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App State in the NFL: How Clifton Duck Fits in the Chicago Bears’ Defense and Special Teams

Clifton Duck returned this punt for a touchdown against Gardner-Webb. (Photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics)

By Colby Gable

Earlier this month, the Chicago Bears signed a deal with Appalachian State’s defensive back Clifton Duck, a junior who finished his last season with All-Sun Belt honors as he had every year during his career, along with 12 interceptions and almost 160 tackles in three years. Last year he was an integral part of App’s special teams unit which finished number one in the conference, as Duck also took first place in the Sun Belt for Punt Yards Per Return at 12.7, totaling 216 by the end of the season, and adding in a return for a touchdown against Gardner Webb in Week 3.

Duck joins one of the best defenses in the league as an unsigned free agent, in an environment with a duality of takeaways for his development as an NFL player. On one hand, he’s signed with the Bears who despite losing two defensive backs to free agency earlier this season quickly found replacements including former Pro-Bowler Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, and even prior to the draft had carved out a starting lineup on defense complemented with a deep bench, subsequently placing Duck now at fifth on the depth chart. His ability to make an impact within a consistent manner may come about through means apart from getting lots of reps on defense, which at face value might sound less than ideal, but Duck has been vocal about his eagerness to make plays on special teams, and his ability to read open field and move up quickly is what made him dangerous at Appalachian, especially after interceptions or forced turnovers. As a result, he has developed a certain skill set which could translate well to special teams, an area where Chicago can continue to excel in without having to sacrifice regular season and in-game mileage on their new star running back, Tarik Cohen. After Cohen’s breakout season rushing the ball last year, Chicago would be wise to lighten his workload on special teams if they plan on giving him more looks on the offensive side of the ball, and Duck could function as a perfect substitute for Cohen’s replacement.

On the other hand, he will have an opportunity to take time as a rookie to not only observe how a professional team operates but what it takes to be on a top tier defense. While a newly emerged Chicago has certainly proved to be filled with a talented secondary overall, the heart of this defense comes from its defensive line, with a talented and physical group in its lineup: 2018 Brian Piccolo Award winner Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman coming off a 40-tackle season, and perhaps the best defensive player in the league, Khalil Mack. This is all to say, the Bears already exist as a great defensive squad fueled by the ability to dominate other teams at the line of scrimmage and aren’t necessarily reliant like other teams may be on their secondary to impact the passing game because their defensive line is in the backfield pressuring the quarterback so quickly. Essentially, Duck has the opportunity to use this season as a chance to engage with a team where he won’t have the pressure of being a contributory player on the defensive side, not only because of Chicago’s depth chart in the secondary, but their already established capability from other positions on the field to produce in big ways.

For a majority of rookies, it is difficult to come into the league and make a huge difference right away, and Duck being undersized already may gain a huge benefit from being signed as a rookie to a team where he can be useful, but not completely necessary for success on defense, particularly because of the way Chicago actually goes about dominating a game on the that side of the ball. Yet when we consider the career and style of play from someone whose skills are as malleable as Ducks’, it is difficult to see how he would not be able to find ways to get reps despite playing for a team that is already among the top NFL rankings in areas he hopes to contribute towards. In an interview with Zach Hicks of SB Nation, Duck even went on to cite Tyrann Mathieu as one of the league’s primary players he tries to mirror his play off of and implementing such a model (which would certainly include bringing a tenacity to the world of special teams as Mathieu is known for) to serve for Clifton’s role is a fitting start to his career. The nature of the NFL brings about a physicality level vastly different from that of college, and patience in this field along with finding his own fit within Chicago could be foundational to the success Duck sees down the road either within the organization itself or throughout the league as a whole.