John Baron II

Five things we learned from the first weekend of the Bears’ kicking competition 

Five things we learned from the first weekend of the Bears’ kicking competition 

Update, 6:45 p.m.: The Bears waived Redford Jones and John Baron II, and did not sign any of the four kickers at Halas Hall who were there on a tryout. 

The final practice of the Bears’ 2019 rookie minicamp ended with Matt Nagy calling out two names: Casey Bednarski and Redford Jones. 

Nagy then explained to the assembled group of drafted players, undrafted free agents and those there on a tryout what would happen next: Bednarski and Jones would have a kick-off that, essentially, boiled down to the loser being the first player to miss. But there was an additional twist: Bednarski represented the defensive players, while Jones was kicking for the offense.

Bednarski and Jones both connected 32- and 43-yard attempts as players heckled and cheered the contestants. Bednarski nailed his 48-yard try. Jones missed his. 

Defensive players mobbed Bednarski, who did his trademark backflip in celebration. Nagy then delivered the repercussions for the offensive players: They would have to circle up around Jones and do 25 up-downs while the losing kicker watched. 

“I thought it was awesome,” Elliott Fry, a kicker who wasn’t part of the competition, said. “That’s what you’ve got to do — you’ve got to create pressure situations, and obviously you can’t go out to Soldier Field and have 60,000 people there and have pressure on the line. That’s one of the best ways to create pressure and as kickers that’s kind of what it comes down to.”

The image of gassed offensive players doing up-downs at the end of practice — albeit the shortest one of the weekend — while Jones had to sheepishly watch is a defining one for how the Bears’ kicking competition may play out in the coming weeks and months. Here’s what else we learned after three days of closely following all eight kickers’ every move at Halas Hall:

1. Expect far fewer kickers present for OTAs. 

Nagy said the Bears, ideally, would have two to three kickers on the 90-man roster for OTAs, which begin May 21 at Halas Hall. He left the door open for the team to carry four kickers, but indicated things would have to awfully close for that many to be on the roster. 

From observing the eight kickers (Bednarski, Jones, Chris Blewitt, Elliott Fry, Emmit Carpenter, John Baron II, Spencer Evans and Justin Yoon) in the competition all weekend, the top four seemed to be Bednarski, Blewitt, Fry and Evans (Bednarski and Evans were at rookie minicamp on tryouts, Blewitt and Fry are on the roster).

Bednarski, though, was informed the Bears will not sign him. Jones and Baron II were waived, and none of the other kickers at Halas Hall on a tryout were signed. So that leaves two on the roster, for now: Blewitt and Fry. 

While making the most kicks is the No. 1 aspect of this competition, it’s not the only one. 

The Bears used tracking technology to gather data beyond makes and misses, such as trajectory and ball speed, which will factor into their equation of who to keep and who not to keep. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, too, made a point to let his kickers know that simply making kicks at Halas Hall wasn’t going to mean they’d make kicks in the conditions at Soldier Field. 

“I think he said, this is not an Augusta fairway,” Fry said. “It’s going to be bumpy out there. That’s something you have to deal with.”

And from a mental standpoint, Nagy and Tabor aimed to push the limits of each of the kickers present to, as Blewitt said, “see what we were made of.”

So Nagy, Tabor, Ryan Pace and the rest of the Bears’ decision-makers will huddle in the coming days to pour over data, scouting reports and video of every kicker brought into Halas Hall this weekend. Perhaps someone like Bednarski kicked his way onto the roster, while someone like Jones (who was the only kicker on the roster not made available to the media Sunday) kicked himself off it. We’ll find out in the coming days, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to only see two or three of these eight players back at Halas Hall in late May. 

“They’re not going to be easy (decisions),” Nagy said. “The kicker position is one where we’re going to have to — we have to make sure that we are making the right decision.”

2. Cody Parkey will loom over this competition, but Nagy wants it to be in a productive way. 

During Friday and Saturday’s practices, Nagy called out the name of a kicker — Fry on Friday, Blewitt on Saturday — to attempt a field goal in the middle of practice, in front of the entire team and coaching staff, from 43 yards. That was intentional: It’s the distance from which Cody Parkey’s game-winning kick against the Philadelphia Eagles doinked off the left upright and crossbar at Soldier Field. 

“What coach said when he first brought us in here is you face adversity head on,” Baron said. “Like, we don’t shy away from that kick at all. That’s part of the game. If it comes down to that kick again, he needs the guy that’s going to go in there and make that. We’re not going to be scared of it; we’re going to fight it.”

