Bears position coaches spoke to reporters after Thursday's practice at Halas Hall. Here are four things we learned from those sessions:
(1) Tight ends coach Clancy Barone feels that Cole Kmet has benefitted greatly from a year of experience and a full offseason with the Bears.
As a rookie in 2020, Kmet was eased into the lineup after all offseason workouts and preseason games were cancelled due to COVID-19. A year later, he's thriving in training camp and looking to build on his strong finish to last season.
"His understanding of the offense obviously helps, his confidence in it and I think it allows him to play faster," Barone said. "Last year because of no OTAs, whatever else, we had to kind of slow-play it and let them grow naturally. Now it's a process of trying to just define little details of techniques and things like that. But he's playing a lot faster this year than he was last year, a lot faster."
Last season Kmet played fewer than 50 percent of the offense's snaps in each of the first nine games before lining up for 70, 79, 78, 85, 100, 90 and 89 percent of the plays in the last seven contests. He took advantage of the expanded playing time, catching 20 passes for 149 yards in the final five games after recording eight receptions for 94 yards in the first 11 contests.
Based on how Kmet has looked on the practice field during training camp, Barone has high expectations for the 2020 second-round pick from Notre Dame.
"He's so much stronger and faster than he was last year and just much more confident," Barone said. "He's not thinking about stuff. He just goes out and does it, and I'm looking for big things from Cole."
(2) Running backs coach Michael Pitre loves what veteran free-agent addition Damien Williams has brought to the Bears both on and off the field.
A seventh-year pro, Williams signed with the Bears after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. The last time he played in a game, he helped lead the Chiefs to a 31-20 comeback win over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, capping the 2019 season. With Kansas City trailing 20-17 in the fourth quarter, he caught a 5-yard touchdown pass to give the Chiefs a 24-20 lead with 2:44 remaining and then scored a second TD on a 38-yard run to clinch the victory with 1:12 to play.
"Damien has been a great addition to the room," Pitre said. "Great attitude. Comes to work every day. A great leader. A veteran guy who has some experience. He's able to use that experience to help the guys. I think he'll be a great addition to our offense in giving us another weapon."
Williams is expected to complement starter David Montgomery, who tied for fifth in the NFL in rushing last season with a career-high 1,070 yards and eight touchdowns on 247 carries. Williams brings versatility to the Bears, having rushed for 1,231 yards and 12 TDs and caught 138 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 TDs in six seasons with the Dolphins (2014-17) and Chiefs (2018-19).
According to Pitre, Williams has a great personality, loves to compete and is always looking to improve his game. "Any opportunity where we're going against the defense, he's encouraging the defense, 'Hey, give me a great look,' and vice versa," Pitre said. "He's a guy that's going to make us a better as a team. He's brought a great attitude overall to this team."
(3) While defensive lineman Bilal Nichols had a career year in 2020, defensive line coach Chris Rumph thinks that Nichols' ceiling is even higher.
"This guy is just scratching the surface," Rumph said. "The more he learns, the better he will be. I've been really impressed with his intelligence. He's a really, really smart player, so I'm not surprised when I see some of the things he's accomplished so far. He absorbs things from anybody. It could be a vet, an assistant coach, anybody, he's absorbing information."
Nichols helped fill the void last year created by the absence of veteran nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Nichols, a 2018 fifth-round draft pick from Delaware, established career highs in 2020 with 16 starts, 40 tackles, 5.0 sacks and seven tackles-for-loss. The 6-3, 313-pounder also generated his first career interception.
Goldman returned to the Bears for training camp, but he's been sidelined since being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday. Goldman's absence has given Nichols even more opportunities to hone his game in practice.
Rumph described Nichols as a "big guy who can move," adding that "he does a really good job getting skinny in holes and things like that and understanding where the block is coming from, so I'm really excited about that."
(4) Inside linebacker Roquan Smith is everything that first-year linebackers coach Bill McGovern thought the 2018 first-round pick would be and more.
McGovern, who coached linebackers with the Eagles (2013-15) and Giants (2016-19), described Smith as "obviously an outstanding player, better person" who's "locked in right now."
"I think his focus right now is really something special," McGovern said. "When he was coming out of Georgia, every linebacker coach knew about him, so everybody had a very high opinion of him. He shows up to work every day. He wants to get better, not only physically but mentally. He studies the game and he's a pleasure to coach."
An emerging young NFL star, Smith is looking to build on a breakout 2020 season. The Georgia product finished seventh in the NFL with a career-high and team-leading 139 tackles, second with 96 solo tackles and tied for second with 18 tackles-for-loss—the most TFLs by a Bears player since Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had 19 in 2002.
Smith was the only NFL player to record at least 100 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two interceptions. He picked off two passes in a Week 16 win over the Jaguars, becoming the first Bears linebacker with two interceptions in a game since Lance Briggs in 2008 and the only NFL linebacker to accomplish that feat in 2020.
Smith also fueled a three-game winning streak late in the season that propelled the Bears into the playoffs. He generated 14 tackles, one sack and three tackles-for-loss against the Vikings; 12 tackles, two sacks and two tackles-for-loss versus the Texans; and the aforementioned two interceptions against the Jaguars.