Believe it or not, the Chicago Bears had the 4th best passing defense in the NFL last season.
It was one heck of an accomplishment, as the Bears lacked a consistent pass rush (35 team sacks in 2015 ranked 22nd in the NFL) and were not opportunistic in creating turnovers (8 total interceptions ranked 30th in the NFL). In yards per pass attempt (7.5) the Bears ranked 20th, while their 31 TDs allowed ranked 25th in the league.
Yet there the Bears sit on the stat chart, with fewer passing yards allowed than all but three teams last year.
Much of that had to do with a porous run defense that ranked 22nd overall and 26th in yards per rush. When you're gashing a defense between the tackles, there's no need to air the ball out and risk turnovers.
That fourth overall ranking was also due to some better-than-expected performances in the secondary. Tracy Porter was a solid veteran surprise and Kyle Fuller picked up his game in the second half of the season, while Adrian Amos emerged as a viable safety starter his rookie year.
Yet, with training camp just a month away, most folks are overlooking one of the biggest pieces to the secondary puzzle: Bryce Callahan.
Callahan was an undrafted out of Rice last season and earned an invite to camp. He broke camp on the 53-man roster but was sent to the practice squad from Weeks 3-6.
He was activated in Week 7, after Sherrick McManis proved the nickelback role was too much for him, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio immediately inserted Callahan as the club's starter in the slot.
He never relinquished the role.
Callahan played 329 snaps his rookie season. Opposing quarterbacks had a 79.0 passer rating when throwing at him, which is very good and better than both Fuller (86.9) and Porter (107.2). In addition, Callahan didn't give up a single touchdown in 2015, while Fuller and Porter allowed 12 TDs combined.
Officially, Callahan finished last season with 21 combined tackles, 1.0 sack and 4 forced fumbles.
"He’s very, very coachable, number one," Fangio said last season. "He has very good football knowledge and instincts. So he understands the game of football. So when you’re coaching him, there’s a good base of knowledge there. The game kind of comes to him in a good way. And he’s got good quickness, good speed and good anticipation."
Athletically, Callahan is gifted. At his pro day, he posted a 4.47 40-yard dash, a 43-inch vertical jump and a 11-0 broad jump, all of which are outstanding, as well as 15 bench-press reps, which is pretty impressive from a 5-9, 183-pound slot corner. He also showed the requisite quickness to play nickel at the next level.
In addition, he returned punts in college and scampered 34 yards in his only punt return last season.
At 24 years old, Callahan has the most upside of any secondary player on the roster, and he's already shown that the NFL game isn't too big for him.
That's why the Bears coaching staff is so high on Callahan, who this off-season again lined up as the starting nickel. Not only that, he shifted to the boundary corner position during veteran minicamp while Fuller was dealing with an undisclosed injury. So obviously Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell feel Callahan has the ability to man up out wide as well.
However you slice it, Callahan is going to be a major part of Chicago's defensive success this season. Unless the Bears sign another veteran or he's beat out in camp, which appears very unlikely at this point, Callahan will enter the season as the bona fide starter in the slot, as well as the primary backup for the boundary positions.
So while Fuller, Porter and the three new secondary draft picks get all of the attention, the success of the passing defense is going to hinge greatly on the play of Callahan.