There will be several interesting storylines to monitor this summer during Bears training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais. Four players on defense who will be especially intriguing to watch include the following:
The third-year pro is expected to replace departed free agent Mitch Unrein as a starting defensive end opposite Mitch Unrein. But to earn that job Bullard must continue to improve like he did from his rookie season in 2016 to last year when he registered 25 tackles, one sack, two tackles-for-loss and one forced fumble while appearing in all 16 games with three starts.
The Bears are confident that the 2016 third-round draft pick from Florida will blossom this season, and the strides he makes during padded practices in training camp will be critical. Although he will be challenged by an improving Roy-Robertson Harris, at least one veteran teammate believes that Bullard is capable of earning a starting job in training camp.
"There's no question in my mind that he has the talent," Hicks said. "One thing that he's picked up as of late and last year as well is just his work ethic. I think that he now knows what it means to be in the NFL. You can be here today and gone tomorrow. So you've got to be able to put your best foot forward at any moment and I think that he's ready to take on that position."
Fuller heads to Bourbonnais determined to show the Bears that they made the right decision in matching a lucrative offer sheet he signed with the rival Packers in March. The 2014 first-round draft pick from Virginia Tech will look to build on a resurgent 2017 season that came after he had missed the entire 2016 campaign following knee surgery.
Fuller started all 16 games last season, registering 68 tackles, two interceptions and a career-high 22 pass breakups that were the second most by a Bears player since 1991. While he made a slew of plays on the ball—his six pass breakups in a win over the Browns were the most by an NFL player in 2017—intercepting more passes is one area of his game he could improve.
"Last year I feel I definitely showed the type of player that I knew I was and people with the Bears knew I was, so I was definitely happy to do that," Fuller said. "But I definitely feel like there's always room for improvement. There are things that I feel like I can definitely get better at moving forward, so I'm definitely looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to continuing to grow and learn and get better."
The 2017 fourth-round draft pick from Alabama heads to Bourbonnais with a valuable year of experience under his belt looking to build on an impressive rookie season. Jackson started all 16 games last year, ranking third on the defense with 70 tackles while also producing two interceptions, six pass breakups, a team-high three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
Jackson showed his ball skills and playmaking ability in a 17-3 win over the Panthers, scoring touchdowns on a 75-yard fumble return and a 76-yard interception return. In the process, he became the first NFL player to record two defensive TDs of at least 75 yards in a game.
"I think you saw what he brings to the table when he gets the football in his hands," tight end Zach Miller said after a performance that earned Jackson NFC defensive player of the week honors. "He's a playmaker. He's all over the football field."
Jackson appears primed to have a breakout 2018 season while taking over more of a leadership role in a secondary that returns all four starters, with Jackson continuing to play alongside safety Adrian Amos and cornerbacks Fuller and Prince Amukamara.
Capable of making an immediate impact as a rookie after being selected with the eighth pick in the draft out of Georgia, Smith must continue to show a grasp of the Bears defense in order to utilize his excellent speed. A prototypical inside linebacker in today's NFL, Smith ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, the second fastest time among linebackers.
The Bears are counting on Smith to show the same tenacity, instincts and playmaking ability that enabled him to win the Butkus Award last year as the nation's best linebacker and earn SEC defensive player of the year honors. In 2017, Smith helped Georgia reach the CFP national championship game, starting all 15 games and leading the Bulldogs with 137 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 14.0 tackles-for-loss and 20 quarterback hits.
Due primarily to Smith's size, speed and style of play, he has been compared to Patrick Willis and Novarro Bowman, both of whom played inside linebacker with the 49ers when Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio served in the same capacity with San Francisco from 2011-14.