The Bears lost one of their more unique players in free agency when defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The departure was entirely expected because Robertson-Harris had proven his ability at a line position where it's not always easy to find suitable talent, and he'd done it after starting out in football in a different position.
The Bears needed to add about 30 pounds to Robertson-Harris and make him go from standing up as a linebacker in college to playing in a down position on the defensive line.
Though a bit undersized for the Bears defensive line still at 292 pounds, Robertson-Harris proved he could play a two-gap system but be an explosive player capable of making plays in the backfield at times as a three-technique if the Bears were in a four-man defensive front for pass rush situations. He had 75 tackles, nine for loss, and 7 1/2 sacks but could have had more except for a season-ending shoulder injury he suffered last year in Week 8.
The Bears have brought back one of their converted players for this season when they signed former Detroit linebacker Christian Jones in free agency.
Jones originally came undrafted to the Bears out of Florida State and was thought to be an edge rusher even though his most effective college play had been as a weakside linebacker. He made 95 tackles at this position as a junior. They eventually found he was better off playing a conventional inside linebacker spot in their 3-4 rather than on the edge and used him there. The conversion wasn't as big of a process with Jones because of his college linebacker experience.
The conversion process is occurring with several Bears as they enter training camp and if one or more of them can make a breakthrough like Robertson-Harris did in 2018 then they could become big contributors, or at least give the Bears an indication they could develop into this in the future.
1. Trevis Gipson
The 2020 fifth-round pick cost Ryan Pace a fourth-round pick this past year to acquire and showed very little, so they'd like to see something positive.
"No doubt, it's important because he needs those reps and we need to build depth in the position room," Bears outside linebackers coach Bill Shuey said. "So Trevis is an important piece."
The thought is Gipson can be a player who makes a fast leap forward because he'll benefit this year from the offseason practices and the preseason games he didn't get last year when he converted from an interior defensive line spot in a 3-4.
"Last year you lose a whole offseason, that's 100-plus reps that you lose," defensive coordinator Sean Desai said.
The preseason games might be a bore to some people but to a player like Gipson they're even more valuable than the offseason work.
"Like I told (media members) before, this is still football and we need to play football to get good at football," Desai said.
It was anticipated Gipson would be a slow-moving project, although he might have taken longer than some would like. They activated him for 12 defensive plays in the opener when Robert Quinn was out injured, then only got him on the field for one more play over the next 10 games. Finally, he started getting steady doses of playing time with 58 snaps on defense over the last five games.
Gipson came from a system where he played with his hand down, and essentially was a 3-4 defensive end. The Bears were asking him to play from a stand-up spot on the edge in order to use great athletic ability they saw in him at Tulsa, where he had 15 sacks.
At 6-4, 255 now, Gipson lost about 5-10 pounds as he went to a stand-up position. They see ideal size and speed but last year his biggest impact might have been as a scout team player. He was named their top scout team player of the week a few times. He made his first and only solo tackle in the regular-season finale and was in on only five tackles on the season but did get three near-misses on sack attempts with three quarterback hits, one coming on Aaron Rodgers in the last regular-season game.
Gipson's value could be huge if Quinn is going to struggle through another season the way he did last year.
The Bears in 2006 had another fifth-round pick no one initially thought much of with defensive end Mark Anderson. He was exactly the same size as Gipson. They used him as a situational edge rusher and he made 12 sacks as a rookie in a season when they went to the Super Bowl.
Could Gipson make this kind of a leap, to being an impact special-use player after receiving an indoctrination to the game last year?
If so, he could be the player who makes Khalil Mack that much more effective on the other side, if Quinn never manages to live up to his $33 million in guaranteed money.
2. Jesper Horsted
The Bears converted him from Princeton wide receiver to U-tight end in 2019 as an undrafted rookie. They had to promote him from the practice squad for use before his education about the position took root due to numerous injuries at the position. He had to add about 25 pounds and learn how to be a blocker on the edge of the line, but still made eight catches for 87 yards and a touchdown in six games. Then, last year he was left on the practice squad when they signed Jimmy Graham and drafted Cole Kmet.
Horsted seems a likely practice squad candidate again and an insurance policy because he does know the offense better than tight end candidates Jake Butt and Scooter Harrington and is more the classical size for a U- or move-tight end.
Butt is more of a Y-tight end or in-line tight end, and the Bears will take a good look at Harrington to see which role he might fill better.
Harrington can be that backup U-tight end if he has progressed as a blocker and at understanding the position's other duties.
Because Graham will turn 35 this year and is in the final year of his contract, the future at the U-tight end is uncertain for the Bears and Horsted can make a statement about his value going forward if he can have a good camp.
3. Josh Woods
The conversion of Woods from defensive back at Maryland to linebacker began in spring of 2018 when they signed him after he participated in rookie camp on a tryout basis. He was on the 2018 practice squad, then played 35% of defensive snaps in nine games in 2019 before his first defensive action last year with 46 plays. Woods showed he wasn't really ready for it yet when he had to play against the Green Bay Packers in the regular-season finale and struggled. So they activated Manti Te'o for the playoff game and started him instead of Woods, who played an even bigger special teams role last year with 60% of the snaps.
Woods might need to show he can play linebacker now in camp because the addition of Jones and Austin Calitro will likely push him down the depth chart. He had to add more than 20 pounds to become a linebacker and it's uncertain if he had the ability to play defensive back in the league if he never made this conversion.
What he has to prove is he has made the conversion and can go forward as a key. special teams contributor and capable backup.
4. LaCale London
Like Gipson, he played on the line with his hand on the ground as a defensive tackle. He weighed only 280 pounds at Western Illinois while playing an entirely different role. With the Bears practice squad over the course of the last season and this offseason he has added 36 pounds and at 316 is more the ideal weight the Bears want from two-gap defenders on the interior defensive front. He faces a daunting task with six experienced defensive linemen ahead of him, and will be competing with seventh-round rookie nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, as well. London likely could be headed back to the practice squad to continue this conversion, if they deem he still could be of value.
5. Dieter Eiselen
Eiselen has been snapping the ball as a center in offseason work. This would be a conversion, but not a big one. He had been a guard coming out of Yale but wasn't your typical guard/center in the NFL like the Bears have with Cody Whitehair and James Daniels. Eiselen's experience was limited because he was a South African rugby player and weight lifter and taught himself the game. He's been with the practice squad a year and has gone from 300 pounds coming out of college to weighing 322 pounds in this spring's work. His experience as a junior Olympic level weightlifter proved valuable as he went heavily into the weight room.
The Bears may need to go another year before they know if they have a find here, but physically he is getting it done and with the added size and strength he could also be a guard or a center.