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Eberflus eager to start Bears' offseason program

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All of Bears nation has April 25 circled on its calendars. But the first round of the NFL Draft isn't the only significant date this month for the franchise.

Coach Matt Eberflus is also excited about April 15, which marks the start of the Bears' voluntary offseason program at Halas Hall.

"The evaluation of the talent in the draft, in free agency, I like that part," Eberflus said. "But what I love is when the players come back. This is going to be a critical nine or 10 weeks in the offseason before we go to summer break. That's going to be fun to be able to bring those guys together."

The Bears will spend the offseason installing a new offense under first-year coordinator Shane Waldron and building team chemistry and camaraderie.

"I said it last year, the most important part that you have beside scheme is the relationships," Eberflus said. "We're going to do a great job intermixing the team to make sure that we get to know each other on a personal level and a deeper level than just football, because I think that's the glue that holds you together. The steel that's the middle of your football team is the relationship piece of it.

"The team changes every year. You've got to do it every year. Like [legendary former UCLA coach] John Wooden said, 'You've got to put your socks on and lace up your shoes every single year.' And we're excited about getting started."

Key acquisition: Eberflus is also excited about the addition of veteran safety Kevin Byard III, who signed with the Bears March 10.

Byard has appeared in 130 NFL games with 121 starts over eight seasons with the Titans (2016-23) and Eagles (2023). His 28 interceptions are the fifth most among active players and he has also recorded 749 tackles and 66 pass breakups.

"Smart. Experienced. Very good communicator. And ballhawk," Eberflus said. "To me, those things are what you're looking for. He's got great range. He's still got really good speed."

With the Titans, Byard was chosen first-team All-Pro and voted to the Pro Bowl in 2017 when he led the NFL with a career-high eight interceptions and again in 2021 when he picked off five passes.

"He's going to be a really good addition on the back end," said general manager Ryan Poles. "Communication, leadership. He still has speed. He still has ball skills. And I really think he's going to affect the defensive group at a high level."

Line change: Another important move the Bears made this offseason was acquiring center/guard Ryan Bates from the Bills in exchange for a 2024 fifth-round pick.

"With Bates coming in, I feel like we've created some depth there and versatility," Poles said. "It's something that's really bothered me for a long time, just in terms of the lack of flexibility we've had in the past. It stresses you out from week to week. I feel like we have more versatility now and competition."

Bates arrives after appearing in 73 games with 19 starts the past five seasons with the Bills. The Bears pursued Bates in March 2022, signing the restricted free agent to a four-year offer sheet. But Buffalo matched the offer.

1-2 punch: Eberflus told reporters last week at the NFL owners meetings that he'd like the Bears to add a pass rusher to team with defensive end Montez Sweat.

"It's important that we get that piece because you have to have the 1-2 punch," Eberflus said. "It can be inside as well. You look at who affects the quarterback the most, I would also argue that the inside piece is also something that we should be looking at, and it's important that we do that. Direct line to the quarterback. When they max protect, it's a soft spot in the protection. We're looking at all pass rushers. It can be inside, outside, all along the line. We're having an open mind in that regard."

Big jump: One player already on the roster who could help generate pressure on the quarterback is second-year defensive tackle Gervon Dexter Sr.

The Bears are hoping that the 2023 second-round pick from Florida picks up where he left off last year when he made major strides over the second half of his rookie season. Dexter recorded all 2.5 of his sacks in the final five games and nine of his 12 quarterback hits in the last eight contests.

"I always say the biggest jump for players is typically between the second half of the rookie season into their second year because it's not new anymore," Eberflus said. "They understand the rhythm of the training camp, the offseason training camp into [the] season and they've had a chance to really go through the process of what works best for them. So we'll see a big jump with him and [Zacch] Pickens, and we're excited about both those guys."

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