Bears: Tyson Bagent’s story may be just getting started
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Seventeen plays into a defining drive, Tyson Bagent took the shotgun snap, scrambled to his left, pump-faked with his eyes towards the end zone and dove in with his outstretched arms extending over the goal line. Then, in a moment of pure joy, he stepped away from a celebration with Bears teammates and spiked the football into the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.
Preseason games don’t count for the record books but this moment certainly matters for Bagent, an undrafted rookie out of Division-II Shepherd University who’s vying for a chance in the NFL. Bagent was 9-of-10 for 76 yards and the rushing touchdown as had led the Bears on a 17-play, 92-yard scoring drive. In doing so, he made a statement.
“It was very surreal,” Bagent said of that drive. “But it also felt like I was just playing.”
Bagent, 23, is the type of underdog story that emerges each August throughout the course of training camp. He threw for a Division-II record 17,034 passing yards and 159 touchdowns, the most ever at any level of NCAA football. Bagent is one of the most accomplished college football players of all time.
Despite the collegiate accolades, Bagent was not selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. That feeling of disappointment quickly subsided when he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Bears.
“Everything I’ve ever wanted,” Bagent said. “I’m here now. I got my foot in the door, which is all I could’ve ever asked for. Now, it’s time to show off all the work that I’ve put in my whole life.
“Once I got off the phone with Ryan Poles, everything was great.”
The Bears did not make any promises to Bagent for how his opportunity could unfold or what he would be competing for on this roster. Throughout the course of training camp, it has been clear that he’s in contention to become the backup quarterback behind starter Justin Fields.
Bagent has continued to shine with his opportunities while veteran backup PJ Walker – who signed a two-year deal worth up to $4.2 million – has struggled with the second unit. Coach Matt Eberflus said on Thursday that the Bears’ backup quarterback job remains a competition because of how Bagent has performed. But the coaches are not surprised by what they’ve seen.
Bagent is a confident, poised player who believes he belongs.
“I mean, that’s what you expect from a quarterback,” quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said. “That’s when we evaluate quarterbacks, that’s what you want to come into this building, is somebody who’s going to live that lifestyle where they love everything they’re doing and they love learning the game of football and they love learning our system.
“I think you have to have a demeanor where you have confidence and you have moxie. You have to have a demeanor that you’re a winner. Yeah, absolutely something that we look for in the evaluation process, and we wouldn’t want a guy in here that doesn’t have that.”
NFL stars like Tyreek Hill (West Alabama), Adam Thielen (Minnesota State), Matthew Judon (Grand Valley State) and others have proven that Division-II players can thrive in this league. But it’s rare for a Division-II quarterback to find that success. Bagent is a player on the cusp of his own opportunity.
By Tuesday at 3 p.m. CT, Poles and the Bears must make their decision on Bagent’s future. Teams must cut their rosters from 90 to the 53-man limit. Bagent will get one final showcase of his skill set Saturday at Soldier Field during the preseason finale against the Bills.
The Bears could waive Bagent and then sign him to the practice squad in order to keep Walker as the backup behind Fields. But that would risk him being claimed to another team and signed to an active roster.
Bagent has proven himself as a promising quarterback prospect and made this decision difficult for the Bears.
“I just kind of have been taking it as trying to get better every day,” Bagent said. “Trying to do my best so it’s pretty tough to get rid of me.
“I’m fighting day in and day out to be the best asset for the team that I can.”
Ready to deal?
There’s a refreshing honesty that’s become the reputation for cornerback Jaylon Johnson. He doesn’t mince words.
In looking at the prospects of a potential long-term contract extension, Johnson was his customary candid self.
“I mean, I love the game, but I also play the game for the check as well,” Johnson said. “It’s just something that you grow up knowing, OK, like, the biggest thing is getting to that second contract. That’s when you change your family’s lives. I mean, that’s the days I’ve grinded when I didn’t want to grind. That’s the days where I have shed tears that hurt a whole lot.
“That’s a lot of people’s dreams, to be able to have a job, to be able to have a situation that they know they have generational wealth, and even being able to have an opportunity to grow that wealth from that point.”
