Bears Training Camp

Bears training camp MVP, risers, remaining questions ahead of preseason opener

Rookies have impressed and an unsung defensive lineman has popped, but the Bears still have a few pressing questions to answer as the preseason begins

NBC Universal, Inc.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Bears head coach Matt Eberflus was as animated as he had been all training camp. New edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue had just flown right past left tackle Braxton Jones to pressure/sack quarterback Justin Fields on third down in a "move the ball" period.

Despite refs being present, Eberflus called his own penalty on the defense while shouting at the offense to move the ball forward and continue their drive.

Eberflus had a similar reaction minutes later after the defensive line blew up another third-down attempt.

The Bears' final practice before their preseason opener was a sloppy one for the first-team offense. Don't blame Fields. His offensive line gave him zero time to throw. Counting pressures, "sacks," and likely sacks in which the offense was allowed to playthrough, Fields felt the heat at least 12 times in the team periods.

Training camp has been an uneven affair for the Bears.

In unpadded work, it started with splash plays from Fields, DJ Moore, Chase Claypool, and Tyler Scott.

Things have dipped since the pads have come on. The first-team defense dominated the opening padded stack, but the offense rebounded with a sharp day at "Family Fest." But Wednesday's outing was average at best, and Thursday was an outright bludgeoning by the Bears' defensive line.

The Bears' first 13 practices have shown us a lot, but there are still myriad questions to answer before they take the field in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. But with Fields and Co. opening their preseason slate Saturday against the Tennessee Titans, here's a look back at what we've learned through the first 13 practices and the questions that still remain.

Camp MVP

First-team defense

Had he stayed healthy for all 13 practices, I'd have probably given this award to second-year safety Jaquan Brisker. The Penn State product was flying around and wreaking havoc when on the field. Brisker created several turnovers during the opening week of camp, including a leaping interception of P.J. Walker and two picks off Fields. But Brisker has missed the last week of practice, and it's unlikely he'll play Saturday.

Therefore, camp MVP to this point goes to the entire first-team defense.

An almost fully-healthy first-team defense (DeMarcus Walker was out) put Fields and the offense through hell during the second padded practice. Brisker and Eddie Jackson set the tone early with their words and actions, Tremaine Edmunds clogged the middle of the field, the defensive line pushed around a Bears' O-line still finding its feet, and cornerbacks Kyler Gordon, Jaylon Johnson, Terell Smith, and Tyrique Stevenson did their best "No Fly Zone" impression.

They rattled the first-team offense early, pinned them down, and never let them up.

That unit has had several minor injuries since, but the reserves tasked with filling in -- Elijah Hicks, Noah Sewell, Dominique Robinson, and Josh Blackwell -- haven't missed a beat.

“I feel good man. I don’t want to sound like a broken record but it’s fired up out there man," Jackson said. "It’s intense. Everyone is flying around. Guys are locked in. It’s a whole different mindset compared to last year. You guys see it if ya’ll out there watching. We on fire, man. We really flying around. We really getting it. No one is complaining. Everyone is locked in buying into it and everybody is trying to get better. Everyone is competing. No one is complaining. When you got that I feel like it’s always headed in the right direction.”

The complete first-team defense has won most of the padded days in camp, and a few have been by knockout. It's a group award.

Camp Risers

Rasheem Green, Dominique Robinson, D'Onta Foreman, Noah Sewell, Tyrique Stevenson, and Terell Smith

It should come as no surprise that all of these are on the defensive side of the ball except for Foreman.

Let's start with the veteran running back.

Foreman is competing with Khalil Herbert to be RB1 of a running-back-by-committee attack. While Herbert is the first-string back on the unofficial depth chart, Foreman has been more impressive so far in camp. He has run with physicality, burst, and wiggle. He has also been a reliable pass-catching threat in the screen game and as a release valve for Fields.

If he stays healthy, I think he'll lead the Bears in carries this fall.

Now, to the defense.

Green was an under-the-radar signing. He entered camp as the starting defensive end opposite Walker, but the Bears bumped him down a rung after signing Yannick Ngakoue.

No matter.

