The Chicago Bears entered the 2019 season with second-year head coach Matt Nagy fresh off of Coach of the Year recognition; general manager Ryan Pace was coming off of his own Executive of the Year recognition. They were division champions at 12-4, powered by a voracious defense and enlivened by a resurgent offense led by second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Things were good.
Then things were bad. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left for the Denver Broncos head coaching job, and veteran coordinator Chuck Pagano stepped into his place. Nagy’s collegiate offense failed to find a second wave of innovation after defenses caught up to his pace and space approach, while injuries in both trenches made the dominance of 2018 a forgotten phenomenon. The Bears were worse, and Nagy, Trubisky, and Pace all found their seats getting warmer by the end of the season.
As such, the 2020 free agency and draft period were critical for the current guard of Chicago decision-makers. Quarterback Nick Foles, a challenger to Trubisky, was acquired via trade with the Jaguars in a move that cost Ryan Pace another of the precious few draft picks he hadn’t already sold off—and doesn’t even guarantee Nagy a better quarterback option than Trubisky. Mercurial EDGE Robert Quinn was handed a huge contract to play opposite Khalil Mack, once-owner of the biggest contract among all EDGEs in the league, as the pass-rush fell silent for the Bears last season without the presence of interior disruptor Akiem Hicks.
Aggressive moves have been made, but they’ve been high-risk heaves for immediate improvement on the roster.
When the Bears finally made it to the 2020 NFL Draft, they had multiple spots to fill with a starter, and only two selections with which to get the job done: pick Nos. 43 and 50. Their first- and third-rounders were both gone as a result of the Mack trade, with which they had acquired that extra second-round pick—but all in all, they wouldn’t pick again until the 155th selection in Round 5.
They needed offensive line help badly, especially after the retirement of longtime guard Kyle Long. With Prince Amukamara cut for cap space, corner was a big need, as was safety (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was gone), wide receiver (Taylor Gabriel was gone), and tight end (Jimmy Graham was added, but he hasn’t been good for quite a while).
At No. 43, the Bears solved the tight end problem—arguably the least pressing on the roster—with Cole Kmet; and at No. 50, they solved the corner problem with Jaylon Johnson.
With Graham in front of Kmet on the depth chart and tight end an important, but not vital part of most offensive structures, the most important rookie for the Bears isn’t Kmet—it’s Johnson.
The cornerback depth chart for the Bears barely got tested last season, as veterans Kyle Fuller and Buster Skrine both held down starting jobs on the outside and in the slot, respectively, for the entire season. CB2 Amukamara made 15 starts, only missing time late in the season and giving Kevin Toliver one start. All in all, five corners took snaps for the Bears in 2019.
As such, there really isn’t much competition for Johnson’s starting gig. Artie Burns was added in free agency after starting only one game in Pittsburgh last season—as a disappointing ex first-rounder, he’s a reclamation project at best. He’ll fight for CB4 on the depth chart with Toliver, entering his third season as a pro, and second-year Duke Shelley, who was a healthy scratch for half of last season.
None carries with them the expectation of Johnson, who was clearly drafted to take over Amukamara’s job at CB2. But that was back when training camp looked like it could be regular; a preseason could potentially be played. As defensive backs coach DeShea Townsend would say in the summer about Johnson’s presumed starting role: “I think it's going to be tough for a lot of these young guys just missing the actual reps of OTAs and making some of those mistakes, that you can coach him off the tape.”
Coaches often claim that rookies aren’t handed starting jobs, but when there’s such a big vacuum to fill in Amukamara’s 910 vacated snaps, and a top pick is spent on the position, it’s clear that the rookie is expected to start. But for the Bears, like all teams in the league, the best-laid plans for immediate rookie impact have been shaken by the limitations on the team's camp and preseason process. Johnson, like all rookies, will come into the NFL colder than any class before them.
But the Bears need Johnson; they don’t have an alternative. Even with Johnson’s steep and rapid ramp-up period, he should still be considered the favorite to start in Week 1 for the Bears—and as a two-year starter in a Utah defense that asked of him both press and off-man coverage, he does have the desirable college experience to step into a Pagano defense. Johnson is one of the most important rookies in the early weeks of the NFL, as bad play and shaky confidence could leave the Bears’ corner room weak for the entire season, further delaying their return to the top of the NFC North.