BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the Chicago Bears’ biggest prize in a relatively quiet offseason for the team.
One of the stipulations for the former Green Bay Packers pro bowl safety was jersey No. 21. This meant that one second-year defensive back, Michael Joseph, had to find a new number to wear.
That’s not all that’s different for Joseph, a University of Dubuque graduate turned Bears practice squad member. Between Chicago’s early playoff exit in January to now, a number of new faces have joined the Bears’ defensive back group, where competition for a backend roster spot should be fierce.
“It’s my new number now, a new chapter for me,” Joseph said on Monday after Bears training camp practice at Olivet Nazarene University. He will wear No. 30 when the Bears take the field for their preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday. “It’s a huge difference (from rookie camp to this year). Last year, you don’t really know what to expect — how offenses do things, the speed of the game.
“Now you’re just so much more comfortable. You know the defense. You just go out there and make plays. You’re just a lot more comfortable from Year 1 to Year 2 being in the league.”
Joseph played all five of Chicago’s preseason games last year but did not make the final 53-man roster. The Bears liked him enough to make him a member of their practice squad, where he continued working with the team.
This year, though, both of the coaches Joseph primarily worked with are now gone. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio accepted the Denver Broncos’ head coach position, and Chicago’s defensive backs coach, Ed Donatell, is now Fangio’s defensive coordinator.
Replacing them are former Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano at DC, and former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Deshea Townsend as secondary coach.
It’s another big change, but Joseph said he likes the transition.
“I enjoy this coaching staff. It works well for me,” he said. “Deshea, our corners coach, has been in the league, so he gives you a lot of ins and outs on what offenses are trying to do. He gives you the knowledge to be able to play faster. It’s just been a great transition from the new coaching staff.
“Pagano’s a lot more energetic, a lot more outgoing. Vic’s more laid back. That’s why they called (Fangio) the godfather — he’s quiet but when he says something you know he was serious about it. Pagano’s more loud, he likes to joke around and have fun.”
The defensive back group has seen an overhaul in personnel as well. The Bears signed Buster Skrine to replace nickel-back Bryce Callahan (who followed Fangio to Denver in free agency) and drafted another DB, Kansas State’s Duke Shelley, in the sixth round. Pro bowler Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara remain atop Chicago’s cornerback depth chart, while Kevin Toliver II and Sherrick McManis both saw game action last season.
That makes for a crowded competition for one of those backend cornerback roster spots. During 11-on-11 drills on Monday, Joseph at times lined up alongside the likes of Fuller, Clinton-Dix and fellow pro bowler Eddie Jackson, while defending the likes of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, running back Tarik Cohen and receiver Allen Robinson.
“That’s just the name of the game of football: competition,” Joseph said. “That’s what you’ve got to come out here and do. Every play and every rep is getting evaluated because there’s a limited amount of roster spots. So you’ve just got to make the most of the opportunity when your number’s called.”
Although Joseph is a native of Oswego, Ill., he said he still returns to Dubuque to train with former UD receiver and personal trainer Michael Zweifel during the offseason. Joining them is another former NCAA Division III standout, New Orleans Saints tight end and UW-Platteville grad Dan Arnold, who last year made his own leap from practice squad player to NFL roster spot.
That’s obviously something Joseph is hoping for as well.
“I lean on (Arnold) a lot,” Joseph said. “I try to pick his brain on what he felt you need to do to make the roster. He’s a D-III guy, undrafted. So he knows a lot about how the situation’s tough to make the roster, but it’s possible. He just motivates me by giving me tips on things to do to make the roster.”
It’s been almost a year since Joseph saw live action on a football field. But he said he’s not worried about a “rust factor.” With four preseason games to prove himself, Joseph is approaching the rest of the offseason like it’s a fresh start.
New year, new number, new opportunity to impress NFL evaluators.
“I’m just taking what I learned last year and putting it all into this year,” he said. “Taking it play by play. Being mentally strong. There’s going to be long games, a long preseason.
“You’ve just got to make the most of the opportunity when your name’s called, make plays on special teams and just set yourself up to compete and make this roster.”