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5 Takeaways from OTAs: Spotlight set for fascinating Bears

3 weeks agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Before beginning each press conference during the offseason program at Halas Hall, head coach Matt Eberflus makes sure to thank the Bears’ players for their participation and work. 

Attendance for this phase of the offseason program is voluntary, so Eberflus was proud to point out that each player has been present for at least a portion of the Bears’ work to this point. He sees it as part of the commitment each player has to his teammate – an important reflection of culture ahead of this critical season. 

The Bears are nearing the end of their offseason program after completing OTAs last week in Lake Forest. The team will reconvene Tuesday to begin a three-day veteran minicamp, which requires attendance from each player. 

Here are five takeaways from the offseason program: 

1. Spotlight on the Bears 

When the Bears report to Halas Hall for the start of training camp next month, there will be cameras and lights at each turn through the building. 

Team meetings will include a crew with cameras and boom microphones, position group rooms will have cameras installed into the ceiling, players, coaches and personnel staff who might otherwise pass through anonymously will be featured for the nation to see. 

“Hard Knocks” is coming to the Bears’ training camp at Halas Hall this summer, thrusting this franchise into the national spotlight ahead of this anticipated new season. 

By their own philosophy, Bears have resisted being showcased in “Hard Knocks” for many years. But it’s only fitting that comes to an end now as this franchise looks to emerge as a more powerful, successful brand. 

Eberflus addressed the Bears about “Hard Knocks” last week and spoke of the pride they should feel being part of this series. 

“It shows that we got something brewing here,” veteran linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said. “Everybody wants to see what’s going on.” 

Practices during this offseason program have been conducted behind closed doors at Halas Hall, away from the great interest of fans. Media have been allowed in only select practices. That will all change once training camp begins and the Bears open to the public for each practice. 

The Bears will be a spectacle during training camp as rookie quarterback Caleb Williams, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, leads a vastly improved roster through work each day. 

Following two rebuilding seasons and this offseason of great transition, the Bears enter this new season as a popular playoff pick. They’re more than capable of going from worst to first. Newcomers like Williams, Rome Odunze, Keenan Allen, D’Andre Swift and Kevin Byard only strengthen the hopes of a team ready to rise. 

“Hard Knocks” will only be part of the heightened attention – and increased scrutiny – that comes with this new territory. The Bears will be more frequent in national narratives, debated on talk shows and relevant in a new realm. 

But the Bears are not concerned with how the 22-year-old Williams will handle this type of attention. 

“He’s suited for that because he’s comfortable in his own skin,” Eberflus said. “He knows who he is. Again, he’s been out there for several years in terms of in the media, in the focus, the Heisman winner, all those things that he’s done. And he’ll be good.” 

Though the Bears have not been part of the “Hard Knocks” series before, they have many staff members who have been featured elsewhere – including Eberflus in 2021 with the Colts. 

Eberflus told the Bears they should be proud of what they put forth on “Hard Knocks,” and he hopes that carries into this new season. 

The spotlight will follow the Bears at each turn of this new year to come. 

2. Caleb’s best on display 

D’Andre Swift didn’t hesitate when asked about what stands out with Caleb Williams. 

“Man, the talent jumps out at you,” Swift said. 

That has been the common theme of Williams’ work during the offseason program. Though there have been good plays and bad, touchdowns and misreads, plus some rookie moments, Williams has mostly shined with his pure talent.  

In managing expectations accordingly, that is all the Bears could ask to find of Williams thus far.  

Williams checked every box the Bears had set in the pre-draft process. They came to find a prospect who not only had undeniable abilities, but perhaps more importantly, he was willing to learn and grow in the NFL. 

Though Williams was such an accomplished player at the collegiate level, he arrived in the NFL without an ego. 

“Obviously, you have goals that you set for yourself right in the moment,” Williams said last month at rookie minicamp. “Also, you have goals for the future. So, that’s important. But understanding the moment that we’re in and being in that moment is really important. Taking it one step at a time, handling it the way that it needs to be handled and being a professional is really important. All of those go in one.  

“To be a great leader, you got to learn how to follow first. Right now, I’m following all the vets, following all the coaches. I’m listening, having both ears open and my mouth shut. Just kind of sitting back, listening. And then when I get to the point of when I learn everything, when I learn the ways we do it, the culture the playbook and the offensive line, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends and all of that, then you can start taking the lead, then you can start taking the helm of all it and taking the next steps.  

“For right now, though, I’m listening more than I’m speaking and talking and I’m taking it one step at a time, being in the moment.” 

Williams has seemed to ace one of the great challenges for any rookie quarterback – asserting himself as the most important player on the team. Veteran teammates often might be guarded as a first-year player steps into this spot. But Williams’ open-minded approach has endeared himself to those around him. 

