It’s often hard to tell if a burgeoning position battle at a Bears training camp means the backup is winning the job or if the starter is losing it.
It’s way too early to speculate on that, with fifth-round rookie cornerback Terell Smith sharing first-team reps Saturday with Tyrique Stevenson, the second-round rookie cornerback the Bears hand-picked to replace Kindle Vildor opposite Jaylon Johnson.
The Bears, who had the third-most rookie snaps in the NFL last season, didn’t waste any time jumping Stevenson ahead of Vildor in the offseason. With general manager Ryan Poles intent on trading down for more picks to rebuild the roster, he notably traded up five picks to acquire Stevenson — from No. 61 to No. 56 in the second round. It’s the only one of seven same-draft deals that Poles has traded up instead of down to acquire a player.
But Smith, the 165th overall pick from Minnesota, made an early impression on coach Matt Eberflus before suffering an injury during OTAs. Asked at the conclusion of the offseason program in June about under-the-radar players who earned a better shot in training camp off their play in the offseason program, Eberflus mentioned “Smitty” first. “I wish I would have saw Smitty more,” he said. “I was really excited about where he is [before the injury]. He’s going to get back to where he needs to be.”
The 24-year-old Smith, who has the size (6-1, 204), speed (4.41 in the 40-yard dash) and length (32 7/8-inch arms) the Bears covet, apparently has done that. Even in the non-padded ramp-up period in training camp, Smith has been impressive.
Stevenson generally looks the part as well, though his baptism by fire against DJ Moore (and rookie speedster Tyler Scott on one notable occasion) has produced some noticeable lapses. Even then, Stevenson’s coverage on a highlight-reel pass from Justin Fields to Moore on the opening day of practice looked pretty good — an inch away from tipping a perfectly-thrown ball in the end zone.
Practices in pads will provide a much clearer picture, and Stevenson still figures to be the starter. But if Smith’s fast start has staying power, he’ll push Stevenson if he doesn’t replace him.
“He’s been really solid,” Eberflus said of Smith. “He’s learning the position. He’s got a lot of good, long speed to him. He’s got good size. He’s smart. He knows what to do and how to do it.
“We’re going to create competition at those spots and that’s certainly one of them that we’re doing that. It’s good to see him in there [with the first-team defense]. He did a nice job [Saturday].”
2. Tight end Cole Kmet, who signed a four-year, $50 million extension last week, was the fourth of former general manager Ryan Pace’s 46 draft picks to sign a second, multiple-year contract.
He follows center/guard Cody Whitehair (five years, $52.5 million), safety Eddie Jackson (four years, $58.4 million) and running back Tarik Cohen (three years, $17.25 million).
3. Kmet’s over/under props for the 2023 season (per BetOnline.ag): 47 1/2 receptions, 525 1/2 yards, 4 1/2 touchdowns.
Justin Fields’ passing yards total of 2,775 1/2 still looks like the best bet if you think the Bears’ offense is going to break out this season. That’s 185 yards a game if plays 15 games; 163.3 per game if he plays all 17.
4. If you attend practice at training camp and wonder why the Bears run short-field drills like red zone as far away from the stands as possible, it’s to protect the team’s “competitive advantage” by limiting what can be seen or taped. Seriously.
“You’re always mindful of that,” Eberflus said. “We have so many plays that we’re putting in and so much defense we’re putting in right now. When we get to Soldier Field for family day [Family Fest on Aug. 6], we’ll certainly restrict some of those things.”
5. Have the Bears had a Mike Tauchman moment? Tauchman robbed Alec Burleson of a walk-off home run with two outs in the ninth inning to clinch the Cubs’ 3-2 victory over the Cardinals on Friday night.
The Bears have had similarly indelible moments in their history — Greg Latta’s touchdown against the Chiefs in 1977, Mike Brown’s game-ending interceptions in back-to-back games in 2001. Devin Hester’s punt return to cap the Miracle in the Desert in 2006. But the closest they’ve come to Tauchman’s play — a defensive gem on the final play of the game — was defensive lineman Bryan Robinson blocking Ryan Longwell’s 28-yard field goal as time expired to clinch a 14-13 victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field in 1999.
Longwell had made 29-of-30 kicks from 30 yards in to that point in his career, so the Packers had a 96.7% chance of victory when Robinson made the memorable game-saving play.
6. The longest on-ramp to padded practices in training camp history — seven non-padded practices compared to two or three in previous seasons — has not yielded much that you can hang your hat on about the 2023 Bears. It all starts Wednesday.
One general observation: This team feels pretty good about itself. Last year’s rookies are coming out of their shell, veterans are more engaging in interviews and confident. And to this point, there’s little of the cliche chip on their shoulder that rebuilding teams often rely on for motivation. Coming off a 3-14 season, this team seems to know it’s up to them to earn their respect.
That’s a solid foundation, but now comes the hard part — staying healthy when the pads come on.
7. Under-the-radar players to watch when the pads come on Wednesday: Defensive end D’Anthony Jones; CB Greg Stroman; defensive end Terrell Lewis; wide receiver Aron Cruickshank; defensive tackle Donovan Jeter; cornerback Terrell Smith; cornerback Michael Ojemudia.
8. The search for a proven edge rusher continues for Ryan Poles. Maybe when the pads come on the urgency of the matter will be evident. But Poles doesn’t sound like he will overpay to address the need — keeping faith in DeMarcus Walker, Trevis Gipson, Dominique Robinson and others including Terrell Lewis, Rasheem Green, undrafted free agent rookie D’Anthony Jones and Andrew Brown.
“It takes two to make sure it works out [with signing a free agent], so there’s a level of patience that comes with,” Poles said. “There’s no guarantee. If not, I’m excited with the guys that are here. Walker’s done a great job. Robinson’s coming along. Gipson’s coming along. I’m happy with the guys that are here. But obviously we’re gonna look to improve if we can. So if it works out, we’ll attack it.”
9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Former Bears defensive tackle Steve “Mongo” McMichael, hanging tough in his battle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease, was named one of 12 Senior semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Whether or not McMichael makes the Hall of Fame, his standing as Bears royalty is secure: He was the biggest heart-and-soul guy on a team of heart-and-soul guys on the 1985 Bears — the epitome of what one of the greatest teams in football history was all about.
10. Bear-ometer: 8-9 —vs. Packers (W); at Buccaneers (W); at Chiefs (L); vs. Broncos (L); at Commanders (W); vs. Vikings (W); vs. Raiders (W); at Chargers (L); at Saints (L); vs. Panthers (W); at Lions (L); at Vikings (L); vs. Lions (L); at Browns (L); vs. Cardinals (W); vs. Falcons (L); at Packers (W)