The hidden benefits of Bears starting three rookie CBs


The Bears will definitely miss both Jaylon Johnson and Kindle Vildor over the last two weeks of the season. Losing two of three starting cornerbacks is never a good thing, and the team has made it clear they wish each of those guys was healthy and able to play. However, the Bears also see a silver lining to their typically unenviable position. The unfortunate injuries have given an opportunity for the Bears to field three rookie cornerbacks to finish the year, and given those rookies an opportunity to prove themselves on gameday.

The team will rely on Kyler Gordon and Jaylon Jones on the outside, with Josh Blackwell playing the slot in nickel packages. Gordon was expected to start immediately when the Bears selected him with the No. 39 overall pick in the draft, but that wasn’t the case for Jones or Blackwell who entered the league as undrafted free agents. Expectations for them were to contribute on special teams, with the possibility to play a few defensive snaps in relief. No one expected for all three to start together for an extended period of time.

“Every time I go in the room and I’m in the meeting, I go, ‘Whoa.’” said Alan Williams.

Cornerbacks coach James Rowe said he couldn’t think of a time in his career where his team had to start three rookie CBs. The Bears got their first look at their all-rookie cornerback lineup last week against Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Dawson Knox and the rest of the Bills’ high-flying passing attack. On paper it looked like a matchup that could result in a career day for several Bills. But the rookie CBs held their own and limited Allen to only 172 yards and a 57.7% completion rate. Yes, the windy weather played a part, and no, the rookies weren’t perfect, but on the whole they performed well against an extremely talented offense and garnered praise from coaches and teammates for their play.

“Sometimes when they’re new to the NFL, they don’t know any better,” quipped Rowe.

Most of the spotlight has gone to Gordon, and for good reason. He was the team’s top draft pick this year, and struggled earlier in the season. He has made big strides over the past few weeks, however, and didn’t back down when he was thrust into the No. 1 cornerback role.

“I really like the confidence I’m starting to see in him,” said Rowe. “You can tell he’s starting to be himself, starting to relax… He’s starting to open up and have a little more swagger about him, so those are good things to see. I think it’s positively affecting him on the field.”

Gordon has not only played better coverage recently, he’s started to display more of the ball skills that drew the Bears to him. Over the past two weeks, Gordon has two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Takeaways are everything to Matt Eberflus and Williams, so those are notable developments. So is the opportunity to look at Gordon playing exclusively on the outside. For much of the year Gordon has played nickel, and moved opposite Jaylon Johnson when the team plays in their base defense. Now he’s locked into the top outside corner spot and isn’t moving.

“We love that opportunity for him because he has to use different skillsets there,” said Eberflus. “So I think that’s really good on his part.”
Eberflus also believes there’s value for these rookies to stack starts not only for the added reps, but because they’ll be able to take reps against different types of receivers. Preparing for and playing against Stefon Diggs is not the same as preparing for and playing against Amon-Ra St. Brown. As the Bears evaluate these players, and as these players make cases to stick around long term, that type of exposure can’t be replicated in practice.

“That’s always the ability to adjust your game based on who you’re playing,” Eberflus said. “You have to cover guys differently, you can’t just cookie cutter it and say I’m gonna cover this guy the same way I covered the last guy. So I think the more games they play in, the more they get that experience.”

“Different route concepts really,” said Blackwell. “Stefon Diggs is more of a spread open, wide open kind of route runner, whereas Amon-Ra isn’t as much of a deep threat in terms of, he runs more like flat option routes, more shorter stuff. So you just get a different variety of routes, you get to cover different things, and it’s better for you in the long run.”

The Bears have more questions than answers about their roster heading into 2023. Other than quarterback, practically no other position group is set. The rookie corners won’t win any starting jobs over the last two weeks of the season, but they will have a great opportunity to show their coaches that they’re worthy of a place on next year’s 53-man roster.

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