5 players to watch on defense during camp

After leading the NFL in several statistical categories last season, the Bears defense will look to make a smooth transition under new coordinator Chuck Pagano. The following five players will be especially intriguing to watch on the practice field when the reigning NFC North champions report to training camp three weeks from Thursday:

Roquan Smith 
After an impressive rookie season, Smith is primed to have a breakout year in 2019.

The eighth pick in the 2018 draft was named to ESPN.com’s NFL All-Rookie Team and selected as a Pro Bowl alternate after leading the Bears with 122 tackles, two shy of Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher’s team record set in 2000. Smith also registered five sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, one interception and five pass breakups while playing in all 16 games with 15 starts. He added a second interception in the Bears’ wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles

“What’s awesome about him is you can’t really put a ceiling on him,” general manager Ryan Pace said during the offseason, “not only because of his physical traits but more importantly his football makeup—like how good a teammate he is, how passionate he is about the game and his football intelligence. When you combine the physical traits with the football makeup, that’s where it’s hard to put a ceiling on this player.”

Leonard Floyd
Smith isn’t the only promising young first-round selection from Georgia on the Bears defense. Chosen with the ninth pick in the 2016 draft, Floyd will head to training camp looking to build on an impressive 2018 season. He started all 16 games for the first time in his career, registering 47 tackles, four sacks, nine tackles-for-loss, four pass breakups, one fumble recovery and one interception.

Floyd, who was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate, excelled during the second half of the season after recovering from a hand injury that hampered him early in the year. He returned his first NFL interception 19 yards for a touchdown Nov. 4 against the Bills. The 6-4, 251-pounder recorded three sacks in a three-game stretch late in the season, including two of Aaron Rodgers in a 24-17 division-clinching win over the Packers last Dec. 18 at Soldier Field.

Slowed by multiple injuries in three seasons with the Bears, the key for Floyd this summer will be to remain healthy.

Eddie Jackson
Based on his first two NFL seasons, Jackson has an opportunity to become an all-time great if he continues to ascend. The Bears haven’t had a ball-hawking, play-making impact safety like the Alabama product since Mike Brown more than a decade ago.

Last year Jackson recorded a career-high six interceptions and returned three takeaways—two picks and one fumble—for touchdowns. His 41-yard interception return TD last Thanksgiving gave the Bears a 23-16 win over the Lions and was selected as the team’s top play of the season by ChicagoBears.com. 

Jackson, who was named first-team All-Pro and voted to his first Pro Bowl last year, has scored five defensive touchdowns, tied for the most by an NFL player in his first two NFL seasons (with the Jets’ Erik McMillan in 1988-89).

Jackson has developed into more of a vocal leader as he’s gained more experience, and that likely will continue into his third NFL season.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
The Bears return 10 of 11 starters on defense, with the lone exception at safety where Clinton-Dix replaces departed free-agent Adrian Amos.

Clinton-Dix has appeared in 80 games with 74 starts in five NFL seasons with the Packers (2014-18) and Redskins (2018). He has recorded 438 tackles, 28 pass breakups, 14 interceptions, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, eight tackles-for-loss and eight quarterback hits. The Florida native has three additional interceptions in seven postseason contests.

In reuniting with Jackson—his teammate at Alabama for one season—Clinton-Dix hopes to revert to the form he displayed with the Packers in 2016 when he was voted to the Pro Bowl after registering a career-high five interceptions.  

Clinton-Dix has meshed well with his new teammates. “We have something special going on here,” he said during the offseason. “In the locker room there are so many great guys who are down to earth and funny, all have the same passion and also want to win ballgames, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Duke Shelley
It will be interesting to see whether the rookie sixth-round draft choice can pick up in training camp where he left off in offseason workouts. Shelley excelled in OTA and minicamp practices, impressing coaches with his quickness and ball skills. 

One of the most intriguing position battles in training camp figures to be between Shelley and veteran free-agent pickup Buster Skrine at nickel back. Both showed the ability to stick with receivers and break up passes in offseason workouts.

At Kansas State, Shelley appeared in 38 games with 37 starts over four seasons. He recorded 165 tackles, eight interceptions—returning two for touchdowns—one sack and seven tackles-for-loss. Shelley started all 12 games he played as a junior in 2017, ranking fourth in the Big 12 with 13 pass breakups while earning honorable mention all-conference recognition. He opened the first seven games last year before sustaining a season-ending toe injury.

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