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Young players help fuel Bears' recent resurgence

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The Bears boast several talented veterans on both sides of the ball, but a group of promising young players has been just as instrumental in the team's recent resurgence, especially on offense.

Ten individuals age 26 and under have made key contributions, including eight players 24 and under. Of the 10, eight were selected by the Bears in the last four drafts, including nine in the first three rounds.

In the last four games since Mitchell Trubisky was reinstalled as the starting quarterback, running back David Montgomery returned after missing one game with a concussion and Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars became starters on a reconfigured offensive line, the Bears have scored 14 touchdowns and averaged 31.0 points and 386.5 yards per contest. In the previous seven games, they mustered nine TDs and averaged 16.7 points and 272.1 yards.

Here's a capsule look at the players who are part of the youth movement, from youngest to oldest:

Jaylon Johnson, cornerback
Age:
21 years, 8 months
Acquired: 2020 second-round draft pick (No. 50 overall)

A Day 1 starter, Johnson has made an immediate impact as a rookie, no small feat given that all offseason practices and preseason games were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 6-foot, 193-pounder has displayed excellent instincts and ball skills all season; he's tied for fourth in the NFL with 15 pass breakups. Johnson preserved a Week 1 win in Detroit by batting away a pass in the end zone as time expired. He has also generated two interceptions for teammates with pass deflections.

Cole Kmet, tight end
Age:
21 years, 9 months
Acquired: 2020 second-round draft pick (No. 43)

Kmet has become more involved in the offense of late, catching 11 passes for 90 yards and one touchdown in the last three games after recording eight receptions for 94 yards and one TD in the first 11 contests. His playing time has steadily increased throughout his rookie season; he played 33, 35 and 32 percent of the snaps in Weeks 5-7, 43 and 47 percent in Weeks 8-9 and 70, 79, 78, 85 and 100 percent in the last five games, not coming off the field at all in last Sunday's win over the Vikings.

Darnell Mooney, receiver
Age:
23 years, 2 months
Acquired: 2020 fifth-round draft pick (No. 173)

Mooney has been one of the most pleasant surprises for the Bears this season, emerging as a consistent contributor who possesses excellent speed and hands. He has caught 46 passes for 499 yards and four touchdowns, eclipsing the Bears record of 45 receptions by a rookie wide receiver set by Harlon Hill in 1954. Carrying himself like a veteran, Mooney has impressed coaches and teammates with his maturity and demeanor.

David Montgomery, running back
Age:
23 years, 6 months
Acquired: 2019 third-round draft pick (No. 73)

After missing one game with a concussion, Montgomery has sparked the offense's resurgence over the last month. In four games, he's rushed for 434 yards and five touchdowns on 71 carries, a 6.1-yard average. Only Titans star Derrick Henry has more yards and TDs during that span. Montgomery has topped 100 yards in three of those four contests, highlighted by a career-high 146 yards on 32 carries last Sunday in Minnesota.

Roquan Smith, inside linebacker
Age:
23 years, 8 months
Acquired: 2018 first-round draft pick (No. 8)

Smith has performed exactly how the Bears envisioned he would when they chose him with a top-10 pick in the draft, taking his game to an even higher level than his first two years. Smith, who has already topped 100 tackles for the third time in as many seasons, leads the NFL with 87 solo tackles and is second with 17 tackles-for-loss. A skilled blitzer, he has also recorded 4.0 sacks this year, including 2.0 in a Week 14 win over the Texans.

Duke Shelley, nickel back
Age:
24 years, 2 months
Acquired: 2019 sixth-round draft pick (No. 205)

Shelley has filled in admirably in back-to-back wins over the Texans and Vikings for injured veteran nickel back Buster Skrine. In Shelley's first expanded NFL action on defense, he registered three tackles and one pass breakup against Houston and followed with seven tackles versus Minnesota—including two crucial stops one yard short of a first down on drives that ended with the Vikings turning the ball over on downs.

Bilal Nichols, defensive lineman
Age:
24 years, 3 months
Acquired: 2018 fifth-round draft pick (No. 145)

Nichols has developed into a force against the run and pass this season, already establishing career highs with 39 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 7.0 tackles-for-loss and 12 quarterback hits. He registered his first NFL interception in a Week 13 loss to the Lions and set a career high with seven tackles in last Sunday's win over the Vikings. He also split sacks versus Minnesota with Khalil Mack and Brent Urban, giving Nichols a full sack in each of the last three games.

Sam Mustipher, center
Age:
24 years, 4 months
Acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent in 2019

The installation of Mustipher as the starting center has helped solidify the Bears' offensive line. The second-year pro from Notre Dame has been lauded by teammates and coaches for his attitude, leadership, work ethic and football intelligence. Since he became the starting center, the Bears have scored 25, 30, 36 and 33 points in four games after being held under 24 points in their previous seven contests with 11, 20, 23, 10, 23, 17 and 13.

Alex Bars, right guard
Age:
25 years, 3 months
Acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent in 2019

After playing just 12 snaps on offense as a rookie in 2019, Bars has excelled since becoming a starter over the second half of his second season. Bars opened at center Nov. 8 in Tennessee, lining up at a position he had never previously played due to injuries to Cody Whitehair and Mustipher. Bars has since started the last five games at right guard, continuing to grow alongside his former Notre Dame teammate, Mustipher.

Mitchell Trubisky, quarterback
Age:
26 years, 4 months
Acquired: 2017 first-round draft pick (No. 2)

Trubisky has shown great improvement since being reinstalled as the Bears' starting quarterback. In four games, he has completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 978 yards with eight touchdowns, three interceptions and a 99.7 passer rating. Operating an offense that seemingly includes more roll-outs, moving pockets and play-action fakes, Trubisky has helped the Bears score at least 30 points in three straight games for the first time since 2013.

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