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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
16 Dec 2023
Tribune News Service


NextImg:The chip on T.J. Edwards’ shoulder remains 5 years later — and he’s using it to drive his productive Chicago Bears season

Nearly five years have passed since that weekend, but Chicago Bears linebacker T.J. Edwards still points to the ongoing drive he feels from it.

Edwards has started 60 NFL games. He played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl in February. This season with the Bears, he ranks sixth in the NFL with 131 tackles and fourth with 76 solo tackles.

But you know what? Going undrafted out of Wisconsin in 2019 still eats at him.

“Coming out and going undrafted put a huge chip on my shoulder,” Edwards said. “It was five years ago now, but it still sits with me. Honestly, just never being complacent with where I’m at has allowed me to just have that drive and motivation to keep going. I always want to do more for my teammates. I always want to make more plays. I still don’t think I’m the best player I can be yet.”

When Ryan Poles signed Edwards to a three-year, $19.5 million contract in March, the Bears general manager called it an “awesome story.” The former Lakes High School quarterback, now 27, was the latest local guy to join the Bears, and he arrived following a rise to Eagles starter that many teams didn’t see coming.

Now, Edwards’ latest chapter is using that chip to fuel a season in which he is a consistent cog in the Bears defensive turnaround. The 6-foot-1, 242-pound weak-side linebacker set a Bears record for the most tackles through 10 games with 112. And through 13 heading into Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, he also has seven tackles for a loss, two interceptions, four passes defended, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two sacks and six quarterback hits.

The production, linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi said, comes from his instincts and a preparation and focus borne from his back story.

“Nothing was given to him,” Borgonzi said. “He had to earn everything. And just that approach he has, you can kind of feel it, still to this day.”

Edwards has a number of plays he could consider for his favorite this season, including two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the last three games as the Bears totaled 11 takeaways.

But his favorite came Oct. 15 against the Minnesota Vikings.

Edwards got through the Vikings offensive line on the blitz and swatted at quarterback Kirk Cousins’ arm. The football squirted into the air, and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds laid out to catch it. The Bears’ two major 2023 free-agent linebacker additions combined for the takeaway, which officially was ruled a forced fumble and recovery in the game book.

Edwards picked the play because he and Edmunds worked together to get it.

Borgonzi said he sees a bond between the two. Edmunds said he’s “excited” to play next to Edwards because of his work ethic, their communication and their ability to play off one another. But the bond is also a competitive one as their unit tries to foster a takeaway race, fueled by a chart of Bears leaders coach Matt Eberflus has shown more often in recent weeks, according to safety Jaquan Brisker.

“We’re competitive every day, trying to get a takeaway every day,” Edwards said. “We’re each other’s biggest supporters as well. But we also want to one-up each other because that’s how growth happens.”

Edmunds and Edwards have played their parts in the Bears defense’s surge over the last month, with Edmunds coming up with two of his three interceptions and a forced fumble in that span.

Meanwhile, Edwards jumped in front of Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff’s pass over the middle to Donovan Peoples-Jones for his first interception as a Bear on Nov. 19.

His second interception came a week later against the Vikings, when cornerback Jaylon Johnson broke up Josh Dobbs’ pass to K.J. Osbourn. The ball popped into the air, and Edwards easily pulled it in.

And in the second meeting with the Lions on Sunday, Edwards jumped on a fumbled snap between center Graham Glasgow and Goff. Edwards has talked about priding himself on always being around the ball, and it has paid off in recent weeks.

“The first thing that you recognize with him — (when) you watch his tape when he’s in Philly or since he’s been here — is the instincts,” Eberflus said. “He’s got great instincts for the football. That’s what you’ve got to have as a linebacker. He’s able to key and diagnose and beat guys to the punch quickly, and you see that week in and week out. He’s not a guy that runs 4.3 (in the 40-yard dash). He’s not super long. But he makes up for it with instincts. He’s a football player.”

It makes for an interesting dynamic with Edmunds, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound former first-round pick, of whom Borgonzi recently said, “There’s not many guys in the world that are that big that can run that fast.”

That’s not Edwards. But he has other gifts that have helped him make his climb.

While at Wisconsin, Edwards transformed himself from a Lakes quarterback who had never played linebacker to a finalist for the 2017 Butkus Award, given to the best collegiate linebacker in the country.

He was a first-team All-American in that junior season and then a 2018 first-team All-Big Ten player as he finished his four-year career with 367 tackles, 10 interceptions, eight sacks and 37 1/2 tackles for a loss.

