Who are these guys? Nondescript Bears out to make a name for themselves

With Mack, Hicks, et al. gone, the Bears have little star power. But Matt Eberflus has a knack for developing untapped potential. “We have played young players fast. And they have played very well — that’s what the system does,” the Bears head coach said.

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Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (97) is one of several unheralded players who prospered in Matt Eberflus’ defense with the Colts.

Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (97) is one of several unheralded players who prospered in Matt Eberflus’ defense with the Colts.

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Bears tight end Ryan Griffin said general manager Ryan Poles’ vision helped draw him to Chicago. 

And truth be told, Griffin saw not only a vision, but an opportunity. While Cole Kmet is a key building block of the offense under offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, the Bears’ tight end room is as modest as any in the NFL: Kmet, veteran James O’Shaughnessy and three tight ends who have yet to play in the NFL in Rysen John and undrafted rookies Chase Allen and Jake Tonges. They’ve combined for 17 touchdowns in the NFL, and Griffin has 14 of them. 

“You can see in our roster makeup, we’re a younger team. A lot of hungry guys. Hard-working guys,” Griffin said when asked about Poles’ vision. “And I think our vision is a hard-working, tough-nosed, cold-weather football team, and I pride myself on being a part of some of those teams. I’m happy to be here and try to get this thing right.” 

The Bears’ tight end room epitomizes the rebuild under Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, as they reformed the roster in their vision with very specific ideas of which players fit their roster and which do not. Gone are Khalil Mack, Eddie Goldman, James Daniels, Akiem Hicks, Allen Robinson and Jimmy Graham. In are Al-Quadin Muhammad, Justin Jones, Lucas Patrick, Nicholas Morrow, Byron Pringle and Griffin.

It leaves the Bears in a rebuild like no other, with a roster loaded with nondescript players with minimal or modest NFL cachet. The Bears have just six players on their 90-man roster who have been full-time starters the last three seasons: linebacker Roquan Smith, safety Eddie Jackson, guard Cody Whitehair, defensive end Robert Quinn, running back David Montgomery and defensive tackle Jones. Plus part-time starters in Griffin, defensive tackle Angelo Blackson and linebacker Morrow. (When Ryan Pace rebuilt the roster in his first season as general manager in 2015, the Bears had 14 players who had started the previous three seasons, not including Pro Bowl players Kyle Long and Alshon Jeffery.)

And it remains to be seen if Quinn will even be there after the veteran decided to ditch the Bears’ mandatory minicamp this week for undisclosed — and mysterious — reasons. That would leave Muhammad, Trevis Gipson and Mario Edwards Jr. as the Bears’ most experienced defensive ends heading into training camp. 

But the lack of experience or proven NFL production is part of the process for Poles and Eberflus. This gives them a chance to do what the Bears need them to do — clean house and mold a team from the ground floor.

Eberflus in particular has had success getting more out of inexperienced or lesser-accomplished players. In his first year as defensive coordinator with the Colts, the defense improved from 30th in points and yards in 2017 to 10th in points and 11th in yards in 2018. 

And he did it with a similar roster to the one he has now: rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, a second-round draft pick (36th overall), was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year; defensive end Denico Autry had nine sacks after having 10 in four years with the Raiders; defensive end Margus Hunt had five sacks after having 2œ in five previous NFL seasons; linebacker Anthony Walker, cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir and safety Clayton Geathers all prospered with significantly more snaps under Eberflus. 

Eberflus has had a knack for getting unproductive players to produce — and quickly.

How does he do it? Eberflus pointed to “the system.”

“If you look back at our system . . . you will find that we have played young players fast, and they have played very well — that’s what the system does,” Eberflus said. “It’s a system where we rely on techniques and fundamentals and the player-coach relationship, and that’s important to us. And it’s a partnership.”

While Chicago doesn’t know Eberflus well, his m.o. with this team is promising — he’s not afraid of the worst-case scenario. On the contrary, he appears eager to give anybody who shows potential a chance to build on it. And he has a roster perfectly suited to provide those opportunities. 

And for talented rookies such as second-round cornerback Kyler Gordon, second-round safety Jaquan Brisker and third-round wide receiver Velus Jones, there’s an even better chance for young players to make an immediate impact.

“It’s exciting to watch a young guy do that. We’re not afraid to do that,” Eberflus said. “We’re not afraid to put young guys in there and let them go. So we’re looking forward to guys like a Brisker or a Gordon or a young guy like that stepping up and playing.” 

Asked how the system prepares players to produce so quickly, Eberflus had a one-word answer: “Standards.”

Gipson, a prime candidate to break out in his third NFL season, with or without Quinn, explained the essence of the “standards.” 

“We know the standard from just watching and paying attention to our coaches, how they go about things — detail-oriented, always on time [or] early at times,” said Gipson, who had seven sacks last season. “They push us hard. They tell us, ‘Don’t walk from drill to drill,’ and they’re not either. They’re sprinting [or] jogging. So I think us learning and seeing how they go about things is rubbing off on us and keeping us detail-oriented.” 

The accountability for upholding that standard is as collegiate as the H.I.T.S. principle. But at this point, it is resonating at Halas Hall.

“You get put up on the board [for not upholding the standard] and the whole defense knows,” Gipson said. “It’s just morale. It’s just holding each other accountable and knowing that when you do mess up or when you do not give effort like you should, everybody on the team is going to know.” 

That’s another advantage to having so many unproven or less-established players on your roster. More of them buy into that kind of thing. 

“I love it,” Gipson said, “because you can’t cut corners now. Not that you ever were able to, but just in life, when people hold you accountable, they’re always watching you, and you get sort of skeptical if you’re waking down the street knowing someone’s watching you, looking over your shoulder. It makes you want to for right [and] not have to worry about that.”

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