BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Opportunity knocks for someone on the back end of the Chicago Bears’ cornerback group. The coaching staff looks to answer a few questions about the team’s secondary depth during Thursday’s preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.
University of Dubuque graduate Michael Joseph, a second-year cornerback from Oswego, Ill., is in the mix with several young and unproven Bears DBs looking to make a name for himself during that opening game at Soldier Field.
Chicago released its first depth chart on Tuesday with the expected names at the top. Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara return as starters at corner, free agent acquisition Buster Skrine is locked in at nickel and second-year DB Kevin Toliver II is slotted as the next man up. Sherrick McManis, Chicago’s long-time special teams specialist, could be in that cornerback mix as well, but was listed as a backup safety in the Bears’ initial depth chart.
After them, Joseph is among the group of rookies or second-year pros who are all looking to potentially make their first NFL roster by the close of the preseason. He joins fellow 2018 undrafted free agent John Franklin III (who was featured on the documentary series “Last Chance U”), 2019 undrafted free agents Stephen Denmark and Clifton Duck and 2019 sixth-round draft pick Duke Shelley in a group that’s looking to lock down the final couple of roster spots projected at the corner position.
“I like the way they study,” Deshea Townson, a 13-year NFL veteran as a player now in his first season as Bears secondary coach, said of his position group as a whole. “The mental part of the game is really impressive. I talk to them all the time that the physical part, everybody’s really close. Everyone’s 6-foot, runs a 4.4 (40 time), that type of stuff.
“It’s the mental part of the game that separates them. These guys get that. They come to work every day, they communicate. And all those things lead to good things going in the secondary.”
Joseph and Franklin III both spent time on Chicago’s practice squad last year. Tuesday’s non-padded practice — the Bears’ last workout before the Panthers game and second-to-last training camp session in Bourbonnais this year — featured both players at times rotating in against the starting offense. Among his matchups, Joseph took reps against starting receivers Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson and played alongside 2019 Pro Bowlers Fuller, Eddie Jackson, Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack.
There’s a lot to like about the UD product, Townson said. Joseph has had a “consistent” camp and the coach is eager to see what happens in Thursday’s exhibition.
“Every day he makes a play,” Townson said of Joseph. “He’s not the kind of guy that makes the same mistake twice. He’s an intelligent kid, and every day he’s consistent.
“The next step for him is he has to go into the game, have some fun and keep doing that.”
Coaches also experimented with Joseph at safety during stretches of Tuesday’s practice, a relatively new position for the former Spartan. Townson, himself a former safety for the Steelers and Colts, said the position switch is one way Joseph could showcase his versatility to the staff, in turn making him more enticing to keep on the roster.
“For us and for him — I talked to them about my career — it’s about the more that you can do,” Townson said. “If you can play corner, if you can play safety, if you can play nickel — that makes you more valuable.
“He’s smart enough to do it. That’s the biggest thing. He’s smart enough to line up there. The next part is to see that physical part show up in the game.”
During last year’s Bears preseason opener, the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, Joseph saw the most snaps among defensive players. It’s unclear how the reps will be divided up this time around, with head coach Matt Nagy intimating on Thursday that even he doesn’t know how much the starters will play against Carolina.
Regardless, Joseph will be seeing his first live game action in almost a year, starting Thursday. On the sidelines, Townson and others will be evaluating what he and the other unproven corners bring to the table.
“It’s just going out there and making plays, being in where you’re supposed to be,” Townson said. “But the main thing is competing. Seeing who’s going to compete and fight this thing out, that’s the great thing about this team. We have great depth and when you have competition battles, it makes everybody better.”