Green has constantly popped in padded practices. Whether he's blowing past rookie right tackle Darnell Wright, stuffing a run play, or getting past the mish-mash at right guard on a stunt, Green has lived in the Bears' backfield.

Robinson has also had his way against the Bears' offensive line in camp. With Walker out due to injury, Robinson has received a lot of first-team reps and made the most of them. He has had several impressive wins against left tackle Braxton Jones and has been good in run support.

Sewell arrived at camp hoping to push Jack Sanborn for the starting SAM spot. The fifth-round rookie out of Oregon has officially forced that door open, thanks to his quick growth and Sanborn's injury issues.

Sewell's physicality, blitzing ability, and nose for the ball have stood out in camp. Sanborn returned to practice Tuesday, but Eberflus made it known that this is a full-on competition.

"Understanding the playbook is one thing when you’re doing it on paper," linebacker T.J. Edwards said of Sewell. "It’s a little bit easier. But once you get out there and the bullets are flying, that’s when it gets difficult, and the biggest thing you see with him is just trusting it — him having the confidence in what he’s doing to go out there and execute and make plays, man. He’s making a lot of plays right now."

Stevenson and Smith deserve a nod here. Both rookie corners are vying to be the starting boundary option opposite Jaylon Johnson. They have both been impressive early in camp. Stevenson has made several nice plays against DJ Moore, has gotten under the skin of Chase Claypool, and has been able to turn the ball over.

Smith has been sticky in man coverage and has shown great instincts in zone coverage. However, the Minnesota product has missed the last few practices and is unlikely to play Saturday.

Still, a great early showing by both rookie cornerbacks.

Wild Card

Chase Claypool

Claypool had a really good start to camp. He was a full participant in each of the first 11 sessions, showed improved chemistry with Fields, used his physicality to great success in the red zone and on third down, and was one of the few offensive players to bring the "juice" during the practice beatdown the defense gave them on Day 2 of pads.

But Claypool injured his hamstring early in Wednesday's practice and didn't participate in Thursday's session. The Bears don't reveal injury information during training camp, so the severity of the injury is unclear. It should be said that Claypool stayed on the practice field with his teammates after taking himself out of the drill Wednesday. He seemed in good spirits and didn't leave early with the trainer.

Hamstring injuries can be a nuisance. The Bears need Claypool healthy and on the field to continue to build his rapport with Fields. The third-year quarterback lauded Claypool's work before the injury.

"Chase has been doing his thing lately. I’m proud of him," Fields said after the first week of camp. "He’s one of those guys on offense that he’s going to bring that energy pretty much every day. He’s an emotional player. He’s been doing good. Making contested catches. He’s such a big body where he’s a big presence out there. When he gets going on every route, it’s hard to stop him. Even in the running game, he’s crushing linebackers. It’s definitely great to have Chase."

Claypool has also gotten into a scuffle with Jackson and a heated back-and-forth with Stevenson which occurred moments before he injured his hamstring. Even after pulling up on a route, Claypool continued to go at it with the rookie defensive back. The two exchanged expletive-filled pleasantries for a while until cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke pulled Stevenson away.

The Bears need Claypool's fire on the offensive side, but it's important to toe the line and not cross it. He crossed the line with Jackson and appeared on his way to doing the same with Stevenson.

"I just look at when you talk to another opponent, and that certainly happens during the game, and that’s part of some people’s game, and some guys are more focused and more quiet," Eberflus said of Claypool's trash talk. "But if that’s part of the game, as long as it doesn’t lead into penalties or lack of execution. So if you can keep your focus, and that’s how you do it, and you don’t fight — because that’s a penalty — that’s part of the game."

Biggest questions

Offensive line depth and clunky execution

Depth was always going to be an issue for the Bears' offensive line. Yes, the new "best five" look good on paper, but it's not a unit that can withstand injuries.

Right guard Nate Davis didn't even make it to padded work. His replacement Lucas Patrick left "Family Fest" with an injury and hasn't returned. Left guard Teven Jenkins missed a few practices but has since returned. At one point, Alex Leatherwood and Ja'Tyre Carter were the first-team guards. That's not ideal.

The Bears are hopeful Davis will return soon. They claimed veteran offensive guard Logan Stenberg off waivers Friday. Interior line play has been bad, and the tackles haven't been much better. Wright is still early in the NFL learning curve, and Jones has had an up-and-down camp.

