Bears Cornerback Kindle Vildor says benching will 'make me a better player'
It was a Thanksgiving Day national TV game against the Detroit Lions. It was the most-watched Bears game of the 2021 season, averaging 28.2 million viewers on Fox.
And Kindle Vildor was on the bench.
The Bears cornerback who started the first 10 games of the season watched as veteran Artie Burns stepped onto the turf at Ford Field in his spot. The Thanksgiving Day matchup came only four days after the Bears lost at home on a last-minute touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens, who were playing without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson.
It was the team's fifth consecutive loss. The game-winning drive will not go on Vildor's highlight reel. He drew a 21-yard pass interference penalty to start the drive, then had a miscommunication leading to a huge gain from Ravens' receiver Sammy Watkins. The 29-yard completion set the Ravens up for the go-ahead touchdown moments later.
A few tumultuous days later -- this was the same week an erroneous report claimed the Bears were going to fire coach Matt Nagy -- Vildor had to watch his team play from the sideline. That afternoon in Detroit, Vildor played eight snaps on special teams and none on defense.
"It was a part of my process, a part of my plan," Vildor said this week. "I know it's only going to make me a better player."
Flash forward to this summer. Vildor, now entering his third NFL season, has a fresh start with a new coaching staff. He currently finds himself fighting for a starting spot, working with the first-team defense during training camp. The 24-year-old former fifth-round draft pick is playing boundary corner opposite Jaylon Johnson, with rookie Kyler Gordon serving as the slot corner.
Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who is expected to compete for playing time in the slot, has been sidelined for the past week with a hamstring injury. Thomas' eventual return (the Bears haven't given a timeline) could call for a reshuffling of those jobs. Even so, as of right now, Vildor is in the starting lineup.
Vildor leaned heavily on his teammates last November. For pro athletes, their work plays out in front of everyone on TV. In few other jobs are people demoted in such a public manner. Former Bears defensive back Teez Tabor, who is now with the Atlanta Falcons, went through a similar benching as a member of the Detroit Lions when he was in his second year -- much like Vildor.
"He was just telling me how it was when he was in Detroit and stuff didn't go his way," Vildor said. "He just kept his head down and just kept working."
Vildor spent much of his offseason back home in the Atlanta area. He worked out with private defensive backs coach Oliver Davis, who he met through Instagram in 2018. Davis works with numerous NFL cornerbacks.
For Vildor, the offseason focus was all about making plays on the football. New Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams and defensive backs coach James Rowe wanted Vildor to improve his "ball combat," Vildor said. Playing through the point of attack.
"I feel like a lot of times last year I was in position," Vildor said. "Just got to finish. That's been my biggest point this year, just finish on the ball."
New general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus have gone about re-imagining the Bears' secondary. They spent their top two draft picks on defensive backs -- Gordon at 39th overall and safety Jaquan Brisker at 48th.
Yet, even through that process Vildor has remained as much in the mix for playing time as anyone.
"I like his competitiveness, where he's shown (it) in this camp so far," Eberflus said Wednesday. "He's competing. He's put a nice couple of thuds on some runners. Corners tackle here. That's an important part of it and he's shown that he's able to do that."
Vildor believes his coaches trust him. He also believes he's a better player than he was a year ago.
"They know I have the athletic ability to play," Vildor said. "That's why I'm taking reps with the first-team, because they know I'm one of the top corners on the team. It's just up to me to do what I do, no pressure on myself. When the time comes, in the preseason or right now in camp, just keep making those plays."
Attendance: There were no surprises at Wednesday's practice. Tackle Teven Jenkins, cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. and defensive tackle Angelo Blackson are still out with injuries. Defensive back Duke Shelley did not participate Wednesday.
There has been some speculation and national reports indicating that the Bears could be looking to trade Jenkins. Asked if Jenkins' absence is 100% injury-related, Eberflus responded, "Yeah."
Center Lucas Patrick was spotted at practice Wednesday for the first time in several days. Patrick will be out for an extended period of time with a hand injury. He wore a cast on his right hand and thumb.