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Chicago Bears storylines: Kyle Long’s QB pep talk, Jaylon Johnson’s ‘thirst for greatness’ and D’Andre Swift’s next step

David Crane/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The first few waves of NFL free agency have hit the shore and long since receded. The much-anticipated trade to send quarterback Justin Fields to a new home is complete. General manager Ryan Poles’ roster-building efforts continue.

And now another critical stretch lies ahead as Poles and the Chicago Bears finish their homework before next month’s draft — the one they control with the No. 1 pick and another selection at No. 9. It already has been a fascinating and eventful offseason for the Bears. The intrigue on where they’re headed doesn’t figure to die down anytime soon.

After Caleb Williams’ pro day workout and in advance of next week’s league meetings in Orlando, Fla., here’s the inside slant on three notable Bears storylines.

Deja vu

In the final stages of the AFC championship game in January, Kyle Long was confident he already knew the ending.

Long had spent 2021 as a teammate of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City and had firsthand knowledge of the quarterback’s unreal combination of playmaking poise and killer instinct. Long also had monitored Mahomes’ magic show over six full seasons as a starter, understanding, like most of the NFL understands, that conference championship Sunday might as well be renamed Mahomes Day until further notice.

After all, Mahomes has propelled the Chiefs onto that stage in every season since 2018. He has helped them win the Lamar Hunt Trophy as AFC champions four times. And last month he collected his third Super Bowl title — before his 29th birthday.

So, yes, with the Chiefs facing third-and-9 from their 46-yard line and clinging to a 17-10 lead in the final minutes of the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens, Long was confident Mahomes would close the deal. What he wasn’t expecting was to be reeled in by the play the Chiefs ran, a well-timed check into a well-designed concept that resulted in a 32-yard, victory-sealing completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

Long could only shake his head at first, then had a second thought.

Wait a second. That looked familiar.

Long appreciated the pull from Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy’s play sheet and the check Mahomes made before the snap. He was certain he had seen something similar before.

It quickly clicked that he had watched a variation of that check in the critical stages of the only NFL playoff game he played in.

Jan. 6, 2019. Soldier Field. Bears versus Philadelphia Eagles.

Yes, folks. One snap before Cody Parkey’s infamous “Double Doink,” the Bears were positioned for a touchdown that was at least comparable to the big gain from Mahomes to Valdes-Scantling in January.

For the Bears back then, it was rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller running the route out of the right slot. And it was Mitch Trubisky making the check and launching the pass from the Eagles 25-yard line with Miller winning off the snap and gaining inside leverage on cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc.

Trubisky’s throw, though, landed inside the painted orange “O” in Soldier Field’s north end zone, 2 yards beyond Miller’s reach. The Bears were left to settle for a game-deciding 43-yard field-goal attempt — the one that hit the left upright and then the crossbar, finally ricocheting backward and ending a dream season in nightmare fashion.

Mahomes’ toss? With Valdes-Scantling gaining separation as the inside-most receiver from a trips left formation? Ideal touch. Great placement. Caught. First down.

A championship-sealing moment.

The next week, Long was back at Chiefs headquarters for CBS Sports, leading a Super Bowl preview feature on the Kansas City offensive line. While there, he bumped into Nagy and asked if the Mahomes-to-Valdes-Scantling kill shot that will live on in Chiefs lore was a check similar to what he had dialed up for Trubisky and Miller a half-decade earlier. Nagy turned to another Chiefs assistant.

“He looked at the coach standing next to him,” Long recalled, “and he was like, ‘This guy doesn’t forget anything.’ ”

Ultimately that recollection circled Long back to an obvious conclusion about the thin margin between glory and heartbreak in the NFL. Find yourself a quarterback who is an assassin.

“That’s how close we were,” Long said. “For Bears fans, we would have never gotten to Double Doink. So think about maximizing your opportunity to minimize those misses. You go get the best quarterback you can.

“The guy’s name is Caleb Williams. He’s going to be the guy who makes the check. He’s going to be our Steph Curry. He’s going to be the guy with the ball in his hands. That’s what you want.”

Lo and behold, that’s what the Bears are now set up to get. With the No. 1 pick in next month’s draft, they’re first in line to snag Williams, whose skill set has made NFL talent evaluators’ jaws drop for years.

During a lengthy visit on this week’s “Take the North” podcast, Long expressed his enthusiasm for the window that should open for the Bears as a solid and competitive roster is about to be turbocharged by the probable addition of Williams.

