3 Reasons For Concern Heading Into 2021 For The Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)
Chicago Bears (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Chicago Bears, Kindle Vildor
Chicago Bears – Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /

Concern No. 2: The Chicago Bears cornerback position

With negative cap space in free agency and the need to clear a max contract off this star-studded defense, the Chicago Bears released longtime cornerback Kyle Fuller after eight seasons. Starting in 64 consecutive games and receiving 1st team All-Pro honors in 2018, Fuller will be greatly missed by Chicago in the secondary. Now that Fuller is in Denver, 2020 second-round pick Jaylon Johnson will take over duties as the CB1.

Opposite Johnson, 2020 fifth-round pick Kindle Vildor, and free agent signing Desmond Trufant look to compete for the starting CB2 spot. Pace and Nagy feel encouraged by what they saw from Vildor at the end of 2020, and seem to feel strongly that Trufant still has some good football left in him. Former first-round pick for the Steelers, Artie Burns also hopes to compete for reps on the outside, but look for the CB2 battle in training camp to mainly be between Vildor and Trufant.

At the nickel corner position, Chicago comes in without 2019 and 2020 starter Buster Skrine. Starting 12 games in 2020 for the Bears, Skrine allowed a passer rating of 123.1 when targeted. Posting a 52.3 overall PFF grade and 46.2 PFF coverage grade, Skrine was extremely below average in coverage last season.

With offenses becoming more pass-happy and pass interference rules around the NFL more favorable to the offense, the slot CB position is more valuable than a lot of fans realize. When Chicago’s defense was ranked No. 1 in the league in 2018, Bryce Callahan was playing lights out for Vic Fangio in the slot.

Ranking 11th out of 131 qualifying corners, Callahan had an 81.3 PFF coverage grade and allowed a passer rating of only 78.9 when targeted. Since losing Callahan to free agency in 2019, the Bears’ pass coverage hasn’t been the same. In order for this defense to get back to being one of the league’s top units in 2021, a stud slot corner must emerge.

Much like the battle for the CB2 spot, the battle for the starting nickel corner position should be a two-horse race. Starting five games for an injured Buster Skrine at the end of 2020, Duke Shelley enters 2021 as the only Bears corner with any starting experience in the slot. A sixth-round pick out of Kansas State in 2019, Shelley is hard-nosed and disciplined in coverage but lacks length, range, and versatility.

Competing with Shelley for the slot corner position is sixth-round pick out of Oregon, Thomas Graham Jr. Opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, Graham entered the 2021 NFL draft as PFF’s 76th-overall prospect. To many scouts and analysts’ surprise, Graham fell all the way to pick 228 where he was scooped up by the Bears.

Posting PFF grades of 83.8 (2017), 86.9 (2018), and 85.8 (2019), Graham was highly productive in coverage during his three seasons with the Ducks. With great instincts, versatility, and coverage ability, I predict Thomas Graham, Jr to start 2021 as the nickel corner for the Chicago Bears.

Bears fans should be excited about the idea of young guys like Kindle Vildor, Jaylon Johnson, and Thomas Graham, Jr getting more opportunities to emerge in this secondary. Since 2015, Ryan Pace has had plenty of success drafting DBs, and even finding guys like Bryce Callahan as a UDFA. Given Pace’s track record at the position, I think the chances of Vildor and/or Graham becoming a productive starter are pretty solid.

If something were to happen to Jaylon Johnson, this secondary would be in big trouble. Signing Steven Nelson or Bashaud Breeland sure seemed like a necessary move for the Bears this offseason. Despite rumors connecting Chicago to both veteran corners, talks never materialized. With training camp now underway, it appears the Bears are sticking with the guys they already have.

Heading into the 2021 season, the lack of depth, experience, and versatility at corner is a big concern to me.