In the week leading up to the game against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 8, Chicago Bears secondary coach Deshea Townsend joked with Jaylon Johnson that his season was over.
A half-season was enough. No more rookie mistakes from the No. 50 pick in the draft.
Johnson responded by making back-to-back pass breakups in the third quarter against Titans wide receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, prompting announcer Greg Jennings to declare “he plays like a seasoned veteran.”
“We’re just seeing him grow up and continue to develop into the corner that he wants to be and we need him to be,” Townsend said. “Those mistakes he had made, we talk about not making them anymore. He’s been doing well since the first game that he’s played, which is impressive for a young corner.”
When Johnson was the seventh cornerback drafted in April, the Utah product admitted he was frustrated he dropped so far after some projected him as a first-rounder. But he used that motivation to push past offseason shoulder surgery and put together a solid first season so far.
He has 13 passes defended, ranked third among all NFL players behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Carlton Davis and the New York Giants’ James Bradberry. He made the Pro Football Focus all-rookie midseason team and was mentioned among the top 14 NFL rookies in recent ESPN rankings.
“I definitely keep that hunger inside me, that there was clearly a doubt that they didn’t take me,” Johnson said last month. “But at the end of the day, there are plenty of factors that motivate me to keep having success.”
Of course, there still are mistakes.
Johnson had a rough time Monday against Minnesota Vikings rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who finished with 135 receiving yards. Jefferson’s night included beating Johnson for catches of 14 and 54 yards.
Johnson has allowed 50.8% of the 61 targets that have come his way for 520 yards, according to Pro Football Reference. He also has been flagged five times, with four of the penalties accepted.
Townsend has preached the importance of a short memory and an ability to bounce back, especially with a young player who is bound to have some miscues. And Johnson so far has shown the right mindset in trying to do that.
“Jaylon is a young pro,” Townsend said. “The good thing is that he listens. He’s not one of those rookies that comes in and thinks he knows everything. He takes what the vets give him. He’s easy to get along with. And he wants to learn. And so that makes it easy for everybody to be happy to be around him. He’s a sponge. He works every day. That’s all you can ask for for a rookie.”
Here’s a look at the rest of the Bears’ 2020 rookie class through 10 games.
Cole Kmet, TE, Notre Dame, second round (No. 43)
Stats: Seven catches on 11 targets, 86 yards, one touchdown in 248 snaps on offense; 76 snaps on special teams.
The rundown: Cole Kmet has made plays over the last month and a half that leave one wanting more.
He pulled in Nick Foles’ 9-yard pass in the end zone amid a crowd of three Carolina Panthers defenders for his first career touchdown. He made a 38-yard catch by leaping to get his hands over the top of Los Angeles Rams linebacker Justin Hollins.
But the Bears haven’t consistently targeted Kmet in the passing game, with just four over the last three games. He saw a career-high in playing time with 70% of the Bears offensive snaps against the Vikings. He was targeted three times, but two of those were incompletions on uncatchable balls from backup Tyler Bray at the end of the game and another a Foles pass meant for Allen Robinson that Kmet slid in to grab.
Tight ends coach Clancy Barone said Kmet’s route-running has been good, though he did run the wrong route while taking Jimmy Graham’s place on a third-and-5 shot into the end zone against the Vikings that botched the play.
Barone said Kmet has been patient and focused as he continues his growth. He called him “a fantastic student of the game,” texting nearly every day to ask about a play he is breaking down on film.
Coach’s take: “He’s not a high-maintenance guy. He’s as much of a throwback as I’ve been around for a long time. The guy competes. It’s very weird seeing a young player like him that just wants to compete and be perfect play in and play out every practice, every meeting. So he’s wired the right way. The guy knows football. He’s a football junkie as we all know, but as he’s watching tape, he understands, ‘OK, versus this coverage, the ball should go there,’ and that’s why he’s not getting it and so on. So he’s not a high-maintenance player whatsoever that’s demanding that there be something schemed up for him and only him. He’s a true team player.” — Barone.