Long has been a Justin Fields supporter for a while and deeply admires the departed quarterback’s unifying leadership, breathtaking speed and overall temperament. But Fields is a Pittsburgh Steeler now. And Williams? Well, he looks like a different animal. Whenever Long has studied tape of the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner, he has come away with his jaw at his shoe tops.

“This guy Caleb Williams jumps off the page to me,” Long said. “Not only from a throwing perspective but a creativity perspective. He makes the game look like art. He has a je ne sais quoi about his game. He’s got it. What more do you want me to tell you?”

What Long can tell you is if he were in Bears GM Ryan Poles’ shoes, he would take Williams without hesitation.

“In my opinion, he gives the Bears the best chance moving forward at the quarterback position,” Long said. “When you watch the Super Bowl, when you watch the playoffs, it’s the quarterbacks who have the je ne sais quoi who tend to win these Super Bowls.”

Sure, as a former player, Long understands the lament that might exist in the Bears locker room for a bit because of Fields’ exit. He understands some players may wish Fields still was around while being a bit hesitant to go all-in on Williams right off the bat. Heck, Long was loyal to Jay Cutler for four seasons. Until Trubisky became the new QB1 and a new buddy.

“You can’t change the past,” Long said. “You can’t change the decision that has been made. Your best buddy, Justin Fields, your guy, your leader, he’s no longer on your team. And that’s a really hard thing about the NFL. Your friends are not going to be there forever.

“But the beauty of the NFL is that you’re going to make new friends every year. And maybe you’ve got a really cool friend coming down the pipeline here.”

Long’s belief in what Williams can do to unlock the Bears and his desire for Chicago to have a run of sustained excellence couldn’t be stronger.

“You need a quarterback where, instead of fear, he gives you faith and hope,” Long said. “It’s not a guy you can win with. It’s a guy you win because of. And I think that’s Caleb Williams.”

Hearing things

As Jaylon Johnson stood onstage earlier this month at Halas Hall with an opportunity to discuss the lucrative contract extension he signed with the Bears, he wasn’t focused on the Rolls-Royce he has his eyes on or the opportunity to move into a bigger house or the prospect of helping his family in ways he never could have imagined.

Instead, Johnson was hearing the voices.

He was hearing his harshest critics — many of them nameless and faceless but still very active inside his brain — lamenting that his second-team All-Pro season in 2024 was no big deal.

“Some people think it’s luck,” Johnson said.

Johnson could hear his Bears coaches, the ones who pushed him last season to increase his ball production and now will prod him nonstop to produce even more.

“They’ve still got a job to do and (want to) replace me,” Johnson said. “I’ll be damned.”

Johnson could hear all the receivers he will be covering when the season begins in September, those who will recognize his status as one of the league’s top cover cornerbacks yet vow to embarrass him.

“They think they are going to earn a check off my name,” Johnson said.

As a response, Johnson will furrow his brow and go to work, unwilling to let any of those voices be correct.

To put it simply, Johnson has some loose wiring upstairs. That’s his competitive edge, the tenacity that has carried him from his childhood in Fresno, Calif., through a standout three-season college career at Utah and now deeper into a promising career with the Bears that has him on the NFL’s up escalator.

Johnson is now recognized as one of the game’s best defenders and paid like it too, ready to enjoy the spoils of the four-year, $76 million deal he signed March 7 that comes with $54 million guaranteed.

But unlike many players who get their big payday and instantly succumb to the human-nature urge to relax and feel satisfied, Johnson seems to be getting edgier and more driven. That engaging smile of his can quickly turn into a competitive scowl.

“The contract changes some people,” Johnson said. “But I’m not one of those. I’m not moved by money. I still have a lot to prove to myself. With goals, just continue to set new ones. The money doesn’t stop the hunger.”

This is what Johnson refers to as his “thirst for greatness,” a quality he says his older brother, John, passed down to him. He also singled out his dad, John Sr., for teaching him how to motivate himself.

“He taught me how to get my mind right to perform,” Johnson said. “And I’ve done that since (I was) a little boy. I still believe my opponents don’t think I’m good enough. So I will show them when that time comes.”

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As a kid, when Johnson would go watch his dad play in flag football games, he heard that voice too, the one of his old man talking to himself — or talking back to his own imagined detractors.

