This has been a tough season for the Bears, but a pretty good one for Demontre Hurst.
The second-year cornerback, an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma who spent his rookie season on the practice squad, has emerged from the fringes of the Bears’ roster to worthy of a better look at nickel back as the Bears look toward 2015 in the last weeks of a dreadful 2014 season.
“I definitely believe I’ve contributed a lot since I’ve been playing nickel,” said the 5-10, 183-pound Hurst, who replaced Isaiah Frey as the starter in Week 6 against the Falcons. “I’ve still got three more games. I still have a lot to prove, and hopefully I can stick around a little bit longer.
“I know they’re looking deep into the future. I would love to be here next year.”
There’s no telling what the Bears’ defense will look like next season with coordinator Mel Tucker’s status in doubt heading into the last three games. Five of the Bears’ opening-day starters on defense will be free agents: linebackers Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams, cornerback Charles Tillman, safety Chris Conte and tackle Stephen Paea.
It’s possible none of them will return. Briggs and Tillman, who have combined for nine Pro Bowls, are 34 and 33, respectively, and coming off consecutive injury-marred seasons. Conte showed improvement in his fourth season but can’t stay healthy. He has been unable to finish six games because of various injuries — the latest a back injury against the Cowboys last week.
Williams, the starting middle linebacker, plays a position in need of an upgrade. Paea is having his best season — his six sacks are fourth-most among NFL defensive tackles. But the Bears aren’t likely to splurge to keep Paea with rookies Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton — the Bears’ second- and third-round picks — behind him.
Linebacker Shea McClellin, who has one year left on his rookie contract, is a wild card regardless of who the coordinator is next season. The 2012 first-round pick hasn’t made a major impact in his first season at linebacker after playing defensive end his first two seasons.
McClellin had 11 tackles in blowout losses to the Patriots and Packers, but, in more competitive games, he had three tackles against the Vikings, one against the Buccaneers and one against the Lions. But he seems to show just enough to entice Phil Emery — the general manager who drafted McClellin 19th overall — to stick with him. He had six tackles, including a tackle for loss, against the Cowboys. For what it’s worth, according to Pro Football Focus, McClellin has had positive ratings in his last five games.
Hurst’s future is unclear, but he’s at least an intriguing prospect because of his progress on defense and special teams in recent weeks. He had two more special-teams tackles against the Cowboys to give him eight for the season.
“He’s been solid for us pretty much all year,” special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said. “He’s a smaller kid, but he make good tackles. He’s got good tackling technique, so he shows up around the ball a lot. It’s good to see him doing well in both [phases]. He’s played well on defense, and he’s making some plays for us [on special teams].”
Hurst said he learned a lot about playing nickel from Kelvin Hayden, Tim Jennings and Frey and credited secondary coach Jon Hoke and defensive assistant Chris Harris.
Where has he improved the most?
“Just being football smart,” Hurst said. “Building off each game, learning from mistakes. I just feel I’m getting more comfortable with the game.”
A strong finish doesn’t guarantee him anything. But he’s a player the Bears are paying attention to. He’s getting better.
“I’ve built a lot of confidence in myself,” Hurst said. “The veteran guys around me are also building confidence in me. I’m just trying to improve every game, make more plays and be around the football and let everybody know that I can be a good football player and a very impactful nickel for the Bears. Hopefully, these next three games, I can keep doing it, get some more turnovers and make a bigger impact.”