The Chicago Bears are still waiting to see if top cornerback Jaylon Johnson will show up for any portion of their voluntary organized team activities, but Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams isn’t looking to throw him under the bus.
Williams spoke with reporters ahead of May 31’s OTA practice and was asked whether Johnson would be present for Wednesday’s open-to-media workout. While he admitted that he would “love” for every player to be there — as head coach Matt Eberflus said last week — he took a civil approach and lightened the mood about the absent cornerback.
“Can I say no comment?” Williams joked.
Johnson was, in fact, not among the practice participants when the Bears took the field later on Wednesday. The Bears were also without new right guard Nate Davis, free safety Eddie Jackson and wide receiver Darnell Mooney; though, the latter two are still recovering from season-ending injuries and have not been expected to practice.
Johnson’s absence from the Bears, while notable, should not raise any alarm bells just yet. The 24-year-old cornerback is heading into the final year of his rookie contract and has expressed a desire to sign an extension with the team before the 2023 season, which could be a reason why he has elected not to attend the voluntary workouts. As both Williams and Eberflus have said, though, players have a choice at this time of year.
“We would love all our guys to be out there. But the way football is right now it is optional and I want the guys to be out there because I do feel that we bring value,” Williams continued. “So I want guys to be here. But it is voluntary. So with that in mind, any of the players, they have to make a choice of whether they’re here or not.
“I love all my guys. The guys who are here? We’re going to coach them up and teach them. And be the best that we can be.”
Jaylon Johnson’s Absence Benefits Rookie Growth
There is no question the Bears would prefer Johnson be present versus not attending, but it is not like they can’t take advantage of the cards they have been dealt.
The Bears’ cornerback room figures to be one of the most intriguing position battles of the 2023 season with two rookie draft picks — second-round Tyrique Stevenson and fifth-round Terell Smith — competing with Kyler Gordon and Kindle Vildor for spots in the rotation. The more reps the Bears can give them early on, even in the no-contact portion of the offseason, the more it should benefit in July during training camp.
Stevenson has a legitimate shot to mirror Johnson at the Bears’ other perimeter spot when Week 1 of the regular season arrives in September. Chicago shipped a second- and fifth-round pick to Jacksonville to move up eight spots for Stevenson at No. 53 overall, and general manager Ryan Poles has indicated he will compete for a role on the outside. While learning from Johnson should help, the reps are extremely valuable right now.
Without Johnson, the Bears can also concentrate on ironing out the rest of their depth at the cornerback position. Vildor, a 2020 fifth-rounder, figures to be Stevenson’s main competition for the No. 2 outside cornerback role and, like Johnson, is heading into the final year of his rookie contract. The Bears will now have a chance to see how both of them operate on the field together and, ideally, get a better sense of where they stand.
Williams also said Wednesday that Gordon will get reps on the outside, too, even though they are planning on having him as their nickel corner for the 2023 season.
Bears Have Multiple 2020 Picks Seeking Extensions
Johnson is one of the most prominent extension candidates for the Bears heading into the 2023 season, but there are four other draft picks from the 2020 class who are each going to be making their case for staying in Chicago beyond the upcoming year.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bears have both Mooney and tight end Cole Kmet to consider signing to long-term extensions. Mooney has been a fairly productive No. 2 receiver for the Bears with a 1,000-yard season in 2021, but Chicago has also made several additions to its receiving corps over the past few months, trading for D.J. Moore and Chase Claypool and using a fourth-round pick on Cincinnati’s Tyler Scott.
Kmet’s case is a little easier. He finished the 2022 season as the Bears’ leader in receptions (50), receiving yards (544), receiving touchdowns (seven) and targets (69) and has proved to be one of the most reliable weapons in Justin Fields’ arsenal. Outside of Robert Tonyan Jr. — who just signed in March — there is also nobody waiting in the wings to replace Kmet if he departs after 2023. Extending him could be a priority.
The non-Johnson defensive candidates have less production to state their cases. One is Vildor, who had a career-high one interception and five pass deflections in 2022, but he seems destined to get pushed out of the now-crowded cornerback room, especially if the Bears extend Johnson. The other is defensive end Trevis Gipson, who had a down year in 2022 but is just two years removed from a seven-sack breakout season in 2021.
As Heavy Sports insider Matt Lombardo reported on May 30, the Bears remain high on the potential long-term value of Gipson despite an apparent backslide last season. He was also part of the reason why they ignored the edge-rusher position in the 2023 draft.
“They like him a lot,” a league source with knowledge of the Bears’ thinking told Lombardo, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “That’s why they drafted interior help rather than taking an edge rusher.”