In the sixth round of last year's draft, the Chicago Bears selected Nevada cornerback Isaiah Frey. It was a questionable pick at the time because the club already had two nickelbacks on the roster, D.J. Moore and Kelvin Hayden, which is the position Frey played his junior and senior seasons.
In camp last year, Frey had the deer-in-headlights look that many rookies show upon arrival to the NFL. He wasn't confident in the system and his reads, and was slow to react. Yet he did enough in Bourbonnais to earn a place on the practice squad, where he resided all of last season.
"I learned a lot [on the practice squad]," Frey told Bear Report. "I got to watch two Pro Bowl starting corners for a whole season. That benefited me more than people know so it was a great learning experience."
With D.J. Moore gone, Frey has been working with the second team at nickelback all offseason. It's a substantial leap up the depth chart for a player that barely held onto his job last season. Frey said a year under his belt has slowed the game down and he's now able to react, instead of thinking too much, on the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University.
"I know what's going on now," said Frey. "I know what to expect. I'm able to play a lot faster."
On the first day of padded practices this past Sunday, Frey showed why he has ascended up the depth chart. He was strong in 1-on-1 drills with the wide receivers and, late in the session, intercepted the only pass of practice, undercutting a ball intended for WR Marquess Wilson.
Yesterday, I focused intently on Frey during red-zone 1-on-1 drills. Plays were run from the five-yard line, with receivers trying to score on each pass. It's a drill that shows a cornerback's ability to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and Frey dominated.
His first snap came against Terrence Toliver, a 6-3 receiver to whom Frey gave up four inches. At the snap, Toliver faked outside, yet Frey sat in a low base and did not bite. When Toliver broke inside, Frey got physical and used his hands to keep the receiver from crossing his face. The pass wasn't even close.
On his second rep, Frey squared off against WR Brittan Golden. At the snap, Golden shuffled his feet and threw a head fake outside. Again, Frey didn't bite and kept his eyes on the receiver. Golden then cut inside on a slant. Frey stayed in the receiver's hip pocket and, when the pass was thrown, broke underneath Golden and knocked the ball away.
On his final rep, he matched up with Wilson 1-on-1. At the snap, Wilson took a false step outside and then slipped on his break inside. Yet it wouldn't have mattered, as Frey was standing there waiting for the pass to be thrown. (This play actually says more about Wilson than it does Frey.)
In just that one drill, Frey showed physicality, good hand usage and great reaction speed. His quickness is definitely an asset out of the slot, which is something he wasn't able to showcase last season.
"Last year, like you said, I was a deer in the headlights last year being a rookie," Frey said. "Everything was new. But this year I'm able to get into my drops, read the quarterback and break a lot faster than that year."
And it has been evident in Bourbonnais. Frey has looked great with the second team and has even taken occasional reps with the first team.
Hayden is ahead of Frey on the depth chart, yet Hayden struggled mightily at times after taking over for D.J. Moore in the slot last year. In fact, Pro Football Focus rated Hayden as the worst cornerback on the team in 2012. And in camp to this point, he hasn't done anything special.
So if Frey continues to play well, there's no reason he can't continue to take reps from Hayden with the first team. And if Frey keeps on forcing turnovers and dominating during 1-on-1s, he'll not only have a great shot at making the roster, he could challenge Hayden for the starting gig.
That's not too shabby for a player many were calling a wasted draft pick last season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.