Youth is running rampant in the Bears' backfields. Both offensive and defensive. While Stan Drayton's group of runners consists primarily of backs with no more than two years of NFL experience in hopes of replacing Matt Forte by committee, Ed Donatell's group on the last line of defense at least has a couple of graybeards by comparison.
Antrel Rolle was supposed to come in and lead a year ago, but it was more vocal than on the field. Tracy Porter was the guy brought in just 14 months ago, and after one of the best seasons of his eight-year NFL career, he is back to play mentor, stay healthy, and drape the opposition's top wideout. But besides Sherrick McManis (seventh year) and Chris Prosinski (sixth season) — neither are locks to make the final 53-man roster despite their special teams capabilities — every other defensive back in camp right now has no more two years' experience at this level. And while there are expected improvements from offseason additions in the defense's front seven, many eyes now turn on the defensive back corps — shy on experience, and creating turnovers a year ago.
"It's a big challenge, but it's a lot of fun," said Donatell after Thursday's two hours of practice in 90-degree temperatures in Bourbonnais. "These guys are so willing. They're wide open to learning and they work together, and I think we're gonna be able to grab an energy from us all working together. That's going to make us a pretty solid group."
Despite the turnover deficiency (a franchise record-low eight interceptions, only four by defensive backs), the unit also ranked just 22nd in sacks last season, which doesn't help. The good? The defense still somehow rose from 30th in 2014 to fourth in pass defense (a bend-don't-break 224.6 yards per game). So now it's up to Donatell, who molded a quartet of young defensive backs in San Francisco to six Pro Bowl appearances in his four years there with Vic Fangio, to get this group to walk the fine line between aggressiveness and discipline.
"We want to come out with disciplined play. We don't believe it's an either/or — that you have to be unsound and leave your technique to produce takeaways," Donatell explained. "There's times when you have a non-aggressive angle we want you to go for the ball. When you don't, we want you to go for the tackle. When you have a deep zone, stay deep, when it's short, stay short. So stay within the defense. That's a non-compromising principle for us, and good things will happen."
But Donatell still expresses an urgency to make that leap intelligently, young or not.
"It's a mindset you create, it's a culture. There's no question about it here, and you've got a great measuring stick. You know, it was so great here (in defenses under Lovie Smith) a few years back, and we're looking to create that different places. It's not a switch you just turn on. It takes a little bit of time. We're not comfortable with waiting for it to happen. We want to speed it up and get going, where people have fun."
When all was said and done in 2015, a look at the starting lineups showed Donatell wound up relying on Porter, Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos in three of those spots, with undrafted free agent Bryce Callahan developing trust in the nickel package. The latter will be given an opportunity to compete for one of the outside spots this preseason, while the 25-year NFL coaching veteran praises the way Amos wasn't intimidated, took on greater responsibilities as his rookie season went on, and kept getting himself ready every week despite a shoulder injury that required surgery right after the season.
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Here were some of Donatell's other thoughts Thursday.
On Fuller entering his third season:
"The biggest difference right now is he's more familiar with what we're doing, more sure of himself, which means he's going to react faster. We're always looking for them to `spike' the second year we have them, improve. He's getting used to the group of coaches we have, a new system, and right now he's on a path to keep improving."
On waiver pickup Harold Jones-Quartey rebounding from a mid-season benching to having excellent games in returning to starting safety the last two games:
"He was learning on the run. We gave him some game action, let him marinate a bit, then brought him back. But part of your talent, and we make no exception, is if you get the ball for us, there's a place for you in our defense."
On fourth-round draft picks Deon Bush and Deiondre' Hall, and sixth-round selection DeAndre Houston-Carson:
"We like them all. We've got a great room, but time will tell on that one. Time will definitely tell. We're excited for the preseason because that really tells us a lot."
Those games begin next Thursday, in the preseason opener at Soldier Field against the Denver Broncos.