Column

Hoge: 10 (non-quarterback) takeaways from Bears camp

Column

After a week of evaluating the Bears' quarterback competition on a daily basis, it's probably time for me to chime in on the rest of the roster, since there are 78 other players on the team right now.

With that in mind, here are 10 non-quarterback takeaways from the first week of Bears training camp:

1. “Rejuvenated” tight ends room provides hope for the offense

By now you’ve probably read/heard that Jimmy Graham looks great. He really does. I was skeptical about what the 33-year-old tight end had left in the tank (and I am still skeptical that he can produce at a high level for 16 games) but there’s no doubt that he’s been one of the best players on the field in camp.

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Perhaps more important is how involved all the tight ends have been in the offense. If you’re looking for hope that the Bears' offense will look significantly different in 2020, you should take note that it’s not just Jimmy Graham making an impact in practice. Rookie tight Cole Kmet looks like he belongs. Demetrius Harris has been very noticeable. And it seems like even Eric Saubert makes a big catch every day.

Tight ends are an important part of Matt Nagy's offense, even if 2019 suggested otherwise. Last year’s group simply didn’t make an impact, but that's a big reason why the Bears finished 29th in total offense. Mitch Trubisky called this tight ends room “rejuventated” and that’s a good way to put it. And it’s important to point out that the tight ends could have an important impact on the running game, not just from a blocking standpoint, but from a matchup standpoint as well.

 

2. Where’s Anthony Miller?

It’s a big year for the third-year wide receiver who took a step backward in 2019 after leading the team in receiving touchdowns in 2018. And it’s odd that we haven’t seen much of No. 17 in practices.

“We're just keeping an eye in regards to all the team stuff and making sure that we're smart with that,” head coach Matt Nagy said. “He's in a good spot. There's nothing going on with him.”

Miller has been out there on the field, so he’s either limited or he’s just not commanding targets. Something to keep an eye on.

3. Darnell Mooney takes advantage

While No. 17 has seldom been seen catching footballs, No. 11 is very noticeable. Confirming what I thought when Mooney was drafted in the fifth round in April, he has a chance to play early. And it’s very notable that his teammates and coaches rave about how he has picked up the offense. Mooney seems to embrace the details, which have been an issue for Miller.

“(Mooney) reminds me a lot of (Allen Robinson) in the meetings,” Nagy said. “He asks really good questions. He’s very calm, cool and collected. I just like where he’s at. I just think he has a bright future and no one is getting too high or too low. He seems very mature for his age and where he’s at.”

4. There’s a big emphasis on the running game

Despite a quarterback competition going on, the Bears clearly are trying to fix their absent running game. The problem is, with no preseason games and no angle from the end zone to even view practice, it’s nearly impossible to evaluate any progress or concerns.

Here are some quick thoughts though:

  • Montgomery looks a step quicker with his new diet and leaner frame.
  • The Cordarrelle Patterson thing is apparently for real, but I’m still skeptical that he'll be a consistent performer out of the backfield.
  • Don’t sleep on Ryan Nall and J.P. Holtz. It wouldn’t surprise me if they both make the team. Both have the ability to block and catch the football out of the backfield. They can be sneaky weapons.

5. Germain Ifedi seems to be acclimating well

Like the running game, it’s tough to evaluate offensive line play in these practices and I’ve admittedly been focused on 7-on-7 drills while the linemen are doing 1-on-1s. But I haven’t seen any glaring issues with Ifedi at right guard. I remain optimistic about the move inside for the former first round pick who primarily played tackle for the Seahawks.

6. Eddie Jackson looks  like a centerfielder again

The All-Pro safety is getting his hands on the football more and was in position to snag a pop up that Nick Foles left hanging on a deep pass Saturday. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano needs to get Jackson playing more in that roaming, centerfielder roll, playing to his speed and range. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix played fine for the Bears last year, but there’s reason to believe that pairing Jackson with either Tashaun Gipson or Deon Bush will produce more impactful results for the highest paid safety in the game.

 

7. Jaylon Johnson is easing in slowly

I’ll admit that was expecting to see more from second round pick Jaylon Johnson in the first week of camp, but the Bears seem intent on easing him into the defense. Remember, he’s coming off post-Combine shoulder surgery. After a light practice Sunday and an off day Monday, we’ll see if the Bears work the rookie into tougher situations this week at Halas Hall.

In the meantime, losing Artie Burns to a torn ACL was a blow at cornerback, but it’s extremely notable that Bears GM Ryan Pace didn’t really replace him on the roster. Kevin Tolliver is still an option if needed, but don’t forget that slot corner Buster Skrine has experience playing on the outside. If Johnson isn’t quite ready to start in Week 1, it could make sense to use Skrine and Kyle Fuller in the base package and then kick Skrine inside on nickel downs, limiting the exposure of either Tolliver or Johnson. That could be one way to work the rookie into the NFL.

8. Replacing Eddie Goldman

Just like they didn’t rush out to find another cornerback, the Bears didn’t seem to panic when they lost nose tackle Eddie Goldman (opt-out). That tells you they like their depth on the defensive line. Sure enough, Bilal Nichols has looked very good on the inside. Akiem Hicks’ early quad injury is slightly worrisome, but there’s reason to believe Hicks and Nichols can combine to keep the Bears’ dominating rushing defense operating a high level.

9. Evaluating defense vs offense

Without the benefit of practice tape, it’s hard to decipher the decisions being made by quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles in practice. However, it’s impossible not to notice the amount of high percentage throws by both quarterbacks. That’s an indication that the defense is still playing at a very high level and the quarterbacks are taking what they are being given.

In past years, we heard Nagy say he wanted Trubisky to try to force some throws early in camp to see what he could get away with. Against this defense, the results weren’t pretty. This year, the emphasis seems to be more on making the right decision.

Through five legitimate practices, Trubisky doesn’t have an interception. Foles has one. The major mistakes have been limited. But the defense still looks really good.

Dang, this kind of turned into a quarterback observation, didn't it?

10. Kicker contingency plans

If there was ever a year to carry more than one kicker, it would be this year, considering that at any given moment your starting kicker could test positive for COVID-19. Of course, given how much time the specialists spend with each other, the same can be said for the punter and long snapper positions.

RELATED: Matt Nagy clarifies where Bears stand on Eddy Piñeiro/Cairo Santos competition

The signing of Cairo “John Fox calls me Carlos” Santos seems to be driven just as much by the fact that Eddy Pineiro is dealing with a groin injury.

 

The Bears are officially less than three weeks away from the opener in Detroit. The kicker situation isn’t necessarilyt concerning yet, but even if he is healthy, Pineiro still has a lot to prove. Santos, meanwhile, has struggled to hold a job in this league. For a team that plans on contending in 2020, we’ll call the kicker situation “uneasy” for now.

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