Cole Kmet

Bears rookie watch: 5 early thoughts about 2020 draft class, and Ledarius Mack

Bears rookie watch: 5 early thoughts about 2020 draft class, and Ledarius Mack

Bears coaches, over the last few weeks, got a better sense of what kind of players and people they have in 2020’s crop of rookies. While practices don’t begin until the week of Aug. 17, rookies have been able to participate in on-field walkthroughs at Halas Hall, allowing the Bears to get their first look at these guys since April’s draft.

With that in mind, here are five things we learned this week from talking to those Bears coaches about everyone from Cole Kmet to Ledarius Mack:

Jaylon Johnson is in a stiffer competition than we might’ve thought.

Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said Johnson has been “a little bit limited” because of his shoulder (Johnson underwent a procedure on his shoulder in March). I wouldn’t be too concerned about Johnson’s shoulder right now, although it’s something to monitor when practices are expected to begin in about 10 days.

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But even if he’s full go in a week and a half, Johnson is not a lock to win the competition to start at corner opposite Kyle Fuller. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if he isn’t on the field Sept. 13 in Detroit, with Kevin Toliver II or Artie Burns getting the nod over him.

This is where 2020’s pandemic-altered offseason hurts Johnson. He didn’t have rookie minicamp and OTAs to get his feet under him with his assignments, and he won’t have the benefit of a few preseason games to adjust to the physicality and speed of the NFL. And guys with experience in the league might be first in line come September. 

Johnson, no doubt, will be a starter for the Bears soon enough – probably early in the 2020 season – but I continue to get the sense he might not be one immediately. Although that sense could always change once practice actually starts up at Halas Hall this month.

“The good thing is it’s not like he has to come in and he has to be the No. 2 or No. 3 guy right now,” Pagano said. “Now, once we get going and we start practicing if he beats those guys out and he wins that third spot, second spot, whatever that is, then great. … We missed the whole offseason. They’ve got a lot of catching up to do and make up, but again, we’ve got a lot of time with him so we can be patient at that position.”

The early returns on Cole Kmet are encouraging.

The first words tight end coach Clancy Barone used to describe Kmet were “quick study.” And everything that showed up when the Bears scouted him coming out of Notre Dame has shown up in meetings and walkthroughs.

“He certainly looks the part,” Barone said. “He’s as big as advertised, he’s in tremendous condition, very lean, he’s a big, thick bodied guy and extremely athletic.”

More than any other rookie, the Bears need Kmet to contribute immediately given his upside and potential impact in allowing Matt Nagy use more 12 personnel – a largely untapped resource in his playbook. So it’s certainly good news that Kmet is quickly picking things up and stayed in great shape over the summer.

MORE: Fragility of 2020 season constantly on Bears' players minds

Rookie tight ends, though, rarely make major impacts. It’s not easy to transition from college to the speed and physicality of the NFL at that position. It'll be even more difficult without OTAs and minicamps, let alone preseason games. 

So the Bears will do what they can at Halas Hall to get Kmet prepared for Sept. 13, but how the No. 43 pick handles an NFL game will be an unknown until his first snap at Ford Field that day. 

“Usually there’s a mode of tempo and such that happens in practice and then it ramps up in preseason and then it doubles when you get to regular season and even more in postseason,” Barone said. “That’s going to be the thing as a staff and a team that we replicate in practice. So those young players who are going to be called upon early in their career so they can get an idea of what opening day is going to be like.”

The Bears are playing the long game with Trevis Gipson.

Outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said Barkevious Mingo, Isaiah Irving and James Vaughters will compete to be the Bears’ No. 3 OLB – the first guy off the sidelines when Khalil Mack or Robert Quinn needs a breather. It was notable that he didn’t mention Gipson, a fifth-round pick, among that group.

Again, there’s a theme here: The lack of spring workouts and practices is negatively impacting the ability of almost every rookie across the league to get on the field early in the 2020 season. The Bears like Gipson’s pass-rushing upside, and that hasn’t changed. But he’s transitioning not only from college to the pros, but from being a 4-3 end to a 3-4 edge rusher. 

The good news on Gipson is Monachino has no concerns about his work ethic and ability to learn. Gipson is constantly asking questions and looking for extra time to spend with coaches, Monachino said, which will help him catch up faster.

“For a player that played in a system like he did, it’s real common for a guy to see the game through a straw,” Monachino said. “But he’s trying to see it through a barn door right now. It’s a process but he’s not shying away from it at all. He’s a super kid and I think he’s fitting in well in the room and I think he’s got a bright future.”

Here’s a quote you’ll love to see.

DeShea Townsend, talking about fifth-round cornerback Kindle Vildor: “As far as the type of guy he is, he is a Bear guy.”

While these walkthroughs have been better than nothing, most of the last few weeks has been a getting-to-know-you period for Bears coaches with these rookies. The springtime Zoom calls were nice, sure, but it’s a lot more impactful to get to know someone in person – even if you’re socially distancing and wearing masks.

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And for Townsend, getting to know Vildor revealed something that’ll help the Georgia Southern product fit right in on the 2020 Bears.