The Bears certainly understand that Williams’ talent and poise can take them a long way. 

“As a rookie, he’s doing some things that are good to see,” Edmunds said. “I think that’s the thing that gets me most excited and I think gets our team most excited. Failure is nothing. If you look at it as an opportunity to go out there and get better. It’s nothing. It’s not about whether the defense does better or the offense does better, we’re out there to compete. We’re one team. There’s going to be days they might take it to us. There’s going to be days we might take it to them. At the end of the day, it’s one team. We’re out there to compete and we’re out there to get better. As long as we have that mindset, and as long as everybody’s taking that accountability, I think we’ll be a good team.” 

3. Breakout coming for Dexter? 

When Eberflus first saw Gervon Dexter this spring, he was struck by the differences. 

Dexter has committed himself to becoming more athletic, slimming down his 6-foot-6 frame considerably. Dexter is certainly still an imposing presence but now he’s better positioned for success as the Bears’ 3-technique defensive tackle. 

Eberflus believes Dexter now has a better motor and quicker get-off from the snap. And Dexter’s teammates also see something new in him. 

“He’s been playing his tail off just the way he’s in shape,” Edmunds said. “It just shows, like, the work that he put in throughout the offseason and just his mindset. Dex’s a guy, he’s locked in. 

“I see how hard he goes chasing down stuff. It just shows his athleticism and I’m excited to see him this year.” 

As a rookie last season, Dexter struggled at times. He was forced to adapt from a two-gap role at Florida to a one-gap assignment with the Bears. It took time to grow accustomed to that role and his body wasn’t in the right frame for it. 

The Bears have been searching for their disruptive 3-technique defensive tackle, a position Eberflus sees as the engine that drives this defensive identity.  

Dexter is well positioned to thrive in that role. 

4. Special teams shuffle 

Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower is already well versed in the NFL’s new kickoff rule. Now, he’s trying to find ways to use it as an advantage. 

The NFL has significantly revised the format of its kickoff play, with the kickoff coverage team now lined up at its opponent’s 40-yard line and the return team with nine men standing less than 10 yards away. The goal was to make the kickoff play matter again while also making it less dangerous. 

Hightower and the Bears understand that they can use these changes for unique looks as well as key roster decisions. 

“We’re all on the same page on that,” Hightower said. “And it’s just going to be interesting because it’s all new. I mean, there are so many different forms of people that you can put out there. The imagination is going to take over. The creativity is going to take over, so it’s going to be fun, and we’re all excited about it. So, we’ve toyed around with a lot of different body types and techniques, and we’re using still some of the same type of techniques, but it’s just happening at a different point in the play. With the running start out, it’s happening a lot quicker, like it’s on you right now. And that’s what we’re realizing and going through. So, it’s been fun as heck.” 

“I definitely think it elevates the importance (of special teams), and the reason why is we’re bringing more plays back into the game. We’re bringing more yardage into the game. It should help the drive start for the offense and the defense depending on how the play shakes out. I really think it heightens the importance of the players because now you’re going to have to keep a certain amount of players on your roster because you know you’re going to have 8-to-10, maybe 12 more plays when you go kickoff/kickoff return and who knows what spins off of that. Those guys in our room right now are saying, ‘more plays, more opportunities,’ so they’re excited as hell about it.” 

5. Ready to run 

While there’s no denying Williams is the most important man for the Bears’ future, the most valuable player for this season might be Swift. 

The Bears’ offensive identity still relies first on effectively running the football, and Swift was prioritized this offseason for that role. Swift rushed for a career-best 1,049 yards last season with the Eagles as he finally served the role of a leading back. He broke through in a contract year, then cashed in with the three-year, $24-million deal in Chicago. 

As Williams handles the challenges of his rookie season, Swift brings the Bears stability for their offense. A dynamic rusher can be the best friend of a first-year quarterback. 

“I feel like if you’ve got a good run game, it makes everything else work in the offense,” Swift said. “Play-action, receivers, everything kind of trickles off one another. So, when you’ve got a good running game, I feel like it makes the whole offense itself more balanced.” 

That will be the goal for new Bears offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who recognizes that Williams’ own development will rely on having the right foundation schematically. 

The Bears struck a deal with Swift just minutes into free agency back in March, this as alternatives like Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Austin Ekeler were available. The Bears were sold on Swift, who is just 25 years old and has plenty of tread on the tires. He’s also a versatile option out of the backfield who can serve as a key checkdown for Williams. 

If Williams is able to enjoy the type of strong rookie season that’s expected of him, Swift will be a key part of that success. 

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