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Watch now: Only 1 Chicago Bears defensive starter shows up for OTAs at Halas Hall

Watch now: Only 1 Chicago Bears defensive starter shows up for OTAs at Halas Hall

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There were expected to be some Chicago Bears no-shows at OTAs after the players' union advised against doing voluntary work during the pandemic but almost all the defense didn't show while almost all the offense did.

When it comes to roll call for spring football in the NFC North, nothing is more dramatic and potentially altering to the 2021 season than Aaron Rodgers’ absence from the Green Bay Packers.

Rodgers’ ongoing standoff with the Packers continues to be the top storyline around the league, and there’s no end in sight. So anything happening at Halas Hall is on a much smaller scale in terms of significance to the season. But when the Bears opened the facility gates to media Wednesday morning, what was most noticeable at the organized team activity was the absence of practically every frontline defensive player.

It was no surprise wide receiver Allen Robinson, who is on a one-year franchise tag and is unlikely to arrive until the mandatory minicamp later this month, was absent. But it was eye-opening that inside linebacker Roquan Smith was the only defensive starter from last season on the field. If you’ve penciled in Desmond Trufant, who signed a free-agent deal for the minimum, as a starter at cornerback, then you can count two defensive starters present.

So many guys were out, the team had three defensive linemen in uniform and only the most earnest of Bears fans could pick one of them out of a lineup. Seventh-round pick Khyiris Tonga, undrafted rookie Daniel Archibong and LaCale London, an undrafted free agent from 2020 who did not see the field as a rookie, were it for new defensive line coach Chris Rumph.

First-year defensive coordinator Sean Desai had a bare-bones operation with outside linebackers Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Jeremiah Attaochu, defensive linemen Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols, Mario Edwards Jr. and Angelo Blackson, inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive backs Jaylon Johnson, Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson headlining the list of those not spotted.

The NFLPA pushed for players to opt out of voluntary OTAs this spring. They’ve always been voluntary, and the Bears have traditionally had excellent attendance nearing 100% daily. Most teams have experienced greater attendance figures in the last week, and it’s worth noting Bears coach Matt Nagy reduced OTAs from three weeks to two, turning last week into more strength and conditioning and “class on the grass.” Right tackle Germain Ifedi called that move a “good balance” for the players, and certainly the strong attendance by offensive players reflected that.

OTAs are conducted without pads and it’s an installation period, but it’s not without risk. Rookie wide receiver Dazz Newsome was spotted in a sling, and Nagy revealed afterward that he went up for a pass and came down on his left shoulder during Tuesday’s session. NFL Network reported Newsome has a fractured collarbone requiring surgery, an injury that casts into doubt his availability for the start of training camp. That’s the kind of freak injury a guy like Robinson can ill afford. The same goes for players such as Hicks and Nichols, who are entering contract years.

Still, the risk has always been there, and attendance has always been nearly perfect. It makes sense Smith was there. The Bears picked up the fifth-year option in his contract for 2022, but he’s likely hopeful of receiving a lucrative multiyear extension before the season, the kind of move general manager Ryan Pace has done with draft picks who have blossomed.

“This is a voluntary camp,” Nagy said. “With that said, I’m really appreciative of all the guys that are here and the guys that are out here doing their thing. But at the same time, we all do have to keep in mind that it is voluntary.”

It’s possible some of those missing were in attendance Tuesday, when media were not allowed in. Maybe some of them will show up Thursday. The point is with nearly all of Desai’s top players not present, it created a ton of questions in regard to how much teaching he and the new members of his staff have been able to accomplish for a unit that took a step back in 2020 and needs to improve this season.

“For Coach Desai, you know we can only control what we can control with who’s here,” Nagy said. “So for the guys that are here, what an awesome opportunity for them to be able to come in here and get great, valuable reps.

“Last year, as you all know, we’re sitting just like we are doing right now, and we’re teaching football over Zoom. And I love Zoom but I’m done with Zoom. So for everybody to be out here and just getting individual drills and working on the grass and building relationships, like being able to be face to face, take these masks off eventually and talk to each other and build relationships, that’s what we’re doing right now.

“I think we could probably all agree that this year for a lot of different reasons is a little different — not just with the Chicago Bears but with a lot of teams across the league. There’s a lot of different levels of where teams are at right now for different reasons. That said, I also want to make it loud and clear that the on-the-field part of it that you’re seeing is one part of it and in the classroom is the other part, and we have all of those guys that you’re not seeing here physically, they’re all here in meetings and they’re a part of everything. And they have phenomenal attitudes.

“It’s those relationships that are being built over Zoom right now are still going strong, and I appreciate that from those guys because, again, even that part is voluntary. But those guys, they’re a part of all these meetings. And they’re getting everything that Sean and all of these coaches are teaching. They just are not out here for the physical part.”

The physical part is the biggest part of the equation. Like Nagy said, he’s “done with Zoom,” and if OTAs and the portion of the offseason program that preceded it weren’t of value, teams wouldn’t hold them or attach offseason workout bonuses to some players’ contracts. Mack and Trevathan have $200,000 offseason bonuses, the largest on the roster, and it figures they need to be in attendance for 85% or more of the sessions to collect on those.

It’s not like the Bears have a quarterback like Rodgers who is vowing to stay away. But they have a defense they’ll be counting on in a big way in 2021, and on the first day media could observe action this spring, nearly the entire group was nowhere to be found.

You at least have to consider this when listening to the Bears discuss the culture being constructed in the building because, in the past at least, the biggest draw for players to attend wasn’t necessarily an offseason bonus but the fact they held each other accountable. It was more difficult to explain to teammates why a player was missing a day than it was to coaches.


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