Even with injuries and down seasons, the Bears know what they have in stars such as linebacker Khalil Mack, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and receiver Allen Robinson. Those three are proven commodities, and barring factors beyond their control, they’ll be ultra-reliable and productive.
But coach Matt Nagy needs some new players to ascend to that level. That’s particularly true on offense, but the defense is filling some holes as well this training camp. As players work toward the start of practice later this month, here are five potential breakout stars worth watching:
RB David Montgomery
It’s imperative that Montgomery blossoms in Year 2. He had a fine rookie season — second in his class with 889 yards rushing — but Nagy needs more. The Bears were thinking Matt Forte when they drafted him.
Whether it was poor play-calling, poor quarterbacking or simply that Montgomery wasn’t there yet, he averaged just two targets per game in 2019 and finished with 25 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown.
The top man in his role last season was the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, who had 429 chances (rushes plus targets). The Bears would love to get Montgomery 350-400 and see him do something impressive with it.
CB Jaylon Johnson
It’s hard to bank on any rookie, but Johnson has a winnable battle against Artie Burns, Kevin Toliver and Duke Shelley for a starting job. If he gets it, he’ll have the benefit of Kyle Fuller already being in place and the Bears having an overwhelming pass rush.
While it’s a near-guarantee that Johnson will struggle early in the season, it’s also reasonable to expect a promising cornerback to start showing his potential after the first month or so. That fits well with the Bears’ schedule, which figures to be lighter in the first half than the second.
WR Anthony Miller
Miller, who had two games of 80 or more receiving yards last season, is already on the brink after the Bears drafted similarly skilled receiver Darnell Mooney. After two years of patience and hand-holding, Miller goes into his third season knowing Mooney is coming for him and veteran Ted Ginn is hungry to prove he can still be a burner.
Nagy couldn’t afford to bench Miller when he struggled last year, but he’ll have options now. That should push Miller to his best.
OL Germain Ifedi
There aren’t many cities in the NFL where a right guard can be a star, but Chicago is one of them (hey, Kyle Long). Given all the frustration over the Bears’ offensive line last season, anyone who stabilizes it can become a local hero.
Ifedi, a first-rounder in 2016 who was dumped by the Seahawks, will begin at right guard but could also take over either tackle spot, if needed.
He’s only 26, too, so if new O-line coach Juan Castillo develops him into a solid starter, the Bears could get a long-term return on the one-year, $1 million contract they gave him.
S Tashaun Gipson
Can someone really be a breakout star if he has already been to the Pro Bowl? Maybe not. So in Gipson’s case, since he already had a breakout season with the Browns in 2014, let’s call him a potential resurgent star.
He made the climb from going undrafted out of Wyoming in 2012 to becoming a coveted starting safety, but he’s on the decline until he shows otherwise. The Jaguars cut him three seasons into a five-year contract in 2019; the Texans then shredded his three-year deal in April after one season. The Bears scooped him up for the veteran minimum in May after he sat on the open market for nearly two months.
That said, he landed in a fortuitous spot. He’ll play with a potential All-Pro in Eddie Jackson, he has Fuller locking down one side of the field, and this will be the best overall defense on which he has played. Everything sets up in favor of Gipson bouncing back.