Jaylon Johnson’s breakout season has been well-documented. He is all but sure to be rewarded for his standout play by breaking the bank either this offseason or the next one (if Chicago opts to use the franchise tag on the lockdown corner ahead of free agency). However, he is just one of the players on the back end playing at an extremely high level right now. In fact, the Bears might already have a case for the league’s premier secondary.
Ryan Poles deserves a massive amount of credit for the way he has overhauled the Bears’ defense since becoming Chicago’s General Manager last offseason. There are only three players on the entire defense that he is not responsible for bringing to the Windy City. Two of those players, Johnson and safety Eddie Jackson, have been long-time staples of Chicago’s secondary since their careers began. While Jackson is still a dependable member of the Bears’ defense, the fact that he has arguably been their least impactful starter on the back end is a testament to Poles’ eye for talent through the draft.
The Bears’ blueprint became clear when Poles’ addressed the secondary with the first two selections of last year’s draft in Kyler Gordon, whom they selected with the 39th pick, and Jaquan Brisker, who was selected nine spots later. Both players took a step forward this year after promising rookie seasons, and you could make a case that Gordon has already established himself as one of the league’s best young slot cornerbacks (especially against the run). Likewise, Brisker has also been especially stout against the run and has displayed great versatility, lining up all over the field.
While both players mentioned above have met expectations this year, Tyrique Stevenson, whom the team selected with the 56th pick, has drastically outperformed them. Much like Gordon’s rookie season, the 23-year-old experienced his fair share of struggles to begin the year. However, he has really come on strong over the second half of the season and has more interceptions (four) and (pass deflections (15) than any of the seven cornerbacks taken ahead of him. While he might not receive the award, the rookie cover man is more than deserving of consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
It should come as no surprise that the Bears increased ball production this season coincided with the addition of Montez Sweat ahead of the trade deadline, as he has been everything he was expected to be and more. The Bears have 16 interceptions over their previous six games, and Sweat’s ability to collapse the pocket and get in the face of opposing passers is a major reason why that is the case. They also lead the league with 22 interceptions despite having only three through the first six weeks.
The starters are not the only ones who have played at a high level, as rookie fifth-round cover man Terell Smith has also made the most of his opportunities. Whenever the University of Minnesota product has gotten a chance to get on the field, he has not only held his own in coverage, but he has shown the ability to make splash plays (he forced and recovered a fumble against Washington and has five pass breakups in limited action).
While Smith’s presence could lead the Bears to feel comfortable not resigning Johnson, they would be wise to put pen to paper with their budding lockdown corner and allow the rookie to continue developing as a quality backup who can start in a pinch. The only change that the Bears might be looking to make in the offseason is at free safety, as cutting Jackson would save nearly $13 million (while incurring a $5.5 million penalty), and there are a few interesting free agents who will be hitting the market this offseason, including Antoine Winfield Jr. and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
Chicago’s secondary entered the year with a massive amount of potential. However, they have drastically outperformed even the highest expectations. As wild as it sounds, this season may only be the start of their dominance, as the young group of playmakers should only get better as they continue to get more experience and comfort playing with each other.