Bears' Breakout Players to Watch in 2021 Training Camp
Over the past decade, the Chicago Bears haven't experienced much postseason success. They've made the playoffs in two of the past three years, but they haven't won a postseason game since the 2010 season. They have only had one winning season in the past eight years.
However, Chicago is having an offseason that should better set it up for long-term success. It traded up in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft to land quarterback Justin Fields, and it also made several key free-agent signings to fill some of the holes on its roster.
Whether the Bears have success in 2021, though, could depend on some of the players who were already on the team heading into the offseason. They have some talented young players who could potentially take big steps forward this upcoming season, possibly giving Chicago needed boosts at multiple positions.
Here's a look at three potential breakout Bears players to keep an eye on when training camp gets underway next month.
Cole Kmet, TE
Cole Kmet didn't get a ton of opportunities early last season, as veteran Jimmy Graham remained the Bears' top tight end. Despite being a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft, Kmet had only six receptions through the first nine games of his rookie year, although he scored his first career touchdown in a Week 6 win over the Carolina Panthers.
As the season went on, Kmet became a bigger target in Chicago's offense. Over the final seven games, he had 22 catches for 164 yards and one touchdown. And in a Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Kmet notched a season-high seven receptions for 41 yards, tied for the second most he had in a game.
Although Graham is still on the Bears' roster, the 22-year-old Kmet should have a larger role in 2021, especially if the team hopes for him to continue to develop and become a big part of its offense. Plus, Chicago's quarterback situation has improved, with veteran Andy Dalton likely to be the starter to open the season and Fields waiting in the wings to eventually take over.
If Kmet can build off the progress he made during the second half of 2020, then he could immediately start off 2021 in impressive fashion. Even with Graham also likely to get playing time, the Bears could benefit from having both of their top two tight ends as playmakers who they can rely on in the passing game, regardless of who is under center.
Jaylon Johnson, CB
The Bears signed veteran Desmond Trufant to be their No. 1 cornerback for the 2021 season, but they're going to need other players to step up in the secondary after they lost Kyle Fuller in free agency. Unless Chicago signs another corner before Week 1, Jaylon Johnson will likely again be a starter, which will give him a big opportunity to build off his 2020 rookie campaign.
Johnson may not have had any interceptions last season, but he showed that he could be a solid defensive back for the Bears. If he continues to develop, then the forced turnovers should eventually come for the 22-year-old, potentially as soon as 2021.
In 13 games last year, Johnson recorded 44 tackles and 15 pass deflections. He was a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft, so Chicago was quick to give him opportunities to get on to the field. And that will likely again be the case heading into 2021.
Johnson's Pro Football Focus player grade of 54.9 was below average, meaning there's definitely room for improvement as he enters his second NFL season. But he showed enough positive signs that there's reason to believe he'll play even better this year, especially if some of those pass deflections turn into interceptions.
James Daniels, OG
Before going down with a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 5, James Daniels appeared to be on his way to an impressive 2020 season. The 6'3", 305-pound lineman was becoming one of the Bears' most reliable players up front, and the team likely would have had more offensive success with him in the lineup.
Daniels moved between guard and center early in his NFL career after he was taken by Chicago in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft, but he was settling in nicely at left guard last season prior to the injury. He also has plenty of experience at this point, as he played in all 16 games in each of his first two years (making 26 starts during that span) prior to starting the first five games of 2020.
The Bears' offensive line is undergoing some changes, as tackle Charles Leno is no longer on the team and rookie Teven Jenkins will likely take over that starting spot on the left side. If Daniels picks up from where he left off prior to the injury, then he could pair with Jenkins to be a dominant force protecting the quarterback's blind side.
Whether Daniels finally has a breakout season may depend on his health. As long as he comes back in good shape and can stay healthy, then there's no reason to think he won't be set for big things in 2021, giving Chicago a huge boost up front and helping its offense improve.