In the mid-1990s, when I was a scout for the New York Giants, I was traveling home from the Senior Bowl, and while in Atlanta waiting for my connecting flight to Buffalo (my hometown), I had a long conversation with then Buffalo Bills Head Coach Marv Levy.
During the conversation, we talked about young players and how they develop. Coach Levy told me that he never expects anything from rookies and that if they do contribute their first year, it's a bonus. He went on to say that as rookies, young players must learn the complexities of the NFL game and become comfortable in their new situation. It's in their second season that he felt young players should start contributing in a big way.
That conversation stuck with me, and from that point forward I began to think differently about how rookies play and/or contribute. I believe we have to let rookies be rookies and let them develop. We can't force them into situations where they may fail because they aren't ready.
That being said, let's fast forward to last year, where even without a first-round pick, the Chicago Bears had quite a few first-year players contribute. Because of a weak roster, many had to play before they were ready and, of course, went through some growing pains. Now that they have that rookie year under their belt, they should show vast improvement in 2023 and help the Chicago Bears become a much better football team.
Corner Kyler Gordon was the Bears' first second-round pick. Gordon had some injury issues during the off-season program that carried over to training camp. That put him behind, and because of that struggled early in the season. Looking at game tape. He played much better in the second half of the season and finished the year with 14 starts and 3 interceptions.
In Chicago's defensive scheme, the nickel corner, where Gordon plays, is one of the most important positions. If Gordon continues improving, he should become one of the better slot corners in the League. He has that kind of natural talent. Gordon has the size, speed and physicality to be outstanding at the position. What we should see this year is a player who plays with much more confidence.
The other second-round pick was safety Jaquan Brisker who jumped out with his play from the get-go. By the end of the season, he had started 15 games, had 104 total tackles and one interception.
Brisker is already one of the more physically strong safeties in football, and this year he should be even better. The area where he needs improvement is interceptions. He finished 2022 with just one; this year the goal should be four or five if not more. It's my feeling that Brisker can be a Pro Bowl level safety within the next two seasons.
Third-round pick wide receiver Velus Jones has to be viewed as a mild disappointment in his rookie year. With his speed the staff was hoping for some big plays, and that never materialized. Now in his second year, the hope is that he will show improvement, but at the same time, the wide receiver room is much deeper now than it was a year ago. I feel that for 2023 Jones will be a role player who can be used in certain ways to create something big. The problem is that with all the other talent at the position, he may not live up to expectations.
Defensive end Dominique Robinson flashed as a rookie. He played in every game but finished with only 30 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. When we take into consideration that Robinson has only been a defensive end for three years, he actually did quite well. He was very raw, and it showed. Now with a year of experience and a full off-season to work on his game, I feel that he will become a vital part of the defensive end rotation. Dominique has the traits with his height, length, speed and overall athleticism. He just needs to keep developing. While he may never become a 10-sack player (that player isn't currently on the roster), he should easily become a 5-8 sack type.
The surprise of last year's Draft and the player who has the most upside is left tackle Braxton Jones. When he was selected in the fifth round, no one expected him to become a starter. From day one of the off-season program last year Jones impressed the staff. He went on to play every snap of every game, which is a rarity for a fifth-round OLineman. While he still needs to get better, I feel that he has unlimited potential.
Coming from FCS Southern Utah, he didn't get the coaching or development that he would have gotten from a Power-5 school. As we saw, he needs to develop his lower body strength so that he can anchor in a more consistent manner. With his work this off-season he has taken care of that "problem," and it's my feeling that not only will he show improvement, but he will be on his way to becoming one of the better left tackles in the League. Few have his natural traits as far as height, length, natural size, speed and overall athleticism. His traits are equal to a premium round left tackle. He just needed to "catch up," and I feel he has. Paired with first-round tackle Darnell Wright, the Bears have their bookend tackles for years to come.
The other second-year players that I feel can break out are guard Ja'Tyre Carter and corner Jaylon Jones. Carter spent part of last year on the practice squad and got some playtime at the end of the season. Like Jones, he came from an FCS-level school and needed development. He has the size, strength and athleticism to excel; he just needs play time. I feel he may eventually be a center, but it's probably a year before we see him compete for a starting job,
Jones was an undrafted free agent at corner but played in all 16 games with four starts. He has the size and speed (4.41) required for the position, and with a year of valuable experience, he will become a key backup in the secondary.