Lack of line continuity has made it hard to judge the first-team offense's shortcomings in practice.

Fields hasn't been perfect, far from it, but he has had more good days than bad. His connection with Moore continues to grow, and he was on the same page with Claypool until the injury. But Fields hasn't had a lot of clean pockets to throw from during padded sessions, and the pressure has led to a lot of "playthrough reps," which are difficult to judge.

Offensive line injuries are going to happen. The Bears need to prepare for that. But they also need their planned starting five healthy to build chemistry together.

"I don't ever want to lean on that being a huge concern. You've got to be able to play no matter what," Jones said of the staring line's lack of reps together. "Obviously, great O-lines do have a good connection and stuff like that, but fighting through adversity is one of the biggest things. It's rare that all five O-linemen finish the season with the same five, so just being able to go through that and play next to different guys is a strength, but we'll need to get to the point where we need to get some more glue in terms of that starting five. But it's coming. Everybody's just got to get back healthy. I don't want to rush anyone's injury or anything like that, but I'm sure by the time we get to the season, we'll have everyone healthy and rolling with that starting five."

Through 13 practices last summer, it was clear the Bears' offense wasn't going to light the world on fire.

It's too early to judge this group. The injuries matter, and there have been flashes of potential. Fields has made some strong downfield throws to Moore, Claypool, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Darnell Mooney when given time. He has been good in red zone work, especially when targeting Claypool and tight end Robert Tonyan.

There have been some alarming practices. Missed assignments, off-target throws, dropped passes, etc. It's camp that happens. The Bears also just got into their "play-it" periods this week after spending the first 10 or so practices on scripts so guys can get the needed reps in certain formations, situations, play calls, etc.

"The defense is challenging us, so it’s like – boom – we see they’re a great defense out there, they’re doing their thing out there, they’re mixing up coverages, our receivers are seeing different coverages," Fields said. "So, boom. We’re not game-planning for our defense right now. We have a bunch of set plays that we’re running on our defense, and we’re just trying ... right now, it’s harder for the offense to hone in on certain plays because, in a game week, we have an actual game plan that we’re running instead of plays. Guys probably aren’t going to have as many mistakes in the game because we have a set game plan, we have a call sheet to where – boom – alright, we know this formation, we’ve got this set of plays. But training camp, it’s like we’ve got a big list of plays. We’re doing NASCAR, we’re doing a bunch of stuff. It’s definitely very stressful mentally on different receivers and stuff like that. Guys are moving down to different spots. There’s Z, X, F in the slot. It’s very mentally challenging.

"I just know it’s going to help us get better because we didn’t just drive the field on our defense. That doesn’t happen. I feel like this work that we got today, it was good. It’s back and forth. One day the offense has a good day, the defense has a good day today, and yeah, there was some things today that we can control. We can hit a wide-open guy, or we can make a catch -- we can make a contested catch. It’s constantly getting each other better, constantly going at it in practice each and every day."

Fields will play a limited number of snaps Saturday against the Titans, but I don't expect to learn much about the offense. We will start to get a real gauge of where the offense and defense are at next week when the Bears travel to Indianapolis for joint practices with the Colts.

Defensive injuries cause lack of continuity

The Bears have seen several key defensive players miss time during camp.

Edge rusher DeMarcus Walker, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, and safety Jaquan Brisker have each missed four or more practices. Rookie cornerback Terell Smith has missed the last three practices. Kyler Gordon and Jack Sanborn have both missed time but have since returned.

The Bears are confident that none of the injuries are long-term issues, but the lack of continuity will start to become a concern if those players don't return soon.

"There’s nothing there that’s long-term. But like we talked about the other day, I think you asked the question about the continuity. That is a concern," Eberflus said. "When you miss practices, you can’t get better. So those guys are injured right now, and we’re working them back, and we have a really good staff with Dre and our performance staff to get them back. When they are back, they’ll get in there. It’s important to have that. When you have guys playing off each other and communicating to each other during the course of any play, offense, or defense, that’s an important part too."

Click here to follow the Under Center Podcast.

Contact Us