The defense rests: Nine Bears starters staying off the field for OTAs

Linebacker Roquan Smith was the only returning starter to participate in on-field activities. But coach Matt Nagy said the absent players — including Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson — still are participating in off-field meetings.

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Bears cornerback Teez Tabor, a former Lions second-round draft pick who was signed to the practice squad last December, works on an interception drill during the Bears’ offseason practice Wednesday at Halas Hall.

Nam Y. Huh, AP Photos

Divided by protest, the Bears still are unified.

The NFL Players Association recommended that players boycott the voluntary offseason practices (OTAs). And while about a dozen Bears players appeared to be honoring that request Wednesday, all but one of those players (wide receiver Allen Robinson) were on defense.

So on a team that prioritizes culture, unity and togetherness, coach Matt Nagy can look at the bright side: His offense is virtually all-in on rallying around new quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Justin Fields to turn a glaring weakness into a strength. And the veteran defense is sticking together on the sidelines — they’ll be there when the bell rings.

There were exceptions. Robinson’s absence is rooted in his frustration over getting the franchise tag for 2021 (he has until July 15 to negotiate a long-term deal). He might have the most legitimate protest of all.

Inside linebacker Roquan Smith was the lone returning defensive starter to participate Wednesday. Newcomer Desmond Trufant, a presumed starter in place of departed cornerback Kyle Fuller, also participated.

At first blush, the absences on defense were stark and appeared a bit alarming to those used to seeing full attendance at OTAs. No Akiem Hicks. No Khalil Mack. No Danny Trevathan. No Bilal Nichols. No Eddie Jackson or Jaylon Johnson. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn needs all the work he can get after a forgettable 2020, but he wasn’t there. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who hasn’t played in more than a year after opting out of the 2020 season because of concerns over the coronavirus, wasn’t there, either.

It seemed like an affront to rookie defensive coordinator Sean Desai. After underachieving again in 2020 under Chuck Pagano, the Bears’ defense needs more work, not less — as Desai implements tweaks he hopes will revitalize a once-formidable defense.

But then reality hits. There are OTAs. Seven practices in shorts and shells with no hitting and no live tackling. As protests go, this is barely a blip — not exactly a job-action or a mutiny. Even if it leads to the end of voluntary offseason practices, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for the NFL. It might be good. The notion of working hard vs. working smart has flummoxed the league for most of the last 50 years, anyway.

And as Nagy pointed out, the missing players aren’t malcontents.

“I want to make it loud and clear that the on-the-field part that you’re seeing is one part of it and in-the-classroom is the other part,” Nagy said, “And all of those guys that you’re not seeing [on the field], they’re all here physically; they’re all here in meetings and they’re a part of everything.

“And they have phenomenal attitudes. It’s those relationships that are being built over Zoom right now are still going strong and I appreciate that from those guys, because even that part is voluntary. But those guys, they’re a part of all these meetings. They’re getting everything that Sean and these coaches are teaching. They just are not here for the physical part.”

The mandatory minicamp June 15-17 at Halas Hall will tell the tale. That’s when Nagy will expect full participation. And attendance will be worth watching.

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