LAKE FOREST — Matt Eberflus spoke to the media following the team’s OTA practice on Wednesday. He started off by sharing that the team had a special guest in attendance. Cooper Roberts, a young boy who was shot in the back during the Highland Park shooting on the Fourth of July last year, and members of his family.
Roberts got the opportunity to meet quarterback Justin Fields, general manager Ryan Poles and Eberflus. In addition to meeting with members of the Bears, the team gave the young boy a gift.
“Cooper loves the beach and we gave him a beach buggy to get around in there and so he’s real excited about using that real soon,” Eberflus said.
Since being paralyzed from the waist down in the Highland Park shooting last year, 8-year-old Cooper has been unable to do his favorite activity: going to the beach— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) June 1, 2023
Today at practice, we had a special surprise for him 💙 pic.twitter.com/iTBgMpHjUB
Eberflus then went on to briefly talk about the Bears practice before opening it up to questions.
Here are the top takeaways from the press conferences and notes from the practice.
Justin Fields continues to show progress
When Justin Fields was drafted by the Bears in 2021, Matt Nagy was his head coach, Ryan Pace was the general manager and Andy Dalton was the starting quarterback.
A lot has obviously changed since then, and that’s not just limited to the players and personnel around Fields. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams has noticed the growth from Fields on how he plays the quarterback position.
“A couple things: leadership. Because that’s what you want in your quarterback,” Williams said. “I see good decision making. That’s what you want in your quarterback. I see improved accuracy. That’s what you want in your quarterback. And how fast he’s processing. That’s also the, in my mind, what you want in your quarterback. So from Day 1 last year to right now? From my standpoint, and I’m not a quarterback guru whatsoever, but I see how he has grown from last year to this year and practice by practice by practice, he’s growing. So you have to be encouraged when you see those things.”
One person who isn’t surprised with Fields’ improvement is Eberflus. He has seen the dedication Fields has shown since the 2022 season came to an end.
“I would say this — that no one has worked harder than him in this offseason,” Eberflus said. “Starting in February, you know, he’s been working on his own, studying different quarterbacks and really understanding of what he needed to improve on, you know, getting from the coaches from (Andrew) Janocko and Luke and myself. And he’s worked his tail off from that point.”
Cody Whitehair comfortable at center
The last time Cody Whitehair played center was during Week 10 of the 2020 NFL season. Since then, the now eight-year veteran has lined up at the left guard position. For the 2023 season, Whitehair will be back at center, which doesn’t appear to be an issue.
“No, I’ve kind of done this my whole career,” Whitehair said. “It started when I was at K-State. They moved me all around. Started playing tackle, then playing guard, this, this and this. So, I’m used to it. I’ve always been a team-first guy. Wherever I can help the team, that’s what I’m going to do.”
At first, Whitehair had to get his consistency down with the snaps, but he compared the transition to “riding a bike,” and feels like he is in a good spot.
Whitehair’s experience, versatility and leadership have helped him become the second longest-tenured Bear on the roster next to long snapper Patrick Scales, and the only one remaining from the 2016 Draft Class. The way Whitehair goes about his business resonates with the coaching staff and also the younger players on the roster.
“He’s always positive, always energetic he brings it every day to practice, which is also great for the young guys to see that,” Eberflus said. “He’s a true professional so ups or downs, he is always going to be the same guy in the building every single day. So we really appreciate that from him and the guys gravitate towards him because of his leadership and years of experience he’s had playing multiple positions. So he’s great for Braxton, he’s great for Darnell, he’s great for all those young guys.”
Optimistic but not set at defensive end
The Bears’ defensive ends didn’t have a good season in 2022. The defense finished last in sacks and ranked No. 31 at stopping the run.
Despite the disappointing numbers, defensive coordinator Alan Williams still believes the edge rushers can be more productive at applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“I do. I do. And I would say, yes and I would say, what makes me think that? Yeah, just being out there and seeing how they’re working, how they’re rushing the passer,” Williams said. “We keep a chart of production and their production is up different from last year, specific guys. The understanding that they have of the defense, so all those things are better than they were last year. So that leads me to believe that we’ll be better. Now, the caveat is, is that we don’t have pads on right now and so you’ll never know until you know, but the arrow is still for me, it’s pointing up and sky high.”
One of the players Williams highlighted when asked if any have stood out was Trevis Gipson. Williams said that the now fourth-year player is stronger “in terms of his base.”
The Bears will need Gipson, Dominique Robinson and DeMarcus Walker to all provide more of a pass rush this season. Jaquan Brisker led the team in sacks in 2022, and Eberflus doesn’t want that to be the case this season.
The head coach would like to generate pressure with his front four, which will allow more players to drop back in coverage. If the current group isn’t proving to be capable of that, then the team has no problem with potentially adding free-agent pass rushers.
“We’re interested in a lot of free agents, we’re interested in a lot of guys at all positions right now,” Eberflus said. “We’re just excited about being able to look at those guys and potentially add as we go through camp and getting closer to the season.”
- The Bears had a handful of players not practicing on Wednesday. Jaylon Johnson, Darnell Mooney, Nate Davis and Eddie Jackson were all missing practice. Also, Chase Claypool, D’Onta Foreman, Jack Sanborn, Alex Leatherwood and Lucas Patrick were in attendance but did not participate.
- In individual drills, Velus Jones Jr. and Dante Pettis took a majority of the punt return reps. DJ Moore was also in the area, but didn’t participate. Rookie wide receiver Tyler Scott fielded some punts.
- Trevis Gipson lined up at both defensive end positions — which is something new from last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Gipson lined up at the left end position 540 times compared to 43 snaps in 2022.
- Fields connected with Moore for two-straight completions in the middle of the field. For one of the passes, Moore extended to make a nice diving catch.
- Fields also threw some complete passes to Dante Pettis. One of those passes was completed in the end zone.
- PJ Walker found Scott on back-to-back plays. Scott caught the first pass on the right side and immediately turned up field. Then Walker completed a pass to Scott towards the left sideline.
- In 7 on 7s, safety Elijah Hicks had a nice breakup on a Fields pass intended for tight end Jake Tonges.
- Rookie cornerback Tyrique Stevenson intercepted Fields towards the left sideline. The offense claimed he was out of bounds, while the defense applauded the turnover.