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Bears 2023 position preview: Secondary

Bears defensive backs Eddie Jackson, Jaylon Johnson and Jaquan Brisker
Bears defensive backs Eddie Jackson, Jaylon Johnson and Jaquan Brisker

The following is the eighth of nine position previews in advance of training camp.

With a talented mix of experience and youth, the Bears' secondary could be one of their strongest position groups this season.

The unit features a seasoned veteran in safety Eddie Jackson, a fourth-year pro seemingly just entering his prime in cornerback Jaylon Johnson, and three promising 2022 and 2023 second-round picks in nickel back Kyler Gordon, safety Jaquan Brisker and rookie cornerback Tyrique Stevenson.

Jackson returned to practice during the first week of June after recovering from a foot injury that forced him to miss the final five games last year. 

The 2017 fourth-round pick was leading NFC free safeties in Pro Bowl voting last November when he suffered a non-contact injury versus the Jets that ended his season. At the time, he topped the Bears with 61 tackles, four interceptions, six pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

"Eddie has worked his tail off to get back to where he is," coach Matt Eberflus said last month. "He's in really good shape for working with the rehab staff, and I want to commend those guys, the training staff, for getting him back—and commend Eddie also for the hard work that he's put in to get to this point."

Johnson has started all 39 games he's played in three seasons with the Bears, registering 125 tackles, 31 pass breakups and one interception. Often shadowing the opponent's top receiver, Johnson opened 11 contests last year—missing six with injuries—and compiled 35 tackles and seven pass breakups.

Asked to assess Johnson's 2022 campaign, defensive coordinator Alan Williams said: "Smart, athletic, good feet. Right away showed the ability to tackle. But the one thing that shows up the most is he understands football. He sees the big picture and has the ability to not just see the big picture. Sometimes when guys do that, they miss some of the details, but he does both." 

Cornerbacks coach/defensive passing game coordinator Jon Hoke described Johnson as a "good football player" who "works at it." 

"You can tell he's instinctive," Hoke said. "He has good athletic ability. He's a second-round pick for a reason and it shows."

The Bears' top pick in the 2022 draft, Gordon started all 14 games he played as a rookie, compiling 71 tackles, 2.0 tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, six pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Two of his interceptions came in the final three games of the season against two of the NFL's best quarterbacks in the Eagles' Jalen Hurts and the Bills' Josh Allen.

With Stevenson's arrival, Gordon is expected to predominantly play nickel back.

"You can certainly see his confidence growing in the position," Eberflus said. "That nickel position is a hard position. Things happen fast in there. You have to fit the run. There's a lot of things that you have to do in there as a football player and we're fortunate to have him in there."

Focusing on nickel back should help Gordon's development.

"It's hard to move inside to outside," Hoke said. "It is. There's so much '11' personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) in the league now that you play nickel as your base more than anything else, so he's really a starter. He'll play more reps than a guy that doesn't play just nickel. He'll have plenty of reps under his belt. He'll improve as a player. He'll see things faster. Just the reps are a big part of it."

Hoke feels that Gordon possesses the traits to excel at nickel. 

"He's a good blitzer because he's physical, understands the timing, understands how to beat a block," Hoke said. "In zone coverage, he understands how to route-match based on what he's got. He understands the concepts that he's being attacked with. Those things are all pluses with him."

Like Gordon, Brisker is expected to make strides from Year 1 to 2. Last season the hard-hitting safety was selected to the Pro Football Focus 2022 NFL All-Rookie Team after registering 104 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, a team-leading 4.0 sacks, one interception, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

"I just think he's already different," safeties coach Andre Curtis said last month. "Just his level of focus and concentration and the volume of stuff he's learned and getting better at, he's just starting to take off. If he keeps going, he's going to have a good season. That's what I'm hoping for. He's doing good."

Stevenson has the distinction of being the only player that Ryan Poles has traded up to select in two drafts as Bears general manager. Throughout offseason practices, the second-round cornerback from Miami regularly displayed the attributes that made him such a coveted prospect. 

"He's really shown what he showed in college," Eberflus said last month. "So really good ball skills, length, instinct, competitiveness, he's shown all those things. And he's had a couple nice interceptions during the course of the offseason."

Stevenson exudes the demeanor of a seasoned pro, not a prospect who has yet to play an NFL snap. The 23-year-old looked comfortable working with the No. 1 defense in offseason practices.

"He's a little bit ahead, I would say," Eberflus said. "It seems more like a veteran than it does a rookie, which is kind of cool, to be able to watch that. He's very confident. I think the guys gravitate toward him. He's a likable guy because I think he does love football and he is competitive. I think he fits in well with Gordon and Brisker and Eddie and all those guys that are really competitive that like to grind it and like to practice."

Stevenson was one of three defensive backs the Bears selected in the draft. The others were cornerback Terell Smith in the fifth round and safety Kendall Williamson in the seventh round. 

Smith played in 37 games over five seasons at Minnesota, recording 109 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, four interceptions and 16 pass breakups. Last year he was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten after compiling 38 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and five pass breakups.

Williamson appeared in 44 games over five seasons at Stanford, registering 213 tackles, 11.0 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception, 13 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Last season he recorded 50 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception, three pass breakups and one forced fumble.

Also competing for playing time and roster spots in training camp will be Kindle Vildor, Josh Blackwell, Jaylon Jones, Michael Ojemudia and Greg Stroman Jr. at cornerback; and Elijah Hicks, Adrian Colbert, A.J. Thomas and undrafted rookies Macon Clark and Bralen Trahan at safety.