Nagy showed not just the eight kickers, but his entire team — returning veterans included — a clip of Parkey’s infamous miss, driving home his message of turning the brutal end to last season into something positive this season. 

“No elephant in the room,” Nagy said. “This is where we're at. This is what happened last year. This is gone now. How can we improve? Well, that happened to be the last play of our season. So now if you're a kicker and you're in the room, you're going to feel uncomfortable. If you're a player or coach in the room, you're going to feel uncomfortable. So let's go test it out now.”

3. This process may not net the Bears their Week 1 kicker. 

An irony loomed over the daily kicking competition updates emanating from Halas Hall: The kicker the Bears will begin 2019 with may not have been there. 

Nagy said he feels “strongly” that the team’s Week 1 kicker was at Halas Hall this weekend, but there exists a possibility that would render this months-long competition utterly pointless. 

The Bears could whittle this competition down to three guys for OTAs, two guys for training camp and then keep the winner on their roster on cut-down day over Labor Day Weekend…and then, a day later, acquire a kicker off waivers and release the “winner” of the competition. 

At this early of a stage, nothing can be ruled out for how things will end, and who will wind up kicking field goals on Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field. 

4. The media has a role to play in this. 

Usually, everything that happens in these minicamp/OTA practices at Halas Hall is considered off the record by the Bears’ media policy — meaning reporters are not allowed to provide specifics of what they see on the field. 

The team tweaked its policy, though, for rookie minicamp: Anything done by kickers on the main practice field was considered fair game for reporting, which is why we’re able to tell you what happened at the end of practice Sunday, for example. The bulk of the kickers’ work came on a different practice field, where reporters charted makes and misses to provide general thoughts on what we saw. It was impossible to not notice the reporters standing near the goalposts or on the sideline. And by giving us in the media more freedom to report what we see, it could have the effect of putting more pressure on the members of this competition. 

“I don’t think anyone really minded it,” Baron said. “We kind of expected it coming into it. But I don’t think it threw anyone off or did anything like that. Media is always to be around especially if you’re trying to compete at an NFL level.”

5. Blewitt is pronounced how you think it is.  

Nagy cracked a smile when he was asked about Blewitt in March at the NFL Annual Meeting in Arizona, saying the kicker’s seemingly-unfortunate last name was pronounced “Blue-Ay.” 

It’s not. 

“I heard he said I was French,” Blewitt said. “I’m not French. You know, it was fun, people are going to have fun with that.”

Which undrafted free agents have the best chance of sticking with the Bears?

Which undrafted free agents have the best chance of sticking with the Bears?

The Bears have had a good amount of success mining the undrafted free agent market in Ryan Pace’s tenure as general manager, which is noteworthy after the team announced its 2019 21-member haul on Thursday. 

In the past, the Bears unearthed Bryce Callahan, who developed into a key contributor on the league’s best defense in 2018 and signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Denver Broncos earlier this year. Also part of the Bears’ 2015 class of undrafted free agents was wide receiver Cameron Meredith, who led the team in receiving yards in 2016 but had his Bears career cut short by a severe knee injury during 2017’s preseason. Defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris was signed in 2016 and, after a year on the illness/non-football injury list, emerged as a productive rotational piece on the Bears’ defensive line. 

Those are three standouts; depth pieces in tight end Ben Braunecker (2016), outside linebacker Isaiah Irving (2017) and cornerback Kevin Toliver II (2018) have stuck on the roster after being undrafted as well. 

No undrafted free agent — or late-round draft pick — is ever handed a roster spot. Those have to be earned, starting with rookie minicamp and extended through OTAs, training camp and preseason games/practices. Even then, just because an undrafted free agent makes the initial cut doesn’t mean they’ll be on the Week 1 roster, with Pace and his front office scouring the waiver wire on cut-down day for potentially-better options. 

So it’ll be an uphill climb for all 21 of the undrafted free agents who will arrive at Halas Hall for rookie minicamp this weekend. At best, one or two of this bunch will have a chance to stick in Chicago after cut-down weekend. But there are a few players with better opportunities than others to make an impression, and then the Bears’ roster. A few names to keep an eye on:

Tight ends Dax Raymond, Ian Bunting and Ellis Richardson 

The Bears only have three tight ends on their roster after subtracting Daniel Brown in free agency and not drafting anyone last weekend, so there’s likely a need for at least another body or two on the practice squad, if not the roster. The pressing need here is insurance in case Adam Shaheen can’t stay healthy for the third consecutive year, which would leave a hole at the “Y” (in-line) spot. 

