Continuity is king for the Bears’ defense, starting with the return of coordinator Vic Fangio. But there still are jobs to be won. New contributors must emerge. And some young stalwarts still require development.
Here are five things gleaned from conversations with the Bears’ defensive coaches during organized team activities:
First-round pick Roquan Smith must earn his starting spot but will benefit from the Bears’ continuation of concepts he learned at Georgia.
“There is carryover to what he has been exposed to,” inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires said. “I know what they run with that defense. I’ve known [Georgia coach] Kirby [Smart] for many, many years. I was on staff with him at the Dolphins. They have a good scheme. They understand well. And they expose their guys on defense to a lot of good things.”
Smith’s speed, instincts and performances in big games stood out. But Pires delved deeper when evaluating him for the draft because he knows what Fangio wants. He called Smith’s fit “very, very encouraging.”
“You just look at what their foundation and their techniques are,” Pires said. “He did a lot of things that we do, a lot of the things that we ask our linebackers to do, and he did them very, very well.
“You hear the word ‘instincts’ a lot, but what is that? He reacts well to situations. He diagnoses things well. You see his body language before the play. There’s a lot of communication going on, and that all comes from his background.”
It all bodes well for Smith, who will play early if he can prove he can effectively communicate within the defense. Pires called it a “big, big hurdle” for a young player.
“Everybody is different,” he said. “But once again, he has been exposed to a lot because of his scheme that he’s been in. So that’s a plus for him.”
The Bears see Kylie Fitts as a sixth-round selection with a high ceiling — a player who might earn an early role if he continues to impress.
“We had a lot higher grade on him than where he was drafted,” outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley said.
The Bears are searching for pass-rush help within the roster, but Staley said Fitts also can help in pass coverage and set the edge against the run.
“He does a little bit of everything well,” Staley said.
It helps that Fitts has the right physical makeup.
“He’s a shade under 6-4, but he’s 263 [pounds],” Staley said. “So he’s a big guy. He can run. And then he did 31 reps on the bench press. So this guy’s got a lot of the tools that you’re looking for.”
Fangio said Fitts showed “some ability along the way” during the offseason program, but padded practices in camp will carry more weight. The Bears are counting on either Isaiah Irving or Fitts to contribute.
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“There is a little bit of a question there of depth and depth quality,” Fangio said of his outside linebackers. “But we’re confident that [of] the guys we have there, somebody will surface to be the two starters and couple backups we need.”
Keeping Bryce Callahan healthy is a priority for secondary coach Ed Donatell.
“I want to get him to training camp right,”
And then Donatell wants to get Callahan through camp and the preseason injury-free.
“That’s the goal,” he said.
Callahan is the Bears’ unquestioned No. 1 nickel back, but he has dealt with nagging injuries since signing with the team as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He has missed time every year.
His future with the Bears depends on improving his durability. He signed his one-year tender as a restricted free agent this offseason.
“I really like having him,” Donatell said. “He’s a sharp guy who really knows how our defense works. He’s got good ball skills, good movement and cover skills.”
Roy Robertson-Harris is taking the right steps toward filling the starting hole left by Mitch Unrein’s departure.
Last year at this time, Robertson-Harris — an undrafted free agent out of Texas-El Paso in 2016 — was in the early stages of a major adjustment. The Bears moved him from outside linebacker to five-technique end. To make the shift, Robertson-Harris added roughly 30 pounds to his 6-7 frame. He’s now listed at 294.
“He doesn’t have the mass, meaning the 300-and-plus pounds that maybe somebody else does,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “But he’s big and he’s strong. He can move. He can swivel his hips a little bit. And he does have a good burst, so he’ll make a lot of hustle plays.”
Robertson-Harris’ athleticism makes him a unique force in the base defense next to Eddie Goldman, but also in sub packages with Akiem Hicks. Robertson-Harris appeared in 13 games last season and made two sacks.
“He got a full season of what it’s like,” Rodgers said. “Now he’s got an expectation that’s a little bit different, almost a higher expectation for himself, because he understands it. It’s just a matter of going out there and mastering all the techniques, run and pass, in order to get production on the field.”
It’s early, but Deon Bush is on his way to solidifying a roster spot as a reserve behind starters Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos.
Fangio highlighted Bush’s development this week — unsolicited praise while Fangio was answering a question about Fitts.
“As one of the teachers, I see it,” Donatell said. “We’re just not there yet.”
A fourth-round pick in 2016, Bush started six games as a rookie. Now he’s competing with fellow 2016 draft picks Deiondre’ Hall and DeAndre Houston-Carson for roster spots.
“[Bush is] playing really fast, and he’s playing certain,” Donatell said. “He’s playing with great speed. That just means he knows where he’s going, and he’s seeing what he’s supposed to see when he’s supposed to see it. That’s where most of his improvement is.”