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Chicago Bears 2021 Position Battles: Corner and nickel are full of questions

We wrap up our training camp battles series with a look at the Chicago Bears corners.

Chicago Bears Training Camp Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

I wanted to save the cornerback position for last in this series, because this is the group that worries me the most. The Chicago Bears return one of three starters from a year ago, and that one is coming off a season ending injury. The Bears did address the position in both free agency and the draft, but they went bargain shopping for a veteran and waited until the sixth round for their rookie.

The threesome that ends up starting outside and in the slot are going to bring several questions into the 2021 season.

Roster Locks

Jaylon Johnson has a history of shoulder issues dating back to his time at Utah, and even though last year’s injury didn’t result in surgery, it’s still a concerning part of the body to have problems with, especially for a professional football player. If healthy, he has the potential be be a legitimate number one corner, but until I see him hold up for a full season, I’ll always wonder if his body can take the punishment.

Desmond Trufant was brought in to play the other boundary corner spot, but here’s another guy with some recent injury issues. The soon to be 31-year old only played 6 games last year with the Lions, and the year prior he only appeared in 9 for the Falcons. He does have a 2015 Pro Bowl on his resume, but since that time he’s only played a full NFL season once. Even if he’s beat out for the starting job, I can’t see the Bears parting ways with him due to his experience.

And if Trufant is beat out, it’ll probably be because second year pro Kindle Vildor did the honors. At 5’10” he looks more like a nickelback, but his above average arm length and his physicality makes up for his lack of height. He’s also very much in the mix at nickel, and I would expect him to win one of those jobs.

A good bet to make it

I wouldn’t feel comfortable in putting any of the other corners in this category, nor would I be very surprised to see a couple of the bubble guys have strong enough camps to win a starting job. It truly is anyone’s game. The Bears have kept a combination of 10 defensive backs the last three years on their opening 53-man roster, and it’s usually an even 5/5 split between safety and corner.

The Bears always keep a couple corners on the practice squad too, so there should be a fierce battle among the rest of the cornerbacks to stick around Chicago.

On the bubble

Duke Shelley (5’8”) got some reps on defense last last year, and while he wasn’t bad, he also didn’t do anything to stand out. He also hasn’t done much to create a buzz this offseason, which is something Vildor has done, and that’s why Kindle is in the category up there and Duke is here. Shelley could make the roster as the back up nickel, but I could also see a situation where he’s beat out and lands on the practice squad.

Veteran Artie Burns (6’0”) is back after missing all of the 2020 season with a torn ACL. The 26-year old is a former first round pick of the Steelers that played in 58 games from 2016 to 2019 with 32 starts. He fell out of favor in Pittsburgh, but is still relatively young and has experience playing both the slot and outside.

I think as a sixth round draft pick the Bears will keep Thomas Graham Jr. around for his rookie year somehow. He hasn’t played since 2019 — he was an opt out a year ago — so he’ll need to earn the coaches trust to win a reserve spot. If he can take to special teams, I think he makes the 53-man roster as the last corner on the depth chart, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me to see Graham flash in preseason and win the nickle spot.

The Bears were high of former CFL standout Tre Roberson (6’0”), but he missed all of last year with a foot he broke while working out on his own in the offseason. The 28-year old has been healthy for quite some time now, and he has the athleticism to win a roster spot, but we’ll see if he has the experience.

Xavier Crawford played in a few games down the stretch in 2020, but he spent most of the year on the practice squad. He’ll likely be fighting with the returning Michael Joseph and Teez Tabor, and UDFA Dionte Ruffin for one of the 16 practice squad spots.

It is also worth noting that Marqui Christian, who has mostly played safety but has played some nickelback while with the Rams, has been working in at nickel during camp at times. I still see him as a longshot to make the 53-man roster, but positional versatility and third phase skills could boost his value to the team.

Who do you predict makes the roster among the corners?