Among the best things the Chicago Bears have gotten out of this 3-10 season, along with the development of quarterback Justin Fields, is extended playing time for a lot of rookies.
The Bears list eight rookies as having started a game, and another six on the 53-man roster have made varying impacts in all three phases. That time on the field should help Bears executives make evaluations as they plan for the future — and help the players as they try to grow into building blocks.
“It builds confidence,” defensive end Dominique Robinson said. “I love the staff. They trust the young guys to go in there and play. … There are a bunch of us, man, and it’s crazy. Like Coach says, we’re just going to keep building. I think we’ve got a bright future.”
As the Bears take this week to reflect during their bye, here’s a look at six of their biggest rookie contributors, plus notes on the other draft picks and rookies on the active roster.
Note: Stats are from Pro Football Reference. The list does not include rookies currently on the practice squad.
Kyler Gordon, cornerback
Drafted: Second round, No. 39.
Stats: 55 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one interception, four passes defended, one forced fumble in 11 games (all starts).
The rundown: The Bears asked a lot of Gordon from the start by assigning him to learn both outside and nickel cornerback. His coaches were honest that the mental load meant a learning curve for the rookie, and that showed early in the season.
But defensive coordinator Alan Williams has pointed to growth in the meeting room with the kinds of questions Gordon asks and in his comfort on the field, including his ability to recognize plays and play faster. Williams said Gordon’s tackling also has improved, but coaches are looking for better consistency.
“Each week it’s a little bit better,” Williams said last month of Gordon’s growth. “When you talk about rookies or first-year players, you have to give them a little bit of grace. Not much but a little bit in terms of the season for them in college was almost coming to an end (at that time of year).
“And so it’s all those things that are stacked on top of them. It’s not just football. It’s the length of the football season. It’s the intensity of the football season. It’s the complexity of the NFL season. It’s the physical demands that we’re putting on the guys’ bodies — physical and mental. I’m still pleased with Kyler Gordon in a big way.”
One of Gordon’s biggest highlights came in the Bears’ last win, a 33-14 Monday night victory over the New England Patriots. He intercepted Bailey Zappe in the fourth quarter to put an exclamation point on the win.
Gordon missed the last two games while recovering from a concussion.
“He’s getting more and more comfortable,” defensive backs coach James Rowe said. “You can see him making impacts in the games in different ways. I feel he’s covering better, he’s tackling better. He’s been ticking upward since early in the season.”
Jaquan Brisker, safety
Drafted: Second round, No. 48.
Stats: 73 tackles, five tackles for a loss, three sacks, three quarterback hits, one interception, one pass defended, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery in 11 games (all starts).
The rundown: Brisker has received the most national recognition for his play of all the Bears rookies. His leaping interception of Mac Jones in the win over the Patriots was among the most exciting plays by a Bears defender this season.
Coach Matt Eberflus has touted Brisker’s mental and physical toughness and his desire to get better. And Williams said last week he has seen growth in Brisker’s understanding of the details of the defense, though he also missed the last two games with a concussion.
“Starting off, we all knew he was physical and he would hit and he would run to the ball,” Williams said. “Starting off, it was just that. See ball, get ball. Now I’ve started to see him getting to the ball with a purpose within the scope of the defense and being on the details and not just running to the football but running to the football within the scope of the defense.
“Some guys just get lined up because, ‘Hey, the coach told me to line up here.’ Now he’s getting lined up and knowing the whys and adding his little flair to it.”
Defensive lineman Justin Jones has been impressed with how Brisker goes about his business. He said the rookie always has his iPad with him to study — and always is ready to talk football.
“Him and Jack Sanborn both play with a speed that you don’t really see rookies play with when they first come in,” Jones said. “I know I sure didn’t when I came in. … I saw it with Derwin (James) when we both came in as rookies together. I saw him play at the same speed. Now obviously Derwin is a little bit bigger. They’re different athletes. But the mental part of the game, when people say a rookie wall, I don’t think he’s had one.”
Velus Jones Jr., wide receiver
Drafted: Third round, No. 71.
