With two of the team’s three starting cornerback positions up for grabs, this summer’s positional battles could be crucial for the immediate and long-term future of the team.
There is little question that the Bears prefer for Kindle Vildor and Thomas Graham Jr. to win the starting jobs because while the competition features some interesting names, the options themselves are relatively unappealing.
Early reports from the offseason program have indicated Vildor played well, though it’s way too early to know what that means. He figures to be battling Artie Burns and Desmond Trufant for the job opposite Jaylon Johnson but could also compete with Graham and Duke Shelley at the starting slot spot. Vildor struggled as a rookie, allowing completions on 12 of the 17 passes thrown his way in the regular season, but that is to be expected from a raw fifth-rounder.
If he stays healthy, Trufant could be interesting. He has five interceptions in 15 games the past two seasons, but has also surrendered passer ratings higher than 100. He hasn’t been in good situations, playing with teams that haven’t had much for pass rush and Detroit liked putting cornerbacks on an island. It’s possible that Trufant has enough to give the Bears a good season, but that would do nothing to answer the long-term question.
If Burns win the job, the Bears will be in big trouble. The former first round pick has never played like a starting-caliber cornerback.
It’s difficult to forget how opponents took advantage of Shelley at times last year. He struggles to stay with bigger wide receivers and Chuck Pagano’s insistence on running man defense on third down put a target on Shelley’s back. Shelley was OK playing zone, but teams have to be able to mix up coverages.
Graham fell to the sixth round because he didn’t play in 2020 and didn’t test as an elite athlete. But his production is — 32 PBUs, eight interceptions — is off the chart. As a three-year starter at Oregon, he proved to be an aggressive player.
If Vildor and Graham are able to convincingly win the starting jobs, and play well enough to keep them, the Bears will be able to check off two big future question marks. If they’re not, you can expect to see a significant drop off from the team’s defense. Those positions will suddenly be holes the team has to invest in fixing when they’d much rather use future assets to help Justin Fields.
As the 2021 Chicago Bears report to training camp today, these battles could go a long way to determining the fate of this season.