The first draft pick Ryan Poles made is going to be among the keys to the team having a successful 2023 season. There is no question Kyler Gordon’s rookie campaign got off to a horrendous start. He was injured for much of camp and, apparently, had a target on his back when he returned to the lineup. In the Bears’ first three games, nearly half of the passing yards the team gave up came with Gordon in coverage.
But he got better and better and there’s reason to think that improvement will continue.
After allowing 305 yards in coverage the first three games, Gordon allowed just 459 the rest of the season. In five of the next 11 games, he held the receivers he was covering to 25 yards or fewer, while intercepting three passes and allowing two touchdowns.
There are going to be two keys for the Bears to get the most out of Gordon this year and both should be easily obtainable.
The first is already a stated goal – to play him strictly in the slot. Most of Gordon’s rookie snaps came in the slot, where he lined up 431 times compared to 295 outside, according to Pro Football Focus. Gordon allowed 41 catches on 45 targets with two touchdowns and two interceptions as a slot defender. The passer rating (107.8) allowed still isn’t impressive, but passer ratings aren’t necessarily a good way to judge slot defenders. Of the 24 players who had 200 or more coverage snaps in the slot, 13 allowed passer ratings above 100. Indianapolis’ Kenny Moore allowed a rating of 121.1 last year.
The other way the Bears can maximize Gordon is by playing him in zone coverage more, something that should happen naturally.
Gordon had 126 coverage snaps in man last year and allowed 365 yards — an average of 15.9 per reception. Opponents had a 142.4 passer rating when throwing at him in man last year, the second-worst mark in the league amongst players with 100 or more snaps playing man coverage.
Zone coverage was a different story. In 270 zone snaps, Gordon allowed 411 yards — 213 of which came after the catch, an indication that there could’ve been a blown assignment elsewhere, though Gordon did miss four tackles himself in zone coverage. Opponents had a passer rating of just 87.6 against Gordon when he was in zone coverage — 95th in the league.
Ultimately, what’s going to make Gordon a success with the Bears is if he consistently shows the ability to take the ball away. We saw flashes of a ball hawk last year with three interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. By having him play in the slot, the Bears are going to minimize his flaws in coverage and emphasize his instincts.
It’s common for rookie cornerbacks to struggle, but with natural development and the team playing to his strengths, Gordon could have a huge year in 2023.