Based on traits and outside evaluations, Raymond has the most impressive profile, ranked by the Athletic’s Dane Brugler as the 14th best draft eligible tight end in this year’s class. The 6-foot-4, 255 pound Utah State alum is old for a rookie (24) but has the size and athleticism to potentially be a swing tight end in Matt Nagy’s offense, able to play both the in-line and move positions. 

The 6-foot-6, 247 pound Bunting could get a look at the “Y” spot and ranked 33rd on Brugler’s list. Richardson, a 6-foot-3, 240 pound prospect, played in a triple option offense at Georgia Southern, so his receiving numbers (10 catches, 81 yards in 2018) were low. 

Kicker John Baron II 

In reality, there’s not much separating Baron from Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and Elliott Fry at the moment, in that none of them have ever kicked in the NFL. (Jones, Blewitt and Fry will be allowed to practice at rookie minicamp this weekend for that reason). Baron hit all five of his field goal attempts from 50 or more yards in 2018, and in his career at San Diego State hit both of his attempts from 50 or more yards when the score was within three points in the fourth quarter. 

The Bears also will bring in four other kickers on a tryout basis for this weekend, when we’ll get our first look at how Nagy and Pace’s unorthodox kicking competition will play out. The full roster of kickers who will be at Halas Hall this weekend: 

Wide receiver Emanuel Hall

The Mizzou speedster was surprisingly available in the pool of undrafted free agents after he expected to be a Day 2 pick, while other analysts had him as a solid mid-round target. A string of injuries that hobbled him throughout his college career — he only played in four games in 2018 — are likely the culprit, though it remains head-scratching that no team took a late-round flier on a guy with good productivity when healthy (56 receptions, 1,334 yards, 13 TDs in 14 games between 2017-2017) and blazing speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine). 

Hall will arrive in Lake Forest this weekend with the most buzz of any undrafted free agent, though he faces an uphill climb to earn a roster spot for two reasons. First, the Bears’ depth chart at receiver is locked into Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Cordarrelle Patterson, and Riley Ridley wasn’t drafted in the fourth round to not make the team. That leaves, at best, one open spot for which Hall, Marvin Hall, Javon Wims and a handful of others will battle. 

The second reason for Hall’s uphill climb: How can he prove he’ll stay healthy in October when it’s only May? His best case would be to force his way onto the Bears’ roster with standout practices in May, June, July and August; if that fails, his goal may need to be putting enough good things on tape during preseason games to get snagged by another team with a more clear opening at receiver. 

Offensive linemen Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher

The hype about Bars being a fourth-round pick if he were healthy — he tore his ACL and MCL in September — is overblown, but he was a solid member of Notre Dame’s offensive lines over the last few years, initially starting his college career as a tackle before kicking inside to guard. 

Mustipher, meanwhile, was a reliable and durable center for the Irish from 2016-2018, though he was ranked as the 17th best player at his position by Brugler. But there’s a common denominator between Bars and Mustipher: Both were recruited and coached by current Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand at Notre Dame, who left his post in South Bend after the 2017 season to join Nagy’s staff. That doesn’t mean either will make the Bears’ roster, but the Hiestand effect makes it easy to see why both wanted to come to Chicago to give themselves a shot at a career in the NFL. 

Bars, in particular, could be an interesting talent to stash and develop on the practice squad for a year, especially if he’s not 100 percent recovered by training camp. 

Edge rushers Matt Betts, Dylan Carrol and Chuck Harris

The Bears should have a wide-open competition for roster spots behind Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch, which went to Irving and Kylie Fitts a year ago. But neither Irving nor Fitts has place on the 53-man roster locked down, opening up an opportunity for any of these undrafted free agents to stick with the Bears. 

Betts comes to Chicago from a college in Montreal, so how he handles the massive step up in competition will be the first thing the Bears will look for. At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, though, Betts at the least has the size profile of the kind of player the Bears have coveted at outside linebacker. The same goes for Carroll, a 6-foot-4, 245 pounder from Division II Grand Valley State. 

Harris will come to Halas Hall with a fan of his already in his position group, having the Buffalo connection to Mack. That, of course, means little for his ability to make the roster, but he did have four sacks in five games for Buffalo in 2018. 

For everyone else

Like every other NFL team, the Bears will have rabid competition near the bottom of the depth chart during OTAs/minicamps/training camp. Just because there’s not a clear opening for a player right now doesn’t mean someone can’t make a name for himself in the coming months and stick on the Bears’ roster over someone with more name recognition. 

But given that only one or two of the 21 players brought into Halas Hall this weekend will make the Bears’ roster, at best, a difficult path awaits.