Trevis Gipson, OLB, Tulsa, fifth round (No. 155)
Stats: Two games, 13 snaps on defense, three snaps on special teams.
The rundown: Outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said last week that Gipson remains “a work in progress.”
“Trevis continues to ramp up, especially in individual, he’s doing a great job of figuring out exactly the technique that we’re teaching,” Monachino said. “He gets better each week at that. The other thing he does jump off the tape at you on is some of the scout-team stuff.”
Playing in a deep outside linebackers corps that includes Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Barkevious Mingo and James Vaughters, Gipson, who moved to outside linebacker this season after playing defensive end at Tulsa, has seen action in just two games. He didn’t record any stats in those appearances.
After trading a 2021 fourth-round pick to the Vikings to make sure they could select Gipson at No. 155, Bears general manager Ryan Pace touted Gipson’s natural pass-rush traits and upside.
The Bears see that promise — Monachino said Gipson was the scout team player of the week a couple of times this season — but there has been a learning curve, especially because of the unique 2020 offseason and cancellation of preseason games.
Coach’s take: “We’ve got a number of guys on the roster that are up on game day, and he just hasn’t been one of them for a while. I know that he is ready to play whenever we need him to play, but just like all of them, the role would have to be a role that he can perform well in. We can’t just throw him out there and hope that he’s a man for all seasons because he’s not yet. Without going through an offseason and through a real training camp with preseason games, some of that is hard to evaluate. Trevis can do all the things we ask our position group to do physically and mentally. It’s just a function of can we get him enough reps that we feel comfortable and he feels confident going into the game to execute at a winning football level? And I know that the kid wants to play and we want to get him in there. But he is a work in progress, and we’re going to continue to work with him until we feel like he is ready to contribute to winning defense.” — Monachino
Kindle Vildor, CB, Georgia Southern, fifth round (No. 163)
Stats: 10 games, two tackles, one snap on defense, 70 snaps on special teams.
The rundown: When Pace selected Vildor in the fifth round, he touted the cornerback’s ability to play inside and outside, his speed and athleticism, his demeanor and a skill set that translates to special teams.
Playing behind veterans Kyle Fuller and Buster Skrine and second-round pick Jaylon Johnson, Vildor really only has had a shot to prove himself on special teams, on which he has played 24% of the snaps. He has two tackles with the kickoff coverage unit and an offensive holding penalty with the punt return unit.
Townsend has stressed to Vildor to focus on his growth through practice and watching teammates because he doesn’t have the opportunity to learn through his mistakes on the field.
Coach’s take: “For him daily, it’s just how he can get mentally prepared to play. Even the corrections we talk about with other guys, he has to take it like it’s his own. Because when he gets his opportunity, he can’t make that mistake. He has to learn from the coaching of others, and that’s the thing that I talk about with him daily. It’s just critiquing him on the little things, when he’s on the practice squad working for the offense, making sure I’m watching him, making sure he’s competing. That’s his game rep.” — Townsend
Darnell Mooney, WR, Tulane, fifth round (No. 173)
Stats: 33 catches on 56 targets, 351 yards, two touchdowns in 471 snaps.
The rundown: Mooney ranks as the pleasant surprise of Ryan Pace’s draft class, though Bears coaches noted they knew he would have a chance to contribute this season as soon as they witnessed his speed and route-running ability on the practice field.
Coach Matt Nagy and wide receivers coach Mike Furrey have praised the serious, mature approach Mooney has taken to his first NFL season.
“Nothing fazes this kid,” Furrey said before the Vikings game. “It’s amazing the attribute that he has where he doesn’t get high, he doesn’t get low. He just literally has a focus where he mentally knows what he’s doing. I don’t think he’s had any MAs (missed assignments) over the last four or five weeks. Really it’s hard for me to say a MA he’s had this season, and as many plays as he’s played in the game. And his work ethic in the run game has been contagious among our veteran guys.”