“He is a true competitor — the way that he asks questions in meetings, the things that he wants to know, it just shows that he’s a competitor,” Townsend said. “So I’m excited to see him get a chance to get out there and play.”

Don’t count out Ledarius Mack.

I didn’t include Mack in my latest 53-man roster projection, though I do have him landing on the Bears’ practice squad. It’s going to be a tough for an undrafted rookie to beat out multiple players with NFL experience this year.

But if anyone can do it, it’s Mack, isn’t it? We'll end the first Rookie Watch installment with a glowing review from his position coach:

“Ledarius is not a very big player, but he walks around here like he’s 10 feet tall, which is exactly what you’d expect,” Monachino said. “He’s got plenty of juice. He’s explosive. He’s got really heavy hands. He’s done a lot of things that are really impressive, and he’s an easy learner, and so that part has been great.

“From a personality standpoint, he’s got a lot of the best traits Khalil has. He’s a little snarky every now and then, so he’s got some funny things to say. He also is very attentive in what his job is. It’s been a joy to have him. To see those two together, they have tried not to be Khalil and Khalil’s little brother or Ledarius and Ledarius’s big brother as much as they have been teammates, which has been kind of cool to watch. It’s not like a dad and a son. It’s two guys that are both fighting for the same things, and it’s awesome. It’s been fun to have.

“Talented young player. Right place, right time, got a chance.”   

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Matt Nagy admits Bears' 2020 offseason may lead to 'limited reps' for rookies

Matt Nagy admits Bears' 2020 offseason may lead to 'limited reps' for rookies

Realistically, the Bears are expecting some sort of immediate production out of at least two – and maybe 3 or 4 – of their rookies. While Darnell Mooney, Trevis Gipson, and Kindle Vildor will all get their shots at contributing right out of the gate, there's inarguably more expected from their first two picks, Cole Kmet and Jaylon Johnson. The Adam Shaheen trade all but ensured that Kmet will be one of the Bears' starting tight ends, and Johnson certainly has more than a puncher's chance at taking the CB2 job from Kevin Tolliver. Given the fact that their first game action will be in Week 1, it's not inaccurate to say that the margin for error has never been more slim.

"I think with the rookies, they realize that," Matt Nagy said on Wednesday. "That the one thing that they heard from all of our guest speakers and people coming in who were giving them advice throughout the offseason is that if there’s one time and one season to know the playbook inside and out, it’s 2020. They don’t have preseason games to go out there and make plays and show us a play or two that we see. They don’t have that now and so now they’re going to have to do it in practice." 

Nagy emphasized that the plan isn't necessarily to get the most of the rookies, per say, but to instead focus on the best of what they can offer. It'd be a failure on the coaches, he added, if players were "thinking on that field." Without all the benefits of a full-length training camp in their first year, the Bears' coach admitted that initially, it may be difficult to find rookies the opportunities they'd get in a normal year. 

"Could be limited reps for some of them," Nagy said. "But we just need to be really good as a coaching staff when practice is over and we come in here to the facility and we start watching practice. It can't just be blowing by these plays and we'll notice it over time. No, every rep is gonna count."

Ultimately, putting the rookies into successful positions right away will test Nagy's (and Pace's) abilities as a talent evaluator. Not only that, but with original roster sizes being downsized from 90 to 80, both lamented that players who would normally make the team may still end up without a roster spot. For whatever it's worth, given all the curveballs they've already been thrown, the 2020 rookie class has apparently impressed those around Halas Hall. 

"The one way to handle that is to understand that, again, if you try to do too much or if we paralyze them mentally because we’re giving them too much that they can’t think ... " Nagy said. "... I’ve come away pretty impressed with the way that they’ve taken our Zoom meetings and transferred them to the football field." 

Chicago Bears left off Athletic's best NFL players under 25 list

Chicago Bears left off Athletic's best NFL players under 25 list

The Athletic doesn’t believe the Bears’ young talent stacks up with the rest of the league.

The online magazine published a list of their “All Under-25” roster highlighting the “best and youngest of the NFL,” and no Bears made the cut.

Roquan Smith did earn an honorable mention at linebacker, while Tremaine Edmunds, who was drafted eight picks after Smith, got the nod.

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That’s not to say the young Bears on the roster won’t make an impact this season. For instance 23-year-old David Montgomery has shown the ability to affect the game with his playmaking ability. There’s just no way he was making the list over Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley.

New draft picks Cole Kmet (21) and Jaylon Johnson (21) could also make their case to be on the next iteration of this list, they just haven’t had a chance to prove themselves yet. The Athletic said they did not include rookies in their list.

Noah Fant was the choice at tight end, but his 40/562/3 line from 2019 is hardly breathtaking. If Kmet is able to live up to the Bears’ expectations, he should surpass those numbers as the tight end position is so important in Matt Nagy’s offense.

Meanwhile, Marshon Lattimore and Marlon Humphrey earned the job at cornerback, but they’re each 24 years old. That will leave both slots open next season, and if Jaylon Johnson earns a starting job with the Bears, he could make a name for himself playing opposite Kyle Fuller.

But until the younger Bears develop into stars, the vets will have to lead the way.


RELATED: Can David Montgomery thrive in Nagy's offense?

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