LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The Bears experimented with, but weren’t exactly committed to, Cordarrelle Patterson playing running back last year. 18 of Patterson’s 202 snaps (about 9 percent) on offense came with him playing running back.
He had that memorable 46-yard run on a toss sweep in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos, but nothing else really came of him out of the backfield. Matt Nagy, though, has designs on changing that in 2020, the final year of Patterson’s two-year contract.
Patterson saw plenty of work with Bears’ running backs in Monday’s practice, which was not only the first padded practice at Halas Hall but also was the first open to the media. He didn’t necessarily stand out, though some of that had to do with another guy you’ll read about later in this article.
“I’m excited to see what he can do there,” Nagy said. “We want to be able to get the most out of him. He’s a very talented guy as you guys have seen in the past last year. We just feel like when you have weapons like that you want to find ways to get him the ball.”
Nagy said something similar about Patterson a year ago, but never quite figured out how to get the ball in his hands on offense with any consistency (he was only on the field for 18 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps, his lowest usage rate since 2015). Based on what we saw in Monday’s practice, though, there seems to be a much more concerted effort to involve Patterson this year.
He just has to go earn that opportunity over the next few weeks.
“He’s obviously played some running back before,” Nagy said, referring to Patterson’s moonlighting there with the New England Patriots in 2018. “So for him to be able to go back there and take some snaps, get used to it -- it is different, just because there’s different techniques that he’s gonna learn and I think between (running backs coach) Charles London and (passing game coordinator) Dave Ragone and the running backs in that room, it’s been a good room for him so far.”
A wrinkle in CB competiton
The assumption I had going into Monday’s practice was we’d see Kevin Toliver II opposite Kyle Fuller at cornerback, with Jaylon Johnson and Artie Burns getting mixed in as that competition develops. But we actually saw quite a bit of Burns, the 2016 first-round pick, whose experience in the NFL seems to have given him an early edge in the competition.
Johnson, meanwhile, was not on the field much – which Nagy said should change in the coming days.
“I think every day might be a little bit different as we play more and more and they start to get guys in there to get a feel for what they can do well and what they can't do well,” Nagy said. “Artie is a first round draft pick and has been in this league. He has experience. So just naturally for him to be able to come in here with Kevin Toliver, I think that that's normal.
“You'll probably end up seeing more and more reps as the days and weeks go on with Jaylon because we need to evaluate (him). That's a very important position that we need to get right and only time will tell with reps.”
I’m not going to make sweeping conclusions based on one practice, but I do think we might need to consider Burns more of a player in this cornerback competition than we might’ve a few days ago.
A safety flashes on Day 1
Deon Bush and Tashaun Gipson rotated in and out next to Eddie Jackson during Monday’s practice, and from my vantage point, the competition there looks like the most heated on the roster outside of quarterback.
Bush had a good practice, nearly jumping a pass Mitch Trubisky forced in the direction of Allen Robinson. He stood out Monday, though last year, he was one of the Bears’ most impressive players in August – to the point he rotated in with Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix against the Packers in Week 1 until he blew a coverage that led to Green Bay’s only touchdown of that unwatchable game we all wish we could forget about.
But Bush’s familiarity with Jackson could give him a bit of an edge if all things wind up equal between him and Gipson. That competition is going to be really fun to watch over the next few weeks.
“(Bush) understands the defense,” Jackson said. “Just from seeing him my rookie to now, just how much he understands about defense now and just his playmaking ability is through the roof right now. It’s really showing up on the field and him not overthinking. When I first here, you know, he was kind of overthinking a lot of different things. Now you see he’s getting settled. He’s more relaxed. He’s more comfortable. He knows his stuff.”
Setting up shop
Akiem Hicks is still really, really, really, really, really good.
If fans were allowed in to watch practice Monday, the player on defense they would’ve noticed the most would’ve been Hicks, who lived in the backfield on running plays throughout practice. He and Bilal Nichols worked well together – Nichols had a solid practice, too, working primarily as a nose tackle in Eddie Goldman's place.
“I’m ready to step up,” Nichols said. “I’ve trained hard. I’m ready for this opportunity.”
Notably, we didn’t see much of Nichols and Hicks together last year. Nichols suffered a hand injury in Week 2 and Hicks’ injury issues began in Week 3. Monday was a good reminder of how well that pair can play against the run.
“It was a great feeling because last year, we weren't really able to really be out there as much as we wanted with each other, just for the fact that we both dealt with our issues,” Nichols said. “But now that we're back and we're strong and being back together, it just felt great.”
A weird sense of normalcy
In a lot of ways, Monday felt like any other closed practiced we’ve watched at Halas Hall. It was easy for a moment to forget about the pandemic and focus on watching every throw from Trubisky and Nick Foles.
Then you quickly realize how hot it is wearing a mask for two hours in the August sun and remember, oh yeah, there’s this horrible thing going on that's upended all of our lives. And right now, I should be in Denver getting ready to watch the Bears practice against Vic Fangio’s Broncos defense.
And then you look out at the Halas Hall practice fields and notice every coach, from Nagy on down, has a face covering on for the entire practice, too.
“It's different for me to not have a mask on now,” Nagy said. “I've been, not intentional, but I've been wearing a mask in my office by myself just because I'm so used to it having it on at all times and it's convenient.
“The other night I went home and my four boys were in the house and I had the same mask on and they looked at me like 'what's going on?' So I'm just used to have it on.”
For the most part, players went about the morning like it was a normal practice. Everything outside of practice is not normal, from meeting rooms spaced out across the Walter Payton Center to daily COVID-19 testing to the massive changes made to make the inside of Halas Hall as safe as possible. But the way players practiced felt normal, which is a credit to the setup thought out by infection control officer/head trainer Andre Tucker, general manager Ryan Pace and Nagy.
More than anything, though, it felt centering to get back to watching a football practice. Unfortunately, fans won’t be allowed to watch anything the Bears do – outside of short snippets of individual work and stretching we’re allowed to film – until Sept. 13. So we here at NBC Sports Chicago will be your eyes and ears for the time being.
Back at it at Halas Hall tomorrow.