Jaylon Johnson

Schrock's Bears season review, grades: Secondary set up to be great

The Bears' secondary started to blossom in 2023

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General manager Ryan Poles was right when he said the Bears are "built on a solid foundation" during his year-end press conference.

No position group showcases the bright potential of Poles' rebuilding job better than the defensive backfield.

With four of the five members younger than 25, the Bears' budding defensive backfield is set up to become one of the best secondaries in the NFL if all parties stay on their current track.

Our 2023 season review starts with the most promising group on the roster, one that should continue to grow and thrive as the Bears' rebuild hits the next stage.

2023 Roster

Cornerbacks: Jaylon Johnson, Tyrique Stevenson, Kyler Gordon, Terell Smith, Jaylon Jones, Josh Blackwell, Greg Stroman Jr.

Safeties: Eddie Jackson, Jaquan Brisker, Elijah Hicks, Quindell Johnson, Adrian Colbert

Pending free agents

Jaylon Johnson, Josh Blackwell


Jaylon Johnson

There's no debate on this category.

Johnson was one of the best cover corners in the NFL this past season. Head coach Matt Eberflus lauded Johnson for his improved understanding of his role in the scheme and increased ball production.

On the season, Johnson gave up just 25 catches for 195 yards and one touchdown while notching four interceptions and six pass breakups. Those 195 yards allowed were the fewest in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Johnson also led the NFL in passer rating allowed when targeted at 33.3. For comparison, you'd get a passer rating of 39.6 if you spiked the ball on every snap.

Johnson was named second-team All-Pro and earned himself a big payday in a contract season.

Weak link

Tyrique Stevenson

I don't think any member of the secondary truly qualifies for this section, but I'll get it to Stevenson after he went through the expected rookie struggles early in the season.

The second-round pick out of Miami gave up 72 catches for 836 yards and nine touchdowns this season. With Johnson shutting down one side of the field, teams repeatedly went at Stevenson, and the rookie took his lumps.

But Stevenson improved throughout the season and showcased the instincts and coverage ability the Bears praised when they drafted him.

"I can be the best corner in the NFL," Stevenson told NBC Sports Chicago before Week 17. "I'm going to have my Jaylon Johnson season next year. No doubt."

Biggest surprise

Kyler Gordon

Gordon struggled during his rookie season but said the game started to slow down for him toward the end of the 2022 campaign. Last offseason, Gordon went through every snap he took as a rookie and cataloged his mistakes and why he made them.

Gordon's increased confidence and newfound mentally allowed him to make a massive Year 2 leap. Gordon ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating allowed in the slot (83.6), per PFF. Gordon allowed 38 receptions for 336 yards and two touchdowns when in the slot. He had two interceptions and three pass breakups.

Gordon played fast, free, and physical in Year 2. He was solid in run defense and had success as a blitzer when Eberflus sent him.

“I’m just not thinking about it, honestly,” Gordon told NBC Sports Chicago. “I’m just out there chilling. I’m having fun. I’m don’t want to say I’m relaxed – I’m tuned into everything that’s happening. Everything is just at a constant flow. I’m at peace doing whatever I am doing. I just feel like I’m able to control whatever I need to control. I’m in balance. I’m in order.”

Gordon was the Bears' most-improved player in 2023. If he makes another leap this offseason, he'll enter the upper tier of slot corners with his prime still ahead of him.

Biggest question

Does Eddie Jackson return?

It would be easy to say Johnson's contract here, but Poles made it clear that the top cornerback will be in Chicago next season.

"Jaylon's not going anywhere," Poles said.

All that's left is if the Bears and Johnson agree to a long-term deal or they franchise tag him.

Johnson told Keyshawn Johnson he wants to be the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL after his second-team All-Pro season. That might not be an easy deal for Poles to get done, given Johnson's injury history and singular All-Pro season. But either way, Johnson will be a Bear in 2024.

Things are a lot different with Jackson.

The 30-year-old safety has one year and $14 million left on his contract. The Bears can save between $12.5 million and $14 million if they move on from him this offseason, depending on the transaction date.

Jackson understands it's a business, but he sees where the Bears are headed and hopes he and Poles can find a way to keep him in Chicago long term.

“I just, man, I hope I’m here [to see it through]," Jackson told NBC Sports Chicago. "What we building, it’s just special. I feel like I play a key part in it as well. Just to be through the ups and downs that I have been through here and to see, like, ‘Yo, we’re really on the rise.’ If I have to leave it then, in this key moment, man, it sucks. I mean, it would suck. I can’t picture myself nowhere else, man. I’ve been here seven years. This is home. I got my house here. My kids are here. It’s just home for me. It’s hard for me to see me somewhere else. I would understand it. If I’m somewhere else, I’ll be alright, but I just can’t see myself somewhere else. I don’t want to see it. It's got to be here."

Potential offseason additions

Top Potential Free agents:
-- Antoine Winfield, S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
-- Xavier McKinney, S, New York Giants
-- Jordan Fuller, S, Los Angeles Rams
-- Geno Stone, S, Baltimore Ravens

2024 NFL Draft prospects to watch:
-- Kamren Kitchens, S, Miami (Projected: Late 1-Round 2
-- Tyler Nubin, S, Minnesota (Projected: Round 2)
-- Calen Bullock, S, USC (Projected: Day 2)
-- Rod Moore, S, Michigan (Projected: Rounds 3-4)

With Johnson expected to be retained, the Bears are set at cornerback for the foreseeable future.

Even if the Bears bring Jackson back, they still need to add depth at safety and could look to find Jackson's replacement in the later rounds of the draft. It feels unlikely that Poles will take a big free-agent swing on a safety, but we didn't see the linebacker spending spree coming last March.


Jaylon Johnson: A
Kyler Gordon: B+
Tyrique Stevenson: C+
Jaquan Brisker: B
Eddie Jackson: B-
Terell Smith: C+

Brisker didn't make any of the above categories, so we'll wrap up with the second-year strong safety.

Brisker continues to be a versatile piece for Eberflus' defense. The Penn State product played 391 snaps in the box, 316 deep, and 114 in the slot this past season. He continues to show tremendous instincts and physicality. His tackling was much improved in Year 2, and he was effective at pressuring the quarterback when used as a blitzer.

The Bears loved the growth they saw from Brisker in Year 2 and believe the best is yet to come. The best case for keeping Jackson on the roster is his bond and communication with Brisker in the backend. Poles praised Jackson for his impact on Brisker and noted the Bears saw more consistent, high-level play from Brisker when Jackson was in the lineup with him.

The arrow is pointing straight up for Brisker, as it is most of the Bears' defensive backfield.

“He can go as far as he wants,” Jackson told NBC Sports Chicago of Brisker. “That’s one thing that’s special about him. He’s still young. It’s a lot of room to improve. The ceiling is no limitations. It’s crazy how far he can go."

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