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5 players to watch on defense in training camp


After conducting their offseason program entirely on a virtual basis due to the coronavirus, Bears players and coaches are scheduled to return to Halas Hall next Tuesday for the start of training camp.

When they finally get back onto the practice field, here will be five players to watch on the defensive side of the ball:

Akiem Hicks, defensive tackle

One of the Bears' most valuable players returns to action in 2020 after being limited to six games last season due to injuries. Hicks was named to the Pro Bowl in 2018 after helping the Bears win the NFC North title by registering 55 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 12 tackles-for-loss and 16 quarterback hits. But the 6-4, 352-pounder sat out nine of the final 10 contests last year after sustaining an elbow injury early in a Week 5 loss to the Raiders in London.

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers is excited about getting Hicks back on the field, telling reporters on a video call in June: "What I'd like from him is to get back to where he was. We know he's a dominant player inside. He creates a lot of problems for a lot of people. He's a mismatch for a lot of guards and centers and sometimes tackles as well. And those are the things that elevate your front—guys like him who are able to just dominate at his spot."

Robert Quinn, outside linebacker

Pairing the veteran free-agent addition with perennial Pro Bowler Khalil Mack should help give the Bears a fierce pass rush. Quinn arrives having registered 80.5 sacks in nine NFL seasons with the Rams (2011-17), Dolphins (2018) and Cowboys (2019), including a team-high 11.5 sacks last year with Dallas.

"His résumé speaks for itself," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said in June. "[He's] a really, really talented football player. Everybody just thinks he can rush the passer. But he's relentless, he's tough, he's athletic, he's physical. He'll play really good against the run."

Traded from the Dolphins to the Cowboys on March 28, 2019 for a sixth-round pick, Quinn had a resurgent season in Dallas while starting all 14 games he played. His 11.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits were his most since 2013 and his 13 tackles-for-loss were his most since 2014. According to Next Gen Stats, Quinn generated pressure on 14.0 percent of his pass rushes last year, second in the NFL behind only the Packers' Za'Darius Smith (14.6).

Roquan Smith, inside linebacker

After showing flashes of greatness in his first two NFL seasons, Smith appears primed to raise his game to an even higher level in 2020. The eighth pick in the first round of the 2018 draft out of Georgia has led the Bears in tackles in each of his first two years. Smith compiled 121 stops in 2018—three shy of Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's team rookie record—and 100 last year despite missing the final three games with a torn pectoral muscle.

"Ro played some really good football last year; I don't want that to get lost in the shuffle," said inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone. "He had some excellent games and I think the big thing this year is we've got to make that consistent and have that be every game. This is a big year for him. I do feel like there's a gradual level where he's getting better and I think going into Year 3 he's going to have a chance to have a breakout year this year."

Jaylon Johnson, cornerback

With all OTA and minicamp practices cancelled this offseason due to the coronavirus, Johnson and the rest of the Bears rookies missed valuable reps. So the second-round draft pick will have to make up for that lost time during training camp. Johnson is among the leading contenders to replace departed veteran Prince Amukamara opposite Kyle Fuller in the starting lineup. But the 6-foot, 195-pounder must prove on the practice field that he possesses a firm grasp of the defense and can adjust to the speed of the NFL game.

Johnson was a two-time first-team All-Pac 12 selection at Utah, where he played in 38 games with 29 starts the past three seasons and recorded 102 tackles, seven interceptions—two of which he returned for touchdowns—21 pass breakups and one sack. Last season he earned second-team All-America honors, ranking third in the Pac-12 with a team-leading 11 pass breakups.

Tashaun Gipson Sr., safety

When the Bears signed Gipson to a one-year deal May 1, he became the most experienced safety on their roster, having appeared in 112 NFL games with 104 starts over eight seasons with the Browns (2012-15), Jaguars (2016-18) and Texans (2019). He has recorded 446 tackles, 23 interceptions—three of which he returned for touchdowns—47 pass breakups and 13 tackles-for-loss.

"He's a talented guy, he's a smart guy, he's a great pro," said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. "He's played a lot and he's got a ton of experience. He's an athletic guy, he can play in deep parts of the field and he's got good coverage skills and he can play down in the box, so from a versatility standpoint it's going to be great to have him."

Gipson entered the NFL with the Browns in 2012 as an undrafted free agent from Wyoming. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2014 after registering a career-high six interceptions. Last season Gipson started all 14 games he played with the Texans, compiling 51 tackles, three interceptions—one he returned 79 yards for a TD—eight pass breakups and two tackles-for-loss.