Johnson noted how this pattern allows defensive backs to keep their eyes on the quarterback and make plays on the ball.
Another trait of Eberflus is that Indianapolis was in its nickel defense at the second-highest rate in the NFL (77.2%).
The Bears acquired former Ravens slot corner Tavon Young in free agency. Although injuries have been common throughout Young’s career, Chicago seems to be putting the high school pieces together with the idea of having a veteran nickel — at least to start with.
“The nickel is probably the toughest position on the football field,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “He has to be in shape like a linebacker and a safety, he has to cover like a corner, he has to have the mentality of a ‘Mike’ linebacker. So to have [Gordon] going outside and inside is tough for a beginner. Being able to keep him in one place and letting him grow and learn and feel comfortable is the plan right now.
Gordon will start working as an outside corner, according to Williams. The former Washington star, who didn’t allow a touchdown in 696 cover snaps during his college career, came to Chicago with the ability to play inside and out. His motor skills, something he credits playing ballet and other dances competitively as a child, give him the ability to perform in multiple places in high school, giving the Bears the edge to be able to move it if necessary.
“The great thing about him is that his motor skills are exceptional,” said general manager Ryan Poles. ” He is hard. The other thing you love about him is just instinct. He has a good sense of the game.”