ORLANDO – Proof of the Bears' dramatic worst-to-first turnaround from 2017 to 2018 was evident Wednesday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex just outside Walt Disney World.
One year after not having any players voted to the Pro Bowl, seven members of the NFC North champion Bears participated in the NFC all-star squad's first practice of the week.
The group included quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, center Cody Whitehair, left tackle Charles Leno Jr., defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, cornerback Kyle Fuller, safety Eddie Jackson and return specialist Tarik Cohen. An eighth Bears player, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, was voted to the Pro Bowl but is unable to play due to an injury.
The eight Pro Bowlers are the most of any NFL team and the most the Bears have sent since they also had eight in 2006, the last year they reached the Super Bowl.
"It's pretty cool," Whitehair said. "It's quite an honor to our city, our fans, the whole Bears organization and the whole Bears team that we're in this situation."
In his first season as coach, Matt Nagy led the Bears to a 12-4 record and their first division title since 2010. The Bears went 5-1 against NFC North opponents after they had compiled a 4-20 record versus division foes the previous four years. Nagy was selected the NFL coach of the year by the Professional Football Writers of America.
All seven Bears slated to play in Sunday's Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando are making their first appearances in the all-star game. They are also living proof that the Bears boast a very bright future.
"The guys that we've got here are our cornerstone pieces to our success," Leno said. "I know all the guys are going to be back next year. I'm excited. Right now, I'm just trying to enjoy this moment. But I can't wait to get to work next year."
"I was talking to somebody yesterday just about how special it is that we have all these pieces coming back and how we could take the next step next year," Whitehair said. "With this young core and young team that we have, we're really excited."
Five of the Bears' Pro Bowlers are 26 or under—Fuller (26), Jackson (26), Whitehair (26), Trubisky (24) and Cohen (23)—and seven of the eight are under contract through at least 2020. The lone exception is Whitehair, whose deal expires following the 2019 season.
"We're going to be in Chicago for a while apparently," Hicks said. "We're excited about that and we're excited about what we're building. There's a great energy around the locker room and it's transitioning its way onto the field, so it's a good feeling."
"It feels good knowing that you've got that chemistry and [virtually] the same team coming back," Jackson said. "Just to see what we put together this year, having a young offense and new faces placed around each other, to see those guys build off [this] year and to come back with that defense that we had, it's going to be scary."
The Bears' talented young core features three players who were selected in the 2017 draft. General manager Ryan Pace traded up one spot to choose Trubisky with the second overall pick in the first round and moved up five spots to take Jackson in the fourth round. The Bears spent a second fourth-round pick on Cohen.
The last time a Bears draft class produced at least three Pro Bowlers was in 1983 when four picks would eventually be honored—first-round tackle Jimbo Covert, fourth-round safety Dave Duerson, eighth-round defensive end Richard Dent and eighth-round guard Mark Bortz.
The 1983 draft class helped the Bears win a division title in Year 2 in 1984 and the Super Bowl in Year 3 in 1985. The 2017 class led the Bears to the NFC North championship in Year 2 in 2018 and hopes to follow the same path by winning the Super Bowl in Year 3.
"The future is bright," Trubisky said. "I can't wait to get back to work, especially with coach Nagy and the whole crew. We've got a lot of guys coming back and I know the foundation we built gives us a good start for things we can accomplish in the future."
"We don't know where our ceiling is; we're just going to keep working," Cohen said. "We see where the grind from last year's offseason got us and we want to get to bigger and better places, so we're going to continue to work."
Bears players in Orlando practice for this weekend's Pro Bowl.