Stats: 11 kickoff returns, 296 yards (26.9 average); five punt returns, 35 yards (7.0 average), two fumbles; three catches, 24 yards, one touchdown; six carries, 48 yards in eight games (no starts).
The rundown: Jones has had perhaps the biggest gap between expectation and performance among the rookies.
He missed much of training camp and the first three games with a hamstring injury. Upon his recovery, he muffed two punt returns in three games and was pulled from those duties. He was a healthy scratch in Weeks 9 and 10 as the Bears wide receivers got healthier, a decision coaches said came down to responsibilities on both offense and multiple special teams units.
But he has been active the last three games. With Khalil Herbert on injured reserve with a hip issue, Jones had a 55-yard kickoff return against the Atlanta Falcons and four kick returns for 114 yards against the Green Bay Packers.
Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said he saw Jones put in the work to get back to that point.
“He’s a guy that, first, he takes accountability for everything,” Hightower said. “And then I’ve seen a guy that just works hard and works his tail off, which means he’s the right kind of character guy, which is a credit to the personnel staff that they keep having guys in here that have great character.”
Jones’ contributions — and opportunities — on offense have been limited, with coaches pointing to him needing to be on his details. Wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said the Bears had a bigger package for Jones in the Packers game, but that resulted in only one carry.
“Velus, if you asked me (about his progress) two weeks ago, three weeks ago, I would say he’s doing OK,” Tolbert said before that game. “Ask me that today, I think he’s doing really well.
“Velus has really turned it up a little bit in all his stuff. … The trust is building with Velus because he’s where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there. We had a two-minute drill today and he caught a nice little swirl route from Justin (Fields), got a first down. He’s doing some good things. We just want to keep him progressing.”
Braxton Jones, left tackle
Drafted: Fifth round, No. 168.
Stats: Started all 13 games at left tackle; five penalties (three holding, two false starts); five sacks allowed, per Pro Football Focus.
The rundown: Jones is one of the two biggest surprises of this rookie class in that the 23-year-old from Southern Utah has played every snap at left tackle.
He and his coaches are straightforward in acknowledging he has plenty of improvements to make — but they also see promise.
Eberflus praised Jones’ maturity, and offensive line coach Chris Morgan said Jones is putting good things on film but needs to strive for more consistency. Jones agreed.
“I’m just too up and down,” he said. “One week I have a really good week and I’m punching the guy and I’m stoning him on the line, and then the next week I’m in the quarterback’s lap a lot. Maybe I’m not giving up a ton of sacks, but it’s pressures. And it’s just small things like that that can be fixed. That’s the biggest thing is a lot of my issues are fixable. So that’s a good thing.”
Jones has talked all year about getting better against bull rushes, something he thinks can be accomplished by improving his lower-body strength and his technique.
The biggest improvements he has made, he said, are moving in space and not allowing one bad play to carry over to the next. That’s not always easy for a player who said he is “super hard” on himself.
“He just bounces right back,” Morgan said. “And that’s something you have to learn sometimes. I’m not sure how much adversity he really faced before on the field. … He was very dominant at his level (in college). So he has really done a good job of moving on to that next play.”
Dominique Robinson, defensive end
Drafted: Fifth round, No. 174.
Stats: 27 tackles, two tackles for a loss, 1½ sacks, two quarterback hits, two passes defended in 13 games (four starts).
The rundown: Robinson made quite the first impression in his NFL debut when he had 1½ sacks, seven tackles and a tackle for a loss in the opener against the San Francisco 49ers. But he hasn’t had a sack or quarterback hit since.
He came in as a still-developing player after switching to defensive end from wide receiver late in his college career at Miami (Ohio), so he sees the playing time this season — ranging from 30% of the defensive snaps to 89% in different games — as huge for his growth.
Defensive line coach Travis Smith praised Robinson’s smarts and effort, noting that when his effort has been off, he takes accountability.
“I’m getting better,” Robinson said. “It may not seem like that on the field to others, but I personally know that I’m getting better.”