Furrey also said he was impressed last week with Mooney’s growing swagger. Mooney said that comes from being more comfortable within the team — and watching how veteran Allen Robinson has the mindset that “wherever (the football) is, anywhere in your vicinity, you’ve got to catch it.”
Mooney is averaging 10.6 yards per catch and has the Bears’ longest offensive play of the season, a 50-yard reception from Foles against the New Orleans Saints.
Coach’s take: “You feel a guy who understands and knows his speed. He can feel spatial awareness. We’re putting him in position to not only stretch the defense, but it’s not like he’s just a one-trick guy who can just go deep. You’ve seen it in the intermediate cuts, the contested catches. We’re beyond — I know I am — beyond excited that he’s part of this football team, especially the fact that we had no offseason. We get him in training camp and not really being able to go work him out before the draft. And then you get a guy like this who just seems like he gets it. …. And when rookies just get it, you feel like the game is never going to be too big for him. Or the moment. Or what they’re asked to do.” — Dave Ragone, pass game coordinator
Arlington Hambright, OL, Colorado, seventh round (No. 226)
Stats: Three games, one start. 77 snaps on offense, 11 snaps on special teams.
The rundown: It’s nothing against Hambright to say in a perfect Bears world the team wouldn’t have needed him to make his first career start in Week 9 against the Tennessee Titans.
But left guard James Daniels tore his pectoral muscle, center Cody Whitehair and swing tackle Jason Spriggs were on the COVID-19 reserve list, right tackle Bobby Massie was on injured reserve with a knee injury and backup center Sam Mutsipher was out with a knee injury.
That meant the Bears needed to turn to their still-developing seventh-round draft pick to fill in at left guard. Hambright played left tackle a lot in college, but Pace said in the spring that they thought his body type could translate to guard.
Offensive line coach Juan Castillo lauded Hambright’s athleticism but said the need for consistency with his fundamentals was evident in the film from the game. Hambright also had a false start.
Whitehair returned to play center against the Vikings, so Hambright returned to a backup role.
Coach’s take: “He had some plays where you say, ‘OK, this kid has the chance to be a starter in the NFL,’ and then he has some plays that you say, ‘OK, you can see that he still needs to grow, develop and get that experience.’ But he had some flashes where you see that God-given ability that he has in pass protection and in some of the run game — the quickness and explosion that he has.” — Castillo on Hambright’s start
Lachavious Simmons, OL, Tennessee State, seventh round (No. 227)
The rundown: Simmons had a tough break before the Titans game.
Five days after he was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster for the first time, he tested positive for COVID-19 and subsequently couldn’t play in the Nov. 8 game. The Bears hired a private car to transport him back from Nashville, Tenn., to the Chicago area, and he remained on the reserve/COVID-19 list until Friday.
Pace lauded Simmons’ size, length, work ethic, passion and energy when they drafted him and said he could play tackle or guard. But Bears coaches haven’t seen yet how that will translate to an NFL game setting.
Coach’s take: “That was like his homecoming, and that was the sad part. You know his family was there and everything. … He called me on Saturday night and told me that they had called him, so he was pretty upset.” — Castillo on Simmons’ COVID-19 case.
Artavis Pierce, RB, Oregon State, undrafted free agent
Stats: Three games, three carries, 9 yards. Seven snaps on offense, 11 snaps on special teams.
The rundown: Monday night’s game against the Vikings was the first time Pierce received an opportunity on offense.
With Tarik Cohen out with a torn ACL in his right knee and David Montgomery out with a concussion, the Bears needed somebody to step up. Pierce showed promising burst on carries of 6 and 5 yards and also was stopped for a loss of 2 yards in the game.
Running backs coach Charles London said that while Pierce didn’t have preseason games to show what he could do, he still managed to flash in training camp and scrimmages. London liked Pierce’s preparation for the Vikings game and indicated he would like to see him seize more opportunities if they’re available.
Coach’s take: “He showed good burst. He showed good vision. He’s a fast guy, and he was ready to go out there and compete. Try to get him a couple more carries each week. But I think the arrow’s pointing up for Artavis. I like where he’s at.” — London