But in the lead-up to the draft, knocks on his athleticism were all over his media scouting reports.

After Edwards ran 4.77 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his Wisconsin pro day, the Athletic’s Dane Brugler gave him a fifth-round grade, saying “his average athletic traits limit his NFL upside, but his diagnose skills and hard-nosed play style should keep him on an NFL roster.” NFL.com’s prospect grade classified him as “an average backup or special teamer.”

Edwards remembers his high hopes of that draft weekend — and then how upset he and his parents were when he wasn’t picked. But he tried not to let it take down his confidence.

“It was more, ‘I know they got something wrong here,’ ” Edwards said. “Watching someone out there going running in compression shorts is a hard judge of what kind of football player they’re going to be. I’ve been around a lot of great football players that haven’t tested well, and I’ve been around a lot of great football players that have tested well. I like to think anticipation and just understanding the game helps me get to the ball quicker.”

When he signed with the Eagles as an undrafted rookie, Edwards set out to prove that from Day 1.

He contributed mostly on special teams in his rookie season but started 12 games his second season and ended up making 47 starts over his four seasons there, becoming a key piece in the dominant defense that helped drive the Eagles to the Super Bowl in the 2022 season.

Edwards was around a lot of good veteran players early on and said he learned how to prepare from safety Rodney McLeod, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, center Jason Kelce and tight end Zach Ertz. Edwards realized after his first season what a big piece putting in the work to better understand the game would be.

“There’s only so many things that offenses can do, so just understanding concepts and certain formations has really helped me a lot,” Edwards said. “It’s everything that we do. If you’re not prepared mentally, it’s going to be a tough day on Sunday for sure.”

Borgonzi said preparation has helped Edwards make his rise, along with a lot of starting reps over the last decade in college and the NFL and just natural smarts. Those factors help contribute to the difference between timed speed and playing speed, he said.

“His instincts and how fast he can key and diagnose things and get to the ball,” Borgonzi said. “Because there are a lot of fast guys that don’t have the production he has. I think the reason he has that production is just how well he can process things.”

Edwards’ path has inspired other Bears players, namely second-year linebacker Jack Sanborn, who has followed a strikingly similar journey to Edwards’.

They shared a high school coach in Luke Mertens, who coached Edwards at Lakes in Lake Villa, and Sanborn at Lake Zurich. They played together for a season at Wisconsin. And after a successful Badgers career, Sanborn also went undrafted before signing with the Bears.

“He was one of the first people that texted me,” Sanborn said of Edwards. “Letting me know, ‘It doesn’t matter where you go; it just matters what happens when you get there. And it’s only the beginning.’ ”

When Edwards was in Philadelphia, he figured a lot of people from home couldn’t catch every game he played.

With the Bears? They’re watching him every weekend, and he feels the support through texts from old teachers and coaches.

“I always tell myself, as a 10-year-old kid I would be absolutely ecstatic about where I’m at playing for the Bears,” Edwards said.

Edwards has spoken over the last year about meeting Brian Urlacher as a kid and cheering for Devin Hester in the Super Bowl and enjoying his mom’s huge food spreads on Bears-Packers Sundays.

So as the Bears put together their first two-game winning streak since 2021, he of course understands what it would mean to the team and their fans to have some of the success the Eagles have had over the last several years.

His efforts to pass on their culture have centered mostly on preparation.

“I’m not a huge rah-rah guy, not going to get up and start screaming,” Edwards said. “I’ll leave that for someone else. I kind of just like to lead by example. I have the same routine every day. So it’s just talking to the younger guys about what they’re doing for their bodies, what they’re doing for film study, things like that. I’m just going about my business the way I was molded to.”

Bears teammates have noted that approach.

“He makes no excuses, just keeps his head down,” Brisker said. “The way he comes in every day, he makes sure he’s studying, makes sure he’s on his details in case the next man might overstep him.”

Edmunds also came from a successful Buffalo Bills team, and Borgonzi thinks the confidence of Edmunds and Edwards and their expectation to win every game has spilled over to teammates.

Edwards said he hasn’t needed that much of a mindset adjustment going from the Eagles to the Bears, and that’s a compliment to his current group as the Bears try to show their turnaround is legitimate. The Eagles were an older unit with more players who had experienced success at the highest level.

“But honestly, coming here, there was that same type of hunger, same type of professionalism, same type of guys just wanting to get more,” Edwards said. “Anytime you have that in any locker room, you’re going to be successful, and that’s definitely the type of group we have here.”

For Edwards, that hunger and that drive have been a big part of his NFL rise.

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