The Bears Who Surprised in Offseason Practices

Analysis; Some Chicago Bears exceeded expectations during offseason practices and show promise for the start of July training camp.
Cornerback Jaylon Jones has proven a useful reserve since arriving as an undrafted free agent in 2022 and continued to thrive during offseason work.
Cornerback Jaylon Jones has proven a useful reserve since arriving as an undrafted free agent in 2022 and continued to thrive during offseason work. / Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
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With the end of all workouts at Halas Hall on Wednesday, the wait begins until the July 19 report date for training camp.

At least to the degree that non-padded work in non-contact settings allow, Caleb Williams, Rome Odunze, Gerald Everett and Keenan Allen all lived up to expectations during mandatory minicamp. All but Allen did so during voluntary OTAs and rookie practices, as well.

This much was expected.

It would be easy to say the same about D'Andre Swift as a receiver. He had a reputation for being able to fit into the passing game and worked this at times. The running game is more myth than reality when there is no contact allowed so judgment in this regard must be delayed.

However, when there are practices of these types a few players will step forth who either are total unknowns, less was expected from or who had knocks on them leading to lower expectations.

It's inevitable.

For what football in T-shirts and shorts is worth, here are Bears who surprised during off-season practices.

8. P Corliss Waitman

If the Bears had never drafted Iowa Aussie trick-shot artist Tory Taylor and kept Trenton Gill, it would have been easy to see Waitman making the roster instead. His hang time was excellent. The only real issue he showed was on some higher punts there was less distance. He doesn't have the ability to maneuver the ball like Taylor, and some team without a punter could do worse than to sign Waitman once he is cut or put on the practice squad. This shouldn't surprise because he performed well in the past in the NFL when given the chance.

7. WR John Jackson

It wasn't just because of Jackson's friendship with Williams, although that couldn't have hurt. Especially in the early practices, like rookie camp and OTAs, this undrafted free agent from Nevada and USC popped up from time to time with receptions. His past connection                   +- with Williams prior to last year wasn't necessarily the reason because he was doing a good deal of his work with backups. He wasn't as visible in minicamp when all of the veterans are working. This is to be expected. Then again, much of the time the backup types are practicing on a different field and not in view of media so he could have been doing some marvelous, hidden work there as well.

6. G Matt Pryor

No one got too excited when the Bears picked up this 6-foot-7, 337-pound tackle who had been with the Colts in the past. He looked like a camp body. After all, the Bears have experienced Larry Borom as a tackle backup and also had signed Jake Curhan. When Nate Davis was unable to practice more than a few reps during veteran minicamp and missed on-field work at OTAs, the Bears could have simply put Ryan Bates at right guard or Ja'Tyre Carter, who had been a backup at the position in the past. Instead, Pryor, who is more of a tackle, played there and did it for half of minicamp and all of OTAs. It wasn't until later in minicamp that they put Bates there and moved Coleman Shelton into center, or used Carter at the spot. If they simply looked at Pryor and moved on it would be one thing, but such an extended time there says they consider him a serious backup challenger at guard/tackle. As a bigger player, he might fit this run-blocking scheme better, as well. It's believed there will be more inside zone or gap blocking than in last year's offense, but this can't be confirmed at this point due to lack of actual running plays.

5. CB Jaylon Jones

Jones frequently is overlooked because they have young cornerbacks Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith, but he frequently stepped up to knock down passes. When they worked on special teams, he was apparent on punt team, as well. Jones' two full seasons of experience as an undrafted free agent from Mississippi is invaluable. As Eberflus frequently says, they can never have enough cornerbacks. They found this out at the end of last season when Jaylon Johnson's All-Pro season ended three games early.

4. DE Austin Booker

A -late injury of undisclosed nature or severity kept him out of the end of minicamp but Booker's presence was felt during his few reps with starters but particularly in practices working against the second-team offensive line. He had one practice where he was giving the backup left tackle, Curhan, fits and got around or to the inside to apply pass rush pressure. What stands out about Booker is his long legs and his reach. It would be very easy to see him bulking up to 265 or 270 from 240 by the time he has been in this scheme a few years. 

"He's got the whole makeup, from the frame to the pass-rush ability," defensive end Montez Sweat said. "He's gonna be a great player."

3. DE Jake Martin

When you've impressed Sweat, you've accomplished something as an edge rusher. Sweat referred to Martin as someone "...that's really making some noise out there. So, I am pretty excited on what I'm seeing."

Martin has 18 career sacks and was one of the starters when both Sweat and DeMarcus Walker couldn't or didn't practice at OTAs and minicamp.

At 6-2, 242, he doesn't seem big enough for full-time use in this system. He has tremendous speed and burst, though. How well he'll hold up in a scheme that requires ends to be more stout is the question. But the Bears could definitely use an edge rusher in their rotation who plays only in passing situations.

2. DT Gervon Dexter

Coaches raved about his conditioning, but on the field he had a few practices where his pass rush or explosion into the B-gap was far more consistent than during his rookie year. In one practice, he flushed Williams out on successive plays and caused an incompletion and also what would have been a sack. Dexter is going to need to take a dramatic step up, particularly against the run. This is why it's too soon to get too excited over what he showed without pads, but if he can take this into training camp and put on a similar display he could be their answer to losing Justin Jones in free agency as he becomes their 3-technique.

1. S Kevin Byard

Byard's 2023 season can be called a wash. Too many people brought up the struggles he had last year, but a 30-year-old player who has been in one place his whole career could be expected to struggle when dropped from Tennessee into Philadelphia's defense at midseason without preparation. He'll have the whole offseason in Chicago to be ready and has already shown he can be the stablizing influence the Bears lost with Eddie Jackson's departure. Byard has 11 more career interceptions than Jackson, and put this ability on display in practices. He showed unexpected position versatility between free safety and the box. But the aspects of his game other defensive backs raved about most were his ability to communicate and direct in the secondary. It's not common for a player to come in from elsewhere and immediately display this but Byard did, and the Bears defense should be no worse for losing a seven-year starter like Jackson as a result.

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Gene Chamberlain

GENE CHAMBERLAIN publisher Gene Chamberlain has covered the Chicago Bears full time as a beat writer since 1994 and prior to this on a part-time basis for 10 years. He covered the Bears as a beat writer for Suburban Chicago Newspapers, the Daily Southtown, Copley News Service and has been a contributor for the Daily Herald, the Associated Press, Bear Report, CBS and The Sporting News. He also has worked a prep sports writer for Tribune Newspapers and Sun-Times newspapers.