When the Bears visit the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, they’ll see a team that reflects more than most the fact that the NFL is a sub-package league.
Miami’s primary nickel back, Bobby McCain, became one of the NFL’s higher-paid slot corners this offseason when he signed a four-year, $27 million deal with nearly half guaranteed. McCain has since taken on a greater role, lining up outside in base ‘D,’ allowing Minkah Fitzpatrick to play the slot. Fitzpatrick, of course, is the former Alabama standout whom Miami selected 11th overall in this year’s draft.
On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins spent more than $20 million combined on a pair of slot receivers — former New England Patriot Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson, who many thought would follow Bears head coach Matt Nagy to Chicago from Kansas City.
Which brings us to Bryce Callahan, Chicago’s dynamic and diminutive nickel corner, whose own contract season is off to an outstanding start.
This offseason, the Bears signed the then-restricted free agent Callahan to a right-of-first-refusal tender, giving them the chance to match other teams’ offers but no compensation should he leave. The decision raised a few eyebrows, after the former undrafted free agent from Rice commanded a lot of respect in league circles during his first three seasons. But Ryan Pace also was preparing to re-sign outside starting CBs Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara to contracts placing Chicago in the top 10 in the league in spending at the position.
Fortunately for the Bears, after Callahan reportedly garnered interest from the rival Minnesota Vikings, he signed his tender with Chicago and ranks fifth (second among defensive backs, trailing only Adrian Amos) on the NFL’s No 2 defense in tackles (14) and has added a QB hit, interception and pass defensed.
“Pretty cool story,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said Wednesday, when PFW asked him about what he appreciates the most in Callahan. “And even for me coming here, I didn’t know as much about him as I probably should have. He’s very underrated in my opinion — my humble opinion. He’s very athletic, he’s very instinctual — has a great attitude. He trusts the process, he trusts the defense, he trusts his teammates. He’s what you want, and we feel very fortunate to have him there as our nickel.”
At 5-9,188 pounds, Callahan is the smallest defender on the Bears roster and third-smallest player, trailing only Tarik Cohen (5-6, 181) and Taylor Gabriel (5-8, 165). But you’d never be able to tell from the way Callahan, also one of the team's better athletes and tacklers, plays. One of Chicago’s most tenacious defenders, he has seven career tackles for loss and two sacks in addition to solid ball production (three INTs, 16 PBUs).
“I call his style a bit unorthodox,” Bears CB1 Kyle Fuller —another strong tackler in the Chicago secondary — told PFW on Wednesday.
Callahan showed off his rugged style on the Bears’ first play on defense in their blasting of the Bucs in Week 4, when he closed instantly on a WR screen and stopped Adam Humphries for no gain. One week earlier, Callahan's interception late in the fourth quarter helped seal a victory.
“Oh yeah. He eliminates them screens on the outside,” Amos, who was part of Callahan’s 2015 rookie class, told PFW. “He comes out and does everything well. There’s not one part of his game that you can say is bad. He comes through.”
Callahan will need to come through in Miami against a Dolphins team that had as much success on screens as any team in the league through the first four weeks, when its tally sat at 160 yards, per ESPN’s NFL Matchup. (The Bears entered their Week 5 bye with 118 yards on screens, No. 2 in the NFL.) With the Dolphins’ O-line reeling and Chicago bringing the NFL’s best pass-rushing ‘D to town,’ Adam Gase surely will try and slow the Bears’ pressure with the screen game.
Callahan could also once again be asked to line up outside if Prince Amukamara’s hamstring injury sidelines him for a second consecutive game. Vic Fangio said prior to Week 4 that Callahan has played “very well” and they value his versatility to line up on the boundary when needed, which he did again successfully vs. the Bucs.
The only real rub on Callahan has been durability. At least partially the result of his aggressive style, he missed 16 combined games in his first three seasons with injuries. But if he can stay healthy and maintain his outstanding play, some team will award Callahan with a sizable second NFL contract this spring. Assuming, of course, the Bears don't first.