Not even two weeks into the offseason, the Bears have a huge void to fill.
Over the last six years, defensive line coach Jay Rodgers has developed super stars, sleeper draft picks and veterans off the street, having an enormous impact on the success of the Bears’ defense. But in 2021, one of the best position coaches in the NFL will be moving to Los Angeles to join new Chargers head coach Brandon Staley’s defensive staff.
The move has yet to be officially announced, and Staley’s staff is still being finalized as he interviews defensive coordinators, but Rodgers is expected to have an elevated role with the Chargers, multiple sources told NBC Sports Chicago. That is likely to include being Staley’s defensive run game coordinator, with the opportunity to coach a talented group that includes Joey Bosa. Rodgers and Staley coached together in Chicago from 2017-18, when Staley was the Bears’ outside linebackers coach.
The Bears interviewed Rodgers, 44, for their vacant defensive coordinator job, a source said, but he evidently wasn’t getting that promotion or couldn’t wait on it as the Bears continue to take a deliberate approach to filling that position. Rodgers’ contract with the Bears was expiring and the move to the Chargers not only gives him more job security under a brand-new staff, but also the opportunity to take that next step to eventually becoming a defensive coordinator.
Rodgers’ fingerprints are all over the Bears’ defensive front, with the most obvious success story being Akiem Hicks. Hicks was already four years into his career when he signed a modest two-year contract with the Bears in 2016, but he found a home in former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme and continued to get better and better under the coaching of Rodgers. In 2017, Hicks signed a four-year, $48 million extension with the Bears and became one of the best defensive linemen in the league.
Rodgers also played a big role in developing second-round pick Eddie Goldman, fifth round pick Bilal Nichols and undrafted free agent Roy Robertson-Harris, as well as numerous veterans who have come through the Bears on cheap contracts before getting paid by other teams, including Mitch Unrein and Nick Williams.
Most positions coaches are consulted on personnel decisions involving their position group, but some earn greater say than others. In Rodgers’ case, his scouting eye was held in high regard by general manager Ryan Pace. For example, Rodgers played a large role in drafting Nichols with a fifth-round pick in 2018. He also lobbied Pace to sign Williams after a tryout in 2018. Williams was out of the league in 2017 but contributed six sacks for the Bears in 2019 and earned a two-year, $10 million contract from the Detroit Lions.
“You want guys to play well. That’s why we’re in it,” Rodgers said about Williams in 2019. “You want to help each individual player be the best they can possibly be. Whatever skillset they have. We’ve had tall guys, short guys, thick guys, thin guys. Whatever their role is within the defense, you want them to do their role as best they possibly can.”
Rodgers has always placed a big emphasis on versatility. He wants guys who can play up and down the defensive line. He often said: “The more you can do, the more you get to do.”
That paid off this year when the Bears lost stud nose tackle Eddie Goldman to a COVID-19 opt out. The Bears brought back John Jenkins, who had some success with Rodgers in 2017, but also used several different players at the nose spot, including Nichols.
“We all want to be in this league for 10 years-plus,” Rodgers said. “Some guys get that opportunity, some guys don't. But when you get pigeon-holed into one thing, and maybe that team doesn't have a spot for you, then you're out of the league. So we're trying to develop these guys to be versatile.”
Now Rodgers is the one who gets to be versatile, with the opportunity to be more than a defensive line coach. He is a former quarterback, after all.