LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Bears head coach Matt Eberflus was evasive Tuesday at Halas Hall when confronted with the question of cutdown day.
The Bears released backup quarterback P.J. Walker on Sunday, eating over $2 million in guaranteed money to clear the way for undrafted free agent Tyson Bagent to assume the backup spot behind Justin Fields. With the Bears releasing quarterback Nathan Peterman on Tuesday, Bagent and Fields are the only quarterbacks currently on the Bears' roster.
But Eberflus wasn't going to crown Bagent as QB2, at least not outwardly.
“Just kinda letting the roster finalize itself," Eberflus said Tuesday when asked if he was comfortable with Bagent being the backup. "We certainly feel great about where he is. He’s put his best foot forward, and we’re excited where we see him going in the future.”
When the Bears opened training camp, there was no thought that Bagent, a UDFA from Shepherd, would challenge Walker for the backup spot.
The Bears signed Walker to a two-year, $4 million contract with over $2 million guaranteed this offseason. Walker is a veteran quarterback with starting experience who once outplayed and beat Tom Brady. Bagent is the NCAA's all-time touchdown leader at any level, but it's a long climb from undrafted D-II legend to Bears backup quarterback.
Never tell Bagent the odds.
The 23-year-old from Martinsburg, West Virginia, immediately endeared himself to the Bears' coaching staff during rookie minicamp when he elected to learn the proper footwork needed to run the offense instead of just racking up completions with the mechanics he used at Shepherd. He was inaccurate on Day 1 but quickly improved, showing the Bears he was a quick learner with rare work ethic.
"He's just a hard worker," rookie defensive tackle Zacch Pickens said of Bagent. "He puts down. When it's time to work, it's time to work."
Still, Bagent arrived at training camp as the fourth quarterback on the Bears' roster. His most realistic goal was to improve enough to earn a spot on the practice squad.
But Bagent had other goals.
He stacked good days on good days early in training camp while Walker struggled to find any sort of rhythm with the second-team offense.
Walker's horrendous camp cracked the door open for Bagent, and the rookie kicked it wide open with an impressive performance in the Bears' second preseason game. Bagent entered in relief of Walker and immediately engineered a 17-play, 92-yard drive, capping it off with a 2-yard touchdown run.
“He’s a cool dude. He’s smooth. He doesn’t panic," running back Roschon Johnson said of Bagent. "He comes from a small school but you wouldn’t know the way that he plays. Just how he carries himself. He’s a guy that everyone kind of gets along with and everybody trusts when he’s in there because he’s very calm and collected.”
Bagent made his final case to be the Bears' backup in the preseason finale against the Buffalo Bills. It wasn't a case-closing performance from a stats perspective, but Bagent's entire body of work -- from May through August -- was enough to make the Bears feel comfortable cutting bait with Walker.
"It was an open competition, and it was created," Eberflus said Tuesday when asked how Bagent beat out Walker. "It was created by the players. The players created that. Tyson really created that in practice, and he did it and created it in the games. What we saw from him was execution, poise, accuracy, and the ability to move the ball down the field. And again, he’s put his best foot forward."
"I feel as if I've proved that I belong and that I belong in the league," Bagent said after the preseason finale.
After cutting Walker and Peterman, the Bears' quarterback room is young and possibly in need of a veteran presence -- someone who can be a guiding light for Fields and Bagent.
"That’s a good thought," Eberflus said Tuesday when asked about bringing in a veteran QB. "We are certainly looking at that option. We are looking at other options too. But that’s certainly a good thought, when you can have somebody with experience in there to help younger quarterbacks. It’s certainly something that we’ve talked about."
That veteran quarterback very well could be Peterman, who is a potential practice squad candidate.
But for now, Bagent is the only signal-caller behind Fields, meaning he's one hit away from taking over under center in a game that counts.
Bagent's long climb from undrafted rookie to NFL backup quarterback isn't over. On the contrary, now that he's barged through the door, there are miles of work to do so he can be ready should his number be called.
“Really just improve and get better," Eberflus said when asked about the next steps for Bagent. "When you’re a young player like that, you have to improve and get better every single week. He’s gonna learn as he goes through the process of how the game plan changes every week, and that’s probably a lot different than what he’s used to. When you put a training camp install in, and you’re going through these concepts that you have, the runs, then the play action comes off of it, the screen game we’re putting in and the quick game, the empty game, and so forth.
"You kinda go through that process during Week 1, Week 2, Week 3 of training camp and all the sudden now you get to a game week and you say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna pull this off the board. We’re gonna change this, adjust this.’ And you’ve gotta learn all those concepts, but they may look different to the defense, and that’s how we put them in, so he’s gonna have to learn that process.”
The next step in Bagent's NFL quarterback education began Sunday when the Bears chose to eat the $2 million owed to Walker and jettison the veteran quarterback.
That's a big show of faith from Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles. A sign that his regime will prioritize on-field performance and value to the current roster above money owed.
It's also a signal that they believe Bagent can handle the immense task that lies ahead. Why not? He's already shown that he's different in four short months.
"I think he’s shown some poise, I think he’s shown a little bit of moxie to him," Bears quarterback coach Andrew Janocko said. "When you talk to him, he carries himself like somebody that’s very confidence, confident in his abilities, and he’s got a little swagger to him. You like that."