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 NFL’s worst 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 from cornerback Jaylon Johnson. Of the 31 passing touchdowns Chicago allowed (tied for the second-most in franchise history), a cornerback was the nearest defender on 27, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which was the most in the NFL.
So the Bears took 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 is in line to become the first set of rookies to start Week 1 in Chicago’s secondary since the early 1970s.
Chicago’s 11-man draft class -- and undrafted free agents -- melded 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 in with the backups during Tuesday’s practice, but it might not be long until they’re given the opportunity to grab hold of the starting roles.
“Kyler’s been lighting it up the last two days,” coach Matt Eberflus said on Tuesday. “The guy’s got tremendous ball skills. He’s been playing the defense the right way, and we’re very impressed with him.”
Entering the offseason, the Bears had two starters returning in the secondary in Johnson and safety Eddie Jackson, who hopes to recover from an interception drought that dates to Dec. 29, 2019. Despite not playing up to the four-year, $58.4 million extension he signed in January 2020, Chicago’s new regime kept Jackson in the fold, banking on what Eberflus referred to as “a clean slate” to help the veteran return to form.
“I think that's probably one of my worst seasons,” Jackson said about 2021. “I gave up too many deep balls. Just trying to eliminate that. The little things with your eyes, breaking on the ball, attention to details. Little things, little fixes that you could make."
Landing a strong safety with Brisker’s versatility should benefit Jackson. Brisker was one of two players in FBS 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 versatility like that, the Bears could decide to play Jackson more frequently at deep safety and put Brisker, who registered 152 tackles, 7.0 tackles for a loss, five interceptions and 19 pass breakups in three seasons, up in the box, where he thrived at Penn State.
“I feel like I’m an old-school safety,” Brisker said. “I love being 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 love to tackle and take on blocks.”
Johnson is entering his third year as a pro and coming off a solid season, during which he totaled 46 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and nine defended passes.
“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 anything too much. The film is not going to lie to you, but at the end of the day, they want me to show them what I can do in person moving forward.”
Eberflus, who spent the past four seasons as the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive coordinator, brings a philosophy predicated on turnovers (the Colts had 33 in 2021, one shy of league-leader Dallas). Jackson and Johnson both noted how this scheme allows defensive backs more opportunities to keep their eyes locked on the quarterback and make plays on the ball.
Another Eberflus trait 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. Though injuries have been prevalent throughout Young’s career, Chicago appears to be putting the pieces of the secondary together with the idea of having a veteran nickel -- at least to start out.
“The nickel is probably the hardest position on the football field,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “He's gotta fit like a linebacker and a safety, he's gotta cover like a corner, he's gotta have the mentality of a 'Mike' linebacker. So, to have [Gordon] go outside and inside, it's tough on a rookie. To be able to stick him in one place and let him go and develop and learn and feel comfortable, right now that's the plan.”
Gordon will start working as an outside corner, according to Williams. The former Washington standout, who did not allow a touchdown in 696 coverage snaps during his college career, came to Chicago with the ability to play inside and out. His movement skills, something he credits to practicing ballet and other dance competitively as a child, give him the ability to play multiple spots in the secondary, which gives the Bears the benefit of being able to move him around if needed.
“The great thing about him is his movement skills are outstanding,” general manager Ryan Poles said. “He’s tough. The other thing you love about him is just the instincts. He’s got a great feel for the game.”