Emma’s OTAs notebook: Bears have three building blocks due for contract extensions
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — NFL executives and scouts hold a belief that a successful NFL Draft for a team consists of selecting three long-term starters. To the credit of former general manager Ryan Pace and his brass, the Bears accomplished just that during the difficult draft in 2020.
Despite the scouting challenges presented during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bears landed three core players in cornerback Jaylon Johnson, tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Darnell Mooney.
Kmet, Johnson and Mooney each head into their fourth NFL season in 2023 boasting key roles for the Bears’ present and future – clear candidates for long-term contract extensions.
As current general manager Ryan Poles rebuilds the Bears – now through the most pressing work of a pivotal offseason – the next task on his agenda will be working to re-sign Johnson, Kmet and Mooney.
“I look forward to staying and extending with the Bears,” Johnson said on Wednesday.
The 24-year-old Johnson returned to the Bears this week for their final practices of OTAs. He was notably absent for portions of the offseason program that are voluntary to attend. However, Johnson shared that he was in California spending time with his 3-year-old daughter and planning for his foundation’s golf outing that was held last weekend in Fresno.
Johnson informed head coach Matt Eberflus and the Bears’ staff of his personal decision. But he also wanted to make it clear that this isn’t related to his contract hopes.
“Not even close,” Johnson said. “No. Anybody who knows me (knows) that’s not my character. I think at the end of the day, for me – I wouldn’t even say holding out. Just having prior priorities.”
As far as his contract future, Johnson is preparing to sign with a new agency as negotiations with the Bears begin in earnest.
For Kmet, the topic of contracts is one he prefers to leave to his own agent. The 24-year-old Kmet is coming off a breakthrough campaign in which he hauled in a career-best seven touchdowns and became a focal point of the Bears’ plans on offense. He has hauled in 110 receptions over the last two seasons, proved himself as a reliable blocker and has never missed a game over three seasons.
Kmet emerged into the dynamic tight end that the Bears believed they had all along.
“That’s kind of the cool thing about him, is, the flexibility he gives you,” Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “The ability to play in the run game, the ability to stretch somebody down the field vertically. So, we’re excited about what he brings.
“The other part of him, too, is just his experience now that he brings, the communication we have, the toughness that he brings. I think all that stuff is a really cool opportunity for him to step up and be a big leader for us.”
Before Mooney and the Bears can engage in contract negotiations, he must first return to full health. Mooney, now 25, suffered a fractured fibula during a game late last November at MetLife Stadium. Poles wants to see how Mooney moves once he’s deemed 100%, though he has made it clear that this is a player who fits in the Bears’ future.
“I love him more than I did when I first walked in the door,” Poles said of Mooney early this year. “I think he’s a special human being, first and foremost, and a really good football player.”
A fifth-round pick to the Bears in that 2020 draft, Mooney had 182 receptions for 2,179 yards and 10 scores. He has become the most trusted target for quarterback Justin Fields, as showcased in hauling in 81 catches for 1,055 yards and four touchdowns in 2021.
Mooney is expected to be at full health when the Bears begin training camp in late July, Eberflus said.
When Poles was brought in to lead the Bears’ football operations forward, he found a roster that was lacking the type of blue-chip talent required to sustain success over the years. It led him to the decision that a rebuild was necessary and this team had to face a challenging rebuild.
Since that time, Poles has found three building blocks that were already on the Bears’ roster. Johnson, Kmet and Mooney offer hope towards the goals in place.
“We’re excited about where it’s going and we’re optimistic,” Kmet said. “And we’re working hard to get this thing going in the right direction in order to go win a Super Bowl.”
BoJack is back
As the Bears’ starting defense lined up for team drills Wednesday afternoon, there was veteran safety Eddie Jackson back at his familiar place in the secondary.
Jackson has been cleared to return following a long recovery from a Lisfranc injury suffered late last November. It was a welcomed sight for the Bears, who feel a great deal of respect for Jackson.
“The ability to handle adversities,” Eberflus said. “And he’s had that throughout his whole career. Coming out of college he had that. He’s had that in some different avenues in his life. He’s just a strong man. I just commend him for standing on solid ground.
“He looks at adversity as opportunity. And I think that’s a great way to look at it, when you see adversity hits, he sees opportunity to show greatness and to get stronger.”
Jackson fell to the fourth round of the 2017 draft in large part because of a broken leg he suffered his senior season at Alabama. He stepped in as a starter for the Bears during his rookie season and played all 16 games. He earned Pro Bowl honors each of the next two seasons.
The 29-year-old Jackson was playing at a Pro Bowl level over 12 games last season before taking an awkward cut on the turf of MetLife Stadium and going down in pain. It was a Lisfranc injury that cost him a breakthrough season and forced him into a challenging recovery.
“Eddie worked his tail off to get back to where he is,” Eberflus said.
During this key offseason for the Bears, they passed on the opportunity to seek a replacement for Jackson. It was clear that Poles believed he would come back as an important piece of the Bears’ plans – even despite a difficult injury rehabilitation.
Not only did Jackson enjoy his own success on the field last season, he became a key presence in the Bears’ locker room during a season of transition.
Jackson became a trusted mentor for then-rookie safety Jaquan Brisker, inviting him over early last offseason to study film. Brisker has learned on Jackson’s example ever since.
“He’s a leader,” Brisker said. “And he does so much.”
‘Excited about Lucas’
Lucas Patrick’s first season with the Bears never really took flight.
Patrick suffered a fracture on his right hand during the first practice of training camp last July. He was signed to start at center but forced over to play guard with a club on his injured hand. Patrick was limited by the club when on the field, then suffered a season-ending toe injury in late October.
The Bears’ first-team offensive line in OTAs does not include Patrick. The team signed veteran Nate Davis to start at right guard, and Cody Whitehair has shifted in at center. But there’s still belief in what a healthy Patrick can bring.
“It’s hard enough to play, period,” Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan said. “He showed us through it all who he is. We know who he is: tough, smart, another great teammate willing to do whatever. We’re excited about Lucas. He’s excited. Any time you’re healthy it’s a really big deal. You can really be who he should be.
“Right now, we’re all battling, we’re all competing, and Lucas can do a lot of things. So, we’re glad to have him.”
When the Bears put their first-team offense against their first-team defense, players get a sense of how they truly measure up against their teammates.
The second-year safety Brisker is gaining an appreciation for the strides made by his quarterback Fields and the newfound connection with top wide receiver DJ Moore.
“It looks like they got that chemistry going very fast,” Brisker said of Fields and Moore. “Earlier than I expected. They look good, though. They look like they’re best friends. Justin’s definitely throwing him the ball. (No.) 2 is getting the ball, no doubt. Justin looks good though. He’s going through his progressions. He’s looking very smooth, making good decisions out there and looking like the best quarterback in the NFL. I thought that last year, but this year it’s different. (No.) 1 looks different and him and (No. 2), you’re going to see. You will see.”
The Bears not only welcomed back Johnson and Jackson for practice on Wednesday – the veteran free-agent signing Davis stepped in at right guard after an absence from voluntary work at Halas Hall.
Eberflus declined to reveal why Davis was not in attendance. The team declined to make Davis available for reporters.
The Bears’ only players not participating in practice on Wednesday were Mooney (ankle) and wide receiver Chase Claypool (undisclosed injury). However, Claypool’s injury is considered minor.