BOURBONNAIS — There are next men up, and then there are next men up in the best secondary in football.
Bears S Deon Bush and nickel CB Duke Shelley both fall squarely in the latter category, but their circumstances in getting here are quite different.
Bush, the Miami product selected in the fourth round by GM Ryan Pace in 2016, is in a contract year. He just received over the final three games of last season his first taste in two years of starting in the NFL, following an ankle injury to Eddie Jackson. Bush "felt good" about his work in a pinch and "started to get his confidence back," he told PFW Sunday.
Bush didn't get the starting job vacated this offseason when Adrian Amos parlayed his success here into a bunch of cheddar with the rival Green Bay Packers. That job went to free-agent S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the former Pro Bowler who took a one-year, prove-it deal and whom the Bears likely never thought they'd realistically be able to sign.
But when Clinton-Dix went to the physically unable to perform list with a knee injury to begin camp, there was Bush again lining up with the starters on Day 1, this time alongside Jackson.
"I’m not really trying to think about it," he said. "Just go out there and put good stuff on tape and be the player that I know I can be. That’s just my main focus right now. I owe it to the guys, you feel me? We’re a top-notch defense, and you know we can’t have no slips."
Bush thought his play gradually improved in each of his three starts last season, and he credited former coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell for teaching him how to play NFL safety. But, hailing from Miami, he didn't hide his excitement for the chance to learn under Chuck Pagano, a former safety himself, who's credited with developing Hall of Famer Ed Reed dating back to — that's right — their time together with the Hurricanes.
"I’m anxious to really learn under him and see what type of player I can be under his influence," Bush said.
Shelley, mainly because of his diminutive stature (5-foot-9, 173 pounds), wasn't as highly touted as Bush coming out of high school. Though he was offered by Clemson, he opted to play for Bill Snyder at Kansas State, where he was a four-year starter but had his final season cut short by a toe injury. That confluence of events led to him being available for the Bears to draft in the latter part of Round 6 (No. 205 overall).
"Sleeper," Shelley called himself Sunday in a discussion with PFW. "It is what it is. Pretty much my whole life, everybody's been talking about my size. So I’ve always kind of been the underdog. It’s a role I’ve stepped into; I take it with full force. Just go out there and perform at the highest level. As long as I keep proving people wrong, I’m good."
And Shelley has been making very good impressions dating back to the spring, when his quickness, athleticism and perhaps most notably, nose for the football have stood out. That last part is key. He's now part of the NFL's most opportunistic defense, after all.
"Not going out there trying to make a play and just letting it come to you," Shelley said is the key to making plays on the ball, as he did Monday, quickly cutting off TE Ben Braunecker over the middle in team drills for a breakup. "As long as your technique is fine and you have good eyes, good transition, things like that, it’ll take care of itself."
Mind you, Shelley never played in the slot for the Wildcats. His seemingly smooth transition, and the fact he's part of the plan to replace undersized fan favorite Bryce Callahan, has helped make him a favorite among Bears Twitter. Rest assured, others are also taking notice.
“He’s physical. He has ball skills. It’s what we saw on tape," Nagy said. "He has great energy and he’s smart. He can play inside, he can play outside, he’s done some things for us that have been good. But it’s still early in camp. Hopefully we can see more in the preseason.”
Bush and Shelley might've taken different paths to the same ending point — the hard-hitting safety as the next man up behind Clinton-Dix; Shelley backing up fellow newcomer, vet Buster Skrine — but they both know they could at the very least be integral depth pieces on a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
"Whenever I get the opportunity, [I'm] not thinking about it too much, like, 'what if I mess up, what’s on the line, we’re the top defense,' Bush said. "No, you can’t think about that, man, you really just have to go out there and play. Just go out there and believe in yourself. Once you believe in yourself, I feel like things can go [well] for you going forward."
Added Shelley: "I’m here for a reason. I feel like I can go out and make plays with anybody, compete with anybody. I just embrace it. If my number gets called, I’m going to be ready, not getting ready."