Last season, Chicago Bears sixth rounder Isaiah Frey was little more than a lost rookie. He showed good quickness but the game was just too fast for him and he struggled mightily in training camp. The club kept him on the practice squad though. Looking back, it was as smart a move as GM Phil Emery made all season.
This year, Frey has looked like an entirely different player. The quickness is still there but he has also shown amazing development in his understanding of the game, as well as his read-and-react skills. During offseason programs, Frey earned his spot as the team's backup nickelback. And in training camp, he's been an absolute beast in the secondary. No player in Bourbonnais has deflected or intercepted more passes than Frey. And he's been solid in 1-on-1 drills, showing great ball skills.
I opined at the opening of camp that Frey could beat out Kelvin Hayden for the starting nickelback role, and that was when Hayden was 100 percent. This past Friday, Hayden tore his hamstring and it was revealed today that he'll soon need surgery and will be out for the 2013 campaign.
"Kelvin has worked so hard," said Chris Conte. "He's been doing a great job, and it's really tough to see him go down like that. I know none of the DBs really expected it to be that serious. To hear he's out for the whole year is kind of shocking. So prayers and thoughts go to him and his family, and hopefully surgery goes well and he's back soon."
With the injury to Hayden, Frey is now the frontrunner to start the 2013 season as the starting nickelback. Going from the practice squad to the first team, that's a pretty remarkable ascension up the depth chart.
"Last year, you come in as a rookie and you don't know really what to expect," Frey said. "But this year I knew what was going on and was able to be a lot more comfortable."
Frey was quick to give Hayden credit for helping him build that level of comfort.
"I can't even explain how much he helps," he said. "Kelvin is a great guy. He helps me continuously. He's going to stay and continue to help me. He's a great guy and I pray for his health."
Last year, Pro Football Focus rated Hayden the worst cornerback on the team, yet Bears brass liked his veteran leadership on the field, as well as his ability to play multiple positions, so they signed him to a one-year deal this offseason. Hayden looked decent in camp, but he was being outplayed by Frey and may have lost the starting gig even if he had stayed healthy.
Frey has been all over the field. He's been physical at the line of scrimmage and aggressive when the ball is in the air.
"That nickel position, the ball always finds him," said Conte. "I think it's just part of playing the position, and he's a talented guy, so he definitely has what it takes to play it. I think he has the right mentality and attitude. He's always just wanting to get better. He's in his playbook all of the time and learning. So I think he's going to do well."
We'll get our first chance to see if Frey is ready for prime time when the Bears take on the Carolina Panthers in the preseason opener this Friday.
"I've just got to be reliable," Frey said. "I just have to do what they ask me, whether it's special teams or playing corner or playing nickel. I just have to go out there and do my job. I feel prepared, so I shouldn't be nervous at all."
The good news for Frey is the team has no other good options at nickelback. The only scenario that makes sense is sliding Tim Jennings inside and putting Zack Bowman out wide. The Bears have experimented with said formation in camp, so it's a possibility. But if Frey continues to dominate in practice, the coaching staff won't be able to keep him off the field.
"He is making a lot of plays," said defensive backs coach Jon Hoke. "He's playing with a lot of confidence right now. He's been here for a year, he understands the systems and what the position, especially at nickel, has been asked of him. He's been extremely productive with what he's done."
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.