The quarterback derby is the marquee position battle at training camp. But the safety competition between Deon Bush and Tashaun Gipson might carry the more enviable prize.
The winner gets to play next to two-time Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson with a slew of playmakers in front of him — Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn and Danny Trevathan among them. If that safety gig turns sour, you probably have no one to blame but yourself.
Gipson has been a starter in the NFL for seven seasons, but he knows this is an opportunity of a lifetime.
“Elite, that’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about joining a defense like that,” said Gipson, who played on Jaguars defenses that ranked second and fourth in points allowed in 2017 and 2018 before signing with the Texans last season. “You see the names on paper, the statistics behind each guy, but being able to see these guys up close and personal . . . I mean, it’s crazy. It’s a lot different than I imagined, and my perception coming here was already sky-high.
“So being part of this is truly crazy, man. To see how everybody moves and how things work, and when the defense is flowing, it’s a beautiful thing. I’m excited to be a part of it.”
The big question for Gipson is just how much a part of it he will be. Despite his résumé — Gipson has started 104 of the last 105 games he has played in — he still has to wrest the starting job from Bush, who has started eight games in four seasons with the Bears but has the advantage of familiarity with the Vic Fangio/Chuck Pagano defense.
“It’s been fun,” said Bush, who started three games in 2018 (including the playoff game) but played only 58 snaps on defense last season. “Really the first time I’m able to actually, really compete. This has been exciting for me. Just to have this opportunity is a blessing for me.”
With the Bears in need of a cost-efficient safety for 2020, they signed Bush to a one-year, $1.4 million contract after his rookie deal expired in 2019 — and he appeared to be the starter. When Gipson was cut by the Texans in late April, the Bears signed him to a one-year, $1.05 million contract, and the battle was on.
“It’s football,” Gipson said when asked about having to compete for the job. “Competition brings out the best in everybody. I’ve been impressed with Deon. I respect his game. He asks me questions. He’s just a student of the game. He wants to get better. I’ve been in this game a long time, and if I can help anybody — no matter if I’m competing with him or not — that’s what I’m here for. Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, I do enough [to win the job].”
After one week of padded practices, it’s too early to judge the competition. Bush’s confidence and comfort level in Pagano’s defense are evident.
“And he’s getting more comfortable taking command when he’s got to make some checks and adjustments,” safeties coach Sean Desai said. “Obviously, you see his athleticism and get-to-the-ball are still showing up. He’s a smart player. He’s really diligent, and he works really hard at it.”
Gipson has done his best work in the NFL as a free safety but will be a strong safety in the Bears’ defense. He seems to be adjusting well.
“Great pro, he’s all business,” Pagano said. “He’s got great instincts. He’s got range. He can play deep. He’s done a good job playing down in the box [and] in one-on-one and man situations. He has really picked up the defense.”
So will it be Gipson or Bush? Position battles often are overrated. Sometimes there’s no right choice. But at strong safety — in this defense — there should be no wrong one.