Robinson has a list of things he has to work on, starting with “just being able to fall back into my other gap” on run defense.
“The way our defense is set up, we kind of own two gaps, so being able to own the other gap,” he said. “I’m doing all right owning the first gap. I just have to get better at owning the second.
“Pass rush, I’m trying to work on being lower. I tend to get high standing straight up, and that’s no good in pass rush. … So I’m working at being lower, having a better get-off and working off of that.”
Jack Sanborn, linebacker
Drafted: Signed with the Bears as an undrafted rookie.
Stats: 59 tackles, five tackles for a loss, two sacks, three quarterback hits, one fumble recovery in 13 games (five starts).
The rundown: Sanborn is the other major surprise of this class, jumping in to make a strong impact on defense after the Bears traded linebacker Roquan Smith to the Baltimore Ravens at the end of October. The Lake Zurich native and Wisconsin alumnus often has shown up with crucial plays during his five games as a starter.
Williams said Sanborn has traits that transcend the combine measurables that perhaps held him back from being drafted. Eberflus, who played linebacker in college and coached the position at previous NFL stops, said last month it starts with Sanborn’s instincts.
“He’s able to discern and read his keys and be on plays fast, so that’s very helpful to him,” Eberflus said. “I’ve had linebackers in my career that can really know where the ball is every time. They’re able to see, read the steps of the back but also see the linemen in front of them for the keys and have their eyes move from one spot to another to diagnose plays really fast, and he has that ability.
“He likes to hit. If you’re a linebacker you have to like that part of the game, the physical style of the game. And he also has good ability to pressure. He can get one-on-one with a back and has the ability to get slippery and slide to the side to stay vertical in that rush. And he’s smart. He’s really smart, really understands the defense.”
On top of all of that, linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi said Sanborn also has the right mindset.
“It never seemed too big for him, so I never really got that sense of, ‘Oh, he’s undrafted, I don’t know if he’s going to do this,’” Borgonzi said. “Again, that’s just him proving to us in practice in the offseason that it wasn’t too big for him. But there are stories about guys that go undrafted every year that contribute immediately. I felt really good going into the season, even though he didn’t have regular-season experience.”
Offensive lineman Zachary Thomas, sixth round, No. 186: The Los Angeles Rams signed Thomas off the Bears practice squad in November.
Running back Trestan Ebner, sixth round, No. 203: He had a few opportunities on offense because of injuries but hasn’t fully seized the opportunity, totaling 24 carries for 54 yards. He also has 10 kickoff returns for 226 yards.
Offensive lineman Doug Kramer, sixth round, No. 207: The Illinois product went on season-ending injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury in August.
Offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter, seventh round, No. 226: He has played in two games, getting four special teams snaps.
Safety Elijah Hicks, seventh round, No. 254: A special teams contributor most of the year, Hicks got his first opportunities on defense the last two games with Brisker and Eddie Jackson injured. He had 10 tackles in those games and helped slow the Packers early, but Packers wide receiver Christian Watson caught a touchdown pass against him.
Punter Trenton Gill, seventh round, No. 255: Gill took over for longtime Bears punter Pat O’Donnell and has averaged 46.9 yards per punt and 39.1 net yards. Hightower called him proactive, a technician and a leader.
Cornerback Jaylon Jones, undrafted: Jones has been the next man up at corner whenever one of the top three — Gordon, Jaylon Johnson and Kindle Vildor — has been injured. Also a special teams contributor, he has 35 tackles and a forced fumble. “We like where he’s headed,” Rowe said. “He’s smart. He gets better every day. He does everything we ask him to do.”
Cornerback Josh Blackwell, undrafted: Blackwell, whom the Bears claimed off waivers at the beginning of the season, has been solid on special teams and got an opportunity on defense against the Packers with Gordon and Vildor out, totaling five tackles.
Linebacker Sterling Weatherford, undrafted: Another preseason waiver claim, he has four tackles on special teams.
Safety A.J. Thomas, undrafted: A practice squad player for most of the year, he got his first work on special teams against the Packers on Sunday.