Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano spoke with the media on a video call Thursday. Here are five highlights from the session:
(1) Pagano believes linebacker Roquan Smith has put the offseason to good use.
Smith enters his third season in Chicago with high expectations, and according to Pagano, the early results have been encouraging.
"He's locked in," said Pagano. "He's engaged. Going through the meetings to this point, the installs. He had a couple walkthroughs with those guys. He's on top of that. He hasn't skipped a beat. I just think we've seen Pro Bowl-caliber play. Now it's just gotta be consistent. Do it week-in and week-out and stay consistent. Coming into Year 3, he's going to have a phenomenal year."
The 6-foot, 230-pounder has led the Bears in tackles in each of his first two NFL seasons. 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.
According to Pagano, one of the keys to Smith reaching his potential will be his increased familiarity with the system. In an unusual offseason, Pagano was able to meet with Smith over Zoom, which gave the defensive coordinator more time to expound on his defensive scheme's intellectual aspects.
"You don't get the time that we got as far as just meetings and watching tape and talking about technique, talking about concepts," said Pagano. "He has a great understanding of the call, why we're calling it, when we're going to call it, what's the situation, and then 'What's my job?'"
Pagano also praised Smith's efforts to improve his conditioning and rehab from his season-ending injury.
"He's in probably the best shape of his life," said Pagano. "He's changed his body. He's really, really lean. Looks really good. He's moving around good. Again, his focus right now, and his mindset is off the charts."
(2) Pagano thinks second-round draft pick Jaylon Johnson is even more impressive in person.
Until last week, new players could only interact with Pagano over video chat. Upon meeting them for the first time at Halas Hall, Pagano was told that he was taller than he seemed on camera. Pagano had the same reaction to Johnson, the rookie cornerback taken in the second round.
Though Pagano was familiar with Johnson from his college tape, seeing him in action has left Pagano even more impressed.
"He's got great length," said Pagano. "He's high cut. Moving around out there, he's been a little bit limited because he's coming off of a shoulder deal and stuff, but he's got a bunch of dominant traits that should equate because he's got a good work ethic. I think he's passionate and loves football."
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.
The 6-foot, 195-pounder's best year was 2018 when he set career highs with 41 tackles and four interceptions. Last season Johnson earned second-team All-America honors. He started 13 games, ranking third in the Pac-12 with a team-leading 11 pass breakups.
Pagano acknowledged the difficulties facing rookies league-wide, as social distancing has reduced opportunities for new players to adjust to the NFL and win a starting position. Johnson will be in the mix for the starting corner spot opposite Kyle Fuller, but Pagano says that the Bears are well-positioned to be patient with his development.
"The good thing is it's not like he has to come in and he has to be the number two or number three guy right now," said Pagano. "Now, once we get going and we start practicing if he beats those guys out and he wins that third spot, second spot, whatever that is, then great."
(3) Pagano stated that the competition for the starting safety job opposite Eddie Jackson remains wide open.
Position battles are a recurring theme in the Bears secondary this offseason. In addition to the coaching staff evaluating the development of their rookie cornerback, they will also choose between a pair of veterans for the safety position next to Eddie Jackson.
On Thursday, Pagano stressed a level playing field between Deon Bush, who is entering his fifth season in a Bears uniform, and Tashaun Gipson Sr., who was acquired as a free agent after spending 2019 with the Houston Texans. Without a four-game preseason for comparison, it remains an open question whether Bush's familiarity or Gipson's experience as a starter will be a more significant advantage.
Bush has appeared in 58 games with eight starts in four seasons, recording 44 tackles, three pass breakups, one sack and one forced fumble. The 6-foot, 200-pounder started six games as a rookie in 2016. But his only two starts over the last three seasons came in the final two weeks of the 2018 campaign when he replaced an injured Jackson.
Gipson is the most experienced safety on the 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.
Pagano plans to split first-team reps evenly.
"They're going to have to come in here and compete day after day after day," said Pagano. "It's going to be a little bit different, obviously, with no preseason, but we're going to create the competition and create the situations where we can do an honest eval on those guys and give them both an opportunity to win that job."
(4) Pagano is confident that training camp practices will compensate for the lack of preseason games.
Pagano acknowledged the canceled preseason could create more issues beyond position battles. In past seasons, exhibition games have been an opportunity for players to shake off the rust of the offseason with live reps before the start of the regular season.
"It's going to be a huge challenge for everybody across the league because we're all going to want to have live periods," said Pagano. "Everybody's scared to death to do that in practice. We've always had the four preseason games and whatever amount of snaps certain players got."
Because of the lack of preseason games, Pagano said that the coaching staff would use full-contact drills to make sure the team is ready for the season opener against the Lions on September 13. However, he will continue to focus on assignments and techniques.
"We'll have some live periods where we'll tackle to the ground," said Pagano, "and we'll still teach the proper techniques. But, it's really going to come down to the individual periods that we have. Those guys, even when we're going against the offense, we thud. We're not taking him to the ground. It's still a matter of taking on blocks, getting off blocks, pursuing the football, taking great angles, great pad level, great knee bend, and fitting things up."
(5) Pagano trusts the depth on the defensive line, which will have to offset the loss of Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about COVID-19.
Pagano also discussed looking for someone to step in for nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted-out of playing this season due to concerns about the coronavirus.
Selected by the Bears in the second round of the 2015 draft out of Florida State, Goldman has appeared in 67 games with 63 starts over five seasons. He has recorded 153 tackles, 12.5 sacks and 17 tackles-for-loss. Last year the 6-3, 318-pounder earned Pro Bowl alternate honors after registering 29 tackles, one sack and two tackles-for-loss.
Pagano mentioned Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris, Brent Urban and Abdullah Anderson as potential options to soften the blow of losing Goldman.
Roy Robertson-Harris showed flashes of excellence last year, particularly in two home games against division rivals. The 6-5, 292-pounder registered one sack, two tackles-for-loss and two quarterback hits in the season opener versus the Packers and 1.5 sacks, one tackle-for-loss and two quarterback hits three weeks later in a win over the Vikings.
Urban compiled 16 tackles, one tackle-for-loss and one quarterback hit in nine games last year after joining the Bears in mid-October, while Anderson, who played in six contests in 2019, registered four tackles, one sack, one tackle-for-loss and one quarterback hit.
Pagano also stressed that he understood Goldman's decision.
"Luckily, we've got good depth," said Pagano, "and [Bears general manager] Ryan [Pace]'s done a great job building the roster. We're going to miss Eddie, but like [head] coach [Matt Nagy] said, totally respect and understand his decision. And so we support him 1000 percent. We all get it."