Chicago Bears: Jaylon Johnson sees 2021 as a prove-it year

Youth can be a word used to describe the Chicago Bears heading into 2021. The Monsters of the Midway feature a number of second and third-year players on both sides of the football that are expected to take another step forward in 2021. Among the biggest names to watch include cornerback Jaylon Johnson, a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and the team’s presumptive CB1.

Johnson isn’t your typical “next man up” candidate. He’s expected to fill shoes left by veteran Kyle Fuller who was released during the Spring after a seven-year run that included being named to two Pro Bowls and a First-Team All-Pro. With the Bears secondary struggling at times throughout the preseason, how Johnson plays throughout 2021 will set the stage for how Johnson’s career could potentially pan out.

“Personally, I wouldn’t say last year was a success for me,” Johnson said via the Bears official YouTube Channel. “I’m not going to say it was a bad year but it wasn’t what I wanted. Just the goals that I set out for myself, I didn’t reach more than I reached.”

From a coverage standpoint, Johnson had 15 pass breakups and allowed just 44 completions last season, including a completion percentage of 56.4 percent. Throughout the 2020 season, Johnson continued to progress, setting the stage for a breakout season in 2021.

“This year it’s really just about doing the little things I can do to really checkoff each and every one of my goals,” Johnson said. “Giving up touchdowns, that’s not something I do. I know it comes with the game but just from my standard, I try to limit the big plays.”

Heading into 2021, Johnson’s progress should be under the microscope. As Chicago’s defense continues to get older, Johnson is just 22 years old and has an opportunity to become another face of the Bears secondary alongside veteran Safety Eddie Jackson.

31 questions for Chicago Bears camp: Is CB the biggest question on the roster?

With the calendar officially turned to July, we are just weeks away from the start of Chicago Bears training camp, which means that the 2021 regular season is approaching faster than ever. Cornerback was a positional group that underwent significant changes this offseason with  veterans Buster Skrine and Kyle Fuller being released.

The release of Skrine was justified but releasing Fuller led to questions about priorities on the Bears defense, despite Fuller’s cap hit of nearly $20M for the upcoming season. In a pass-happy league, the Bears opted to release a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, now leading to questions about the state of the position heading into 2021.

Outside of 2020 second-round pick Jaylon Johnson, Chicago does have some veterans in Artie Burns and Desmond Trufant. Add in rookie Thomas Graham Jr., and second-year CB Kindle Vildor with 2019 sixth-round pick Duke Shelley and Chicago has a number of options at the position.

Trufant and Burns are the most experienced players in the Bears CB room, with both being first-round picks in 2013 and 2016 respectively. Johnson was a second-round pick in 2020, with Graham Jr., Vildor, and Shelley being day three picks.

Bears CB’s will have a fair share of star wide receiver’s to face in 2021. An already tough schedule is even tougher when tasked with facing individual talents like DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry. Add in having to face the defending Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it’s clear the Bears will need to rely on veteran safeties Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson to cover up an unproven CB group.

Versatility is a quality that exists within Chicago’s CB group. Vildor, Shelley, and Burns can play on either the inside or the outside, giving the Bears multiple options when evaluating the position throughout training camp.

“We’re excited about developing some of these guys right now,” said defensive coordinator Sean Desai on the Bears official Youtube page. “We like the volume and depth we got there. We got to play football.”

As Chicago prepares for training camp, what happens at CB should be of immense interest. If someone such as Vildor or Graham Jr. emerge, it’s fair to cross off CB from the list of needs Chicago will have to address next offseason.

The Chicago Bears Might Have a Cornerback Problem

The Chicago Bears front office had a fantastic offseason. From high praise at the draft to some solid free agency signings, there seemed to be little holes in Ryan Pace’s plan to ensure the survival of his tenure as general manager. However, as we rapidly approach the regular season and begin to look at the rearview mirror, hindsight begins to kick in. The Bears brought in talent to fill several gaps on the roster yet didn’t fill the most glaring hole: the vacuum left by Pro Bowl cornerback Kyle Fuller’s departure. For all the great work the Bears did in the 2021 offseason, one has to wonder, what is the front office thinking in their handling of the cornerback position?

Fuller’s departure from the Bears had to happen. Unfortunately, Pace had little to offer Fuller to keep him in Chicago as an extension would cause a $20M cap hit and the organization was struggling, shrinking cap space. As a result, Fuller was officially cut from the organization on March 20th, 2021.

When you let one of the best talents on your roster go, common sense would reason that you look to replace that talent. To replace Kyle Fuller, the Bears brought in Desmond Trufant. You read that correctly. In a free-agent cornerback market that carried affordable talents such as Desmond King III, Malcolm Butler, Breshaud Breeland, and Xavier Rhodes, the Bears brought in Desmond Trufant on a 1yr $1.075M deal. I won’t take our cap space as an excuse to bring in a different talent as none of the names listed signed a contract above $4 million.

Scheme Fits

Fuller is a textbook zone cornerback. Finding an abundance of success under Vig Fangio’s secondary zone schemes, things were a bit different when Chuck Pagano came into town. No, the Defense didn’t see that much of a change, but the personnel did. The Bear’s current cornerback room is very much “man” oriented. For example, former Steelers and second most veteran cornerback Artie Burns primarily dominated man coverage during his time at the University of Miami. Still, he struggled in heavy zone schemes in Pittsburgh.

Rookie standout Jaylon Johnson and Bear’s 6th round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft Thomas Graham Jr. also excel at man coverage.

Desmond Trufant has played both man and zone effectively, although he struggled in a man-heavy scheme last year in Detroit. At the same time, Kindle Vildor struggled at man coverage but found his step in zone.

There’s an interesting mix of coverage strengths in this group of cornerbacks. Some speculate that new defensive coordinator Sean Desai will blow up the previous regime’s zone schemes for man coverage. However, considering the Bears’ talent at the safety position, It may not be a terrible idea to rely on Trevis Gipson and Eddie Jackson more. Regarding Desai’s defensive scheming, Jackson saw shades of Fangio. It is any fans or analysts guess how Desai schemes his secondary – that is until we see it in action.

The Bears are resting a lot of confidence in Jaylon Johnson and the young core of cornerbacks assembled on the roster. Bringing in Trufant was most likely nothing more than a move to add a much-needed veteran voice to assist the development of potential prospects. Regardless, we must hope that these prospects can develop quickly, as the Bear’s schedule in 2022 has them facing off against a selection of the league’s best passing attacks.

Wrapping it up

Fuller is gone. Our lockdown outside zone corner is back with Vig Fangio and that amazing group of cornerback talent in Denver. The current arms race in the NFL is centered on speed at the wide receiver position and lock down ability at the cornerback position. The Chicago Bears have the second cheapest cornerback room in the NFL. Hopefully, this low financial risk with a high potential reward pays off shortly. However, if it doesn’t, and the Bears secondary struggles to perform, it will not be surprising if the cornerback position is the Bear’s top priority entering the 2022 off-season.