“He’d be like, ‘That dude over there thinks I’m soft or I’m weak.’ I’m like, ‘Dad, what the hell are you talking about?’ I used to ask him, ‘Did he really say that?’ He’d be like, ‘I believe he did.’ ”

That became a lesson for Johnson. Never ignore the voices.

“The mind is powerful,” he said.

That will be Johnson’s engine, his way of taking the success he already has had in the NFL and building on it.

The voices tell him he hasn’t proved anything yet — or at least not enough. Last year’s success needs to be replicated. Future breakthroughs must be fueled with hard work. The critics will only get louder.

“Any time I line up against a receiver, I really feel and believe that he doesn’t think I’m good enough,” Johnson said. “So for me, every time I go out there, I’m going to punish you. Because I know … well, I think I know what you’re thinking.

“For me, that’s the mental warfare you have to have to stay motivated.”

‘Another step in the journey’

D’Andre Swift had secluded himself and found a comfortable spot on the couch on the day the NFL’s free-agent negotiating window opened.

“I didn’t want to be around too many people,” he said last week. “Kind of gathering my thoughts, just waiting for my agent to let me know something.”

Swift was, in his words, “stressing.” But his anxiety didn’t last long. Early in the first hour of the negotiating period, the Bears swooped in with an attractive offer: three years, $24 million, more than $15 million guaranteed.

For Swift, a 25-year-old running back coming off a career season with the Eagles, the deal felt too good to pass up.

“Ultimately,” he said, “it came down to where I was wanted the most.”

With that, Swift became a Bear, joining his third team in three seasons and preparing for whatever is ahead.

“It’s another step in the journey,” he said.

The Bears’ contract offer was a vote of confidence in Swift’s ability to build off his one season with the Eagles, in which he rushed for 1,049 yards and five touchdowns while catching 39 passes for 214 yards and another TD.

Swift arrived at Halas Hall last week brimming with his own confidence and stressing the value of his versatility.

“I feel like God blessed me with the ability to do a little bit of everything,” he said. “I say that because I know the amount of work that I put in. So I’m comfortable saying I can do everything.”

Hopefully new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron was busy scribbling notes and preparing to unleash Swift in a backfield reshaped to Waldron’s preference.

Swift also felt comfortable openly acknowledging the opportunity he sees for the Bears to emerge as playoff contenders in 2024.

“I feel like the division is wide open for whoever wants to take it,” he said.

And Swift hopes to do his part. He prides himself on his work ethic, locker-room steadiness and win-first mentality.

For the Bears to get a proper return on their investment, though, Swift will have to produce in a leading role and convince general manager Ryan Poles that he can be a consistent and durable force in the offense.

Swift’s previous two teams declined to reward him with a contract extension. The Detroit Lions, who drafted Swift at No. 35 in 2020, traded the Philadelphia native to the Eagles on the first night of last year’s draft, shortly after picking Jahmyr Gibbs in the first round.

The Lions saw Gibbs as a better fit in coordinator Ben Johnson’s offense and seized the opportunity to make an upgrade in the backfield. (Less than six weeks earlier, they had added former Bears running back David Montgomery during free agency, effectively replacing Jamaal Williams.)

After Swift’s breakout season in 2023, Eagles GM Howie Roseman let the running back’s rookie contract expire, watched him enter free agency and then sign with the Bears. Roseman then signed Saquon Barkley to a three-year, $37.75 million contract that included $26 million in guaranteed money.

The sentiment coming out of Philadelphia was that the Eagles were interested in retaining Swift and made efforts to do so initially. But when it became clear the union couldn’t continue at a team-friendly price, Roseman pivoted and chose to spend bigger money on a more productive playmaker in Barkley.

That’s just part of the game at this time of year. And now Swift has a new opportunity to take his game up a level.

Part of that will be finding ways to remain healthy. Swift missed 10 games over his three seasons in Detroit, his availability becoming problematic.

As a rookie, a concussion kept Swift out for three weeks. The next year, he hurt his shoulder early in a late November game against the Bears at Soldier Field and missed all of December. And in 2022, Swift missed three games with a separated shoulder and remained hindered through the season by that injury plus an early-season high ankle sprain.

During his one-season homecoming in Philadelphia, Swift played in the first 16 games but missed the finale because of illness. Now he’s rebooting in Chicago, where he feels wanted and motivated.

“I feel like this was the best decision for me,” Swift said. “(It was) the best opportunity for me with everything that was out there. I’m excited to be here and excited to be a Bear.”