The Bears signed tight end Cole Kmet to a four-year, $50-million contract extension on the first day of training camp. Johnson and wide receiver Darnell Mooney, two prime candidates for contract extensions, are still awaiting deals from the Bears.
General manager Ryan Poles stated in late July that there is no timeline to reach a contract extension. But the reality is these deals become much more complicated to strike once the season begins. Players’ performances and statistics change once games begin, and potential injury risks blowing up negotiations entirely.
Mooney knows this concerning possibility well after suffering a season-ending ankle injury last November. The Bears wanted to see whether he was back to form following an offseason recovery before starting up negotiations in earnest.
“I don’t really worry about contracts,” Mooney said. “I’m a professional at football. I let my agent be a professional at contract stuff, so I don’t really worry. Whenever it gets done, it gets done.
“I understand what I’ve got to do with myself. I know what I can do as a playmaker. There’s no thoughts on contracts. I know I have the one year left. I’m blessed with the opportunity to have even that.”
Rookie cornerback Tyrique Stevenson will walk the walk, and he certainly isn’t afraid to talk the talk.
“Just don’t get a penalty,” cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke said with a smile.
The Bears don’t plan on coaching the competitive spirit out of Stevenson, who is projected to start at cornerback opposite Jaylon Johnson.
A second-round pick to the Bears in April’s NFL Draft, Stevenson is a player who’s plenty confident at the NFL level and does not carry himself like a rookie.
“You’ve got to understand that intensity’s really what’s a part of this game and I’m always going to bring it,” Stevenson said. “But just I’ve got to know where the line is drawn at and not to go over it to cause harm to the team.”
Early in training camp, Stevenson was involved in some heated conversation with teammate Chase Claypool. He carried that intensity to Indianapolis for joint practices with the Colts.
Stevenson isn’t going to back down from a challenge – and he’s going to let an opponent know when he has won.
“He’s got a lot of potential,” Hoke said. “He’s passionate about football. He understands football. And it’s just trying to get him to be consistent every day, day to day to day, consistent, consistent, consistent.
“He does have a physical presence on the field. Obviously, his size helps him in those things. But he also has his mindset. He’s a physical type of football player. And that’s always welcome here.”
Quarterback Justin Fields has the benefit this season of playing for the same coaching staff and operating the same offense. Finally, he’s not leading a Bears team in transition.
Fields has displayed that comfort and confidence in the Bears’ system, and it has led to precise decision making.
“I think you have seen a significant difference (from) where we were last year,” Janocko said. “And we just have to keep going and reaching for better every single day.”
Heading into his third NFL season, Fields faces great pressure to produce a breakthrough. Fields has completed 59.7% of his passes for 4,112 yards, 24 touchdowns and 21 interceptions over 27 starts.
Fields threw for 2,242 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over 15 games last season. He must make significant improvements as a passer, a goal he has set for himself in 2023.
To become a prolific passer, Fields knows what he must do this season. It’s what he’s been working on all offseason.
“I mean, it’s all been the same since we have been here,” Janocko said. “His timing, his rhythm, his movement within the offense and being able to push the ball down field with accuracy. That is everything we’ve said since the beginning. We’re just going to keep building on and everything we have said and wanted to do since Day 1.”
Take the field
The Bears will send their starters out for their last preseason game Saturday at Soldier Field.
That means Fields will lead the Bears’ offense one final time before kickoff on the regular season Sept. 10 against the Packers. The team is still determining how to define those workloads, Eberflus said.
After the Bears held out their starters during the season preseason game last Saturday in Indianapolis – a decision formed because of productive work during joint practices with the Colts – Eberflus believes there’s opportunity with this final exhibition game.
“It’s (about) operation,” Eberflus said. “Being able to execute on both sides and the kicking game. Can we do a good job with the game environment when we’re all in there (with) guys that are available to us? Can we operate? Can we be efficient on offense? Can we be efficient on defense? And in the kicking game, can we create field position and score points? That’s where it is.”
The Bears and the Bills will kick off at noon CT Sunday from Soldier Field.