Deonte Thompson led the NFL in kickoff returns, was second in kickoff return yardage and had his first 100-yard receiving game of his five-year career last season.
But it wasn’t exactly a breakout season at either position. So it was no surprise that the Bears searched for upgrades. They signed Benny Cunningham to compete with Thompson for the kick-return job. The signing of Victor Cruz, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright and Rueben Randle seemed to bury Thompson at wide receiver.
He’s in a tough spot, no doubt. But he hasn’t lost his staying power. In the Bears’ first preseason game last week against the Broncos, Thompson not only had a 44-yard kickoff return, but also was the Bears’ leading receiver, with five receptions for 64 yards — all from rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky — including the long play of the night, a 24-yard catch.
“I wouldn’t say it’s tougher [to make it this year], just a little bit more competition. But the cream always rises to the top,” said Thompson, who joined the Bears in 2015 after he was cut by the Bills. “The best player always plays.”
Thompson still has a long way to go, but the increased competition at camp seems to be bringing out his best. He had 22 receptions for 249 yards (11.3 average) and two touchdowns last season, including eight catches for 110 yards against the Packers at Soldier Field.
“I always feel like I’m fighting for that [roster] spot,” Thompson said. “I was a free-agent guy coming into the league [with the Ravens in 2012]. I don’t take anything for granted. I bust my butt every day and just try not to worry about it. I’m just controlling what I can control and making plays when they come my way.”
While the focus of the Bears’ rebuild is on upgrading starting positions, improving depth will be key. Only three players started all 16 games last season — left tackle Charles Leno, center Cody Whitehair and defensive end Akiem Hicks.
It remains to be seen if the Bears are better. But they should be deeper. At inside linebacker, Nick Kwiatkoski appears much improved over his rookie season, when he started six games for Danny Trevathan and one for Jerrell Freeman with middling results. At nose tackle, Jaye Howard or C.J. Wilson look like an upgrade over Will Sutton as a backup to Eddie Goldman.
When tight end Zach Miller suffered a season-ending foot injury last year, the Bears turned to Logan Paulsen, Daniel Brown and rookie free agent Ben Braunecker. They already look stronger and deeper there this year with Miller, Dion Sims and second-round pick Adam Shaheen. And Brown and Braunecker look improved.
Like Thompson, linebacker Christian Jones is a survivor. One of 11 remnants from the Phil Emery era, Jones has gotten meaningful reps in practice with Trevathan and, more recently, Kwiatkoski out.
“Christian Jones has shown significant improvement also,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said when asked about Kwiatkoski’s readiness to fill in for Trevathan. “He’s in that hunt, too.”
Jones signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014, has started 20 games in his three seasons, including 13 in 2015. More of an athlete at Florida State, Jones has survived with the Bears by being versatile and adaptable.
“My confidence level is better,” Jones said. “Just being in the same system for awhile now. I feel a lot more comfortable out there. It feel like I can make more plays. I’ve just got to be more consistent.”
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