When the Bears took Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson in the second round of the draft as the replacement for Prince Amukamara, many presumed that the transition would be pretty immediate — similar to safety Eddie Jackson becoming the starter virtually from the first day of training camp in 2017.
The talented, seemingly NFL-ready Johnson might end up becoming the starter — but unlike Jackson, not without a fight. Kevin Toliver, the third-year cornerback who has handled spot duty without incident if not impressively in his first two seasons, is not just token competition for Johnson, but a legitimate contender for the job.
In fact, unless Johnson wins by an early knockout — always a possibility with a player of his ability and experience — Johnson vs. Toliver in training camp could be right behind Mitch Trubisky vs. Nick Foles as the position battle to watch. Both players have size and talent and will be playing behind one of the best front sevens in the NFL. So the winner has a chance to become a playmaker and an upgrade, rather than just a nice complement to Kyle Fuller.
So, unlike Jackson in 2017, Johnson might not begin training camp as the starter.
“I think we need to change that narrative,” Bears secondary coach Deshea Townsend said. “You never want to give anybody their job, and I don’t want Jaylon to think it’s his job because we drafted him. When I talk to my guys and what I believe in my room is nothing is handed to you, and I don’t want anybody to feel that something is handed [to them].”
The 6-2, 199-pound Toliver has started two games and played double-digit snaps on defense in nine games since joining the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2018, but he’s hardly the scrappy, over-achieving type. He was a five-star recruit rated the No. 1 defensive back in the country in high school and started at LSU as a true freshman before injuries and competition stalled the arc of his college career.
He was a capable replacement for Amukamara the last two seasons. In his two starts, the Bears beat the Buccaneers 48-10 in 2018 and the Cowboys 31-24 in 2019, when the Cowboys did most of their damage offensively after the Bears took a 24-7 lead in the third quarter.
After his encouraging performance against the Cowboys, Toliver split time with the ailing Amukamara in the last three games. He had a pass break-up against the Packers’ Davante Adams and seemed to pass the audition, until the Bears drafted Johnson.
But even with Johnson the presumed starter, Townsend indicated it’s Toliver’s job to lose. That might be a technical distinction, with Toliver being the veteran on the roster. But training-camp reps will be interesting. Townsend gave every indication that it starts out on even terms.
“KT has a great opportunity,” Townsend said. “Prince got hurt. He came in and showed what he was supposed to do. He showed that he is a starter in this league. Now it’s his job to hold everybody off that comes to get it. Competition’s gonna bring out the best in everybody. For KT, he knows that this is his opportunity, and that’s all he can ask for.
“If he does what he did against Davante Adams, the plays he made against Amari Cooper, he showed that he can play in this league. From what I saw of what he did at the end of the year . . . he has a great opportunity to continue to make a lot of plays for this defense.”