Wondering about a player, a past game or another issue involving the Bears? Senior writer Larry Mayer answers a variety of questions from fans on ChicagoBears.com.
Who would you say is the most improved player you've seen so far in training camp, an individual who has stepped up and performed better than you expected?
The first player who comes to my mind is cornerback Kindle Vildor. The previous regime, which selected him in the fifth round of the 2020 draft out of Georgia Southern, was very high on him entering last season. They looked at him as someone who could help replace veteran Kyle Fuller. Vildor, however, failed to live up to those expectations and struggled in 2021. So far in training camp, I've seen a different player. Vildor has taken a lot of reps with the No. 1 defense when Kyler Gordon moves inside to nickel and has displayed instincts and aggressiveness; he seems to be playing with more physicality than he has in the past. Here's what coach Matt Eberflus recently said about the third-year pro: "I like his competitiveness, where he's shown in this camp so far. He's competing. He's put a nice couple of thuds on some runners." Rookie safety Jaquan Brisker has been impressed with Vildor as well, telling reporters: "He's very great at his technique. He's super serious, so when he's in man-to-man, he owns his leverage, whether that's inside or outside, whatever defense we're playing, but he always owns his leverage and he's getting better. He's really locked in."
I'm really interested to see our special teams units this preseason. What players have been returning kicks and punts this offseason?
I agree that the return game will be one of the most intriguing areas to watch throughout the preseason. Three players who returned punts and kickoffs for the Bears are back this season. Khalil Herbert averaged 24.1 yards on 27 kickoff returns, while Dazz Newsome averaged 12.5 yards on six punt returns and Nsimba Webster averaged 3.3 yards on four punt returns. Free agent-acquisition Byron Pringle has also returned kicks in the NFL, averaging 26.6 yards with one touchdown on 37 kickoff returns the past three seasons with the Chiefs. The Bears added two explosive return specialists in the draft, choosing Tennessee receiver Velus Jones Jr. in the third round and Baylor running back Trestan Ebner in the sixth. Last season at Tennessee, Jones was named SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Year after averaging 27.3 yards with one touchdown on 23 kickoff returns and 15.1 yards on 18 punt returns. Last year at Baylor, Ebner was voted Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year and first-team All-Big 12 as a return specialist and all-purpose player after averaging 22.2 yards with one TD on 23 kickoff returns and 8.1 yards on 19 punt returns. Asked Tuesday about the most important quality he's seeking in a return specialist, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said the "No. 1 thing with returners is ball security. We need to make sure we catch the ball first, take care of the football. Obviously, we want to put it in the end zone, but our job at the end of the day is to take care of the football and make sure the offense has it if we don't punch it in first."
The Bears always sign several college free agents immediately after the draft. Have any of those players had an impact in Year 1?
Since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, I'd say that the undrafted free agent who made the biggest impact with the Bears as a rookie has been receiver Dennis McKinnon. Signed in 1983 out of Florida State, he appeared in all 16 games with four starts as a rookie, catching 20 passes for 326 yards and four touchdowns. McKinnon ultimately played six of his seven NFL seasons with the Bears, recording 180 receptions for 2,840 yards and 21 TDs. Other top undrafted free agents signed by the Bears over the past 50 years or so include center Jay Hilgenberg, receiver Tom Waddle, cornerback Leslie Frazier, running back James Allen and tackle James "Big Cat" Williams. However, no member of that group made much of an impact as a rookie.
Chalk Talk features fan questions multiple times each week. Email your question to Larry.