Five undrafted rookies beat odds to make Bears’ roster
MARK POTASH ON THE BEARS September 4, 2011 12:12AM
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 22: Kyle Adams #86 of the Chicago Bears breaks the tackle of Brian Witherspoon #29 of the New York Giants during a pre season game at New Meadowlands Stadium on August 22, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\121875036.jpg
These are the top five undrafted rookies to make the Bears’ roster
(including the practice squad) since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger:
1. Jay Hilgenberg, C (1981-92) — Made the team as a long-snapper, ended up making 7 Pro Bowls at center.
2. James “Big Cat” Williams, OT (1991-2002) —Had a sack as a rookie DT, ended up starting nine years at OT; made the Pro Bowl in 2001.
3. Dennis McKinnon, WR (1983-89) — Had a team-high 7 TDs for ‘85 Super Bowl champs; 25 TDs in six seasons — 3 on punt returns.
4. Mike Tomczak, QB (1985-90) — T.F. North product was 21-10 as a starter, including 7-0 in 1986.
5. Tom Waddle, WR (1988-94) — Gritty, gutty competitor had 141 catches, 8 TDs as a starter from 1991-93.
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:27AM
Is Dane Sanzenbacher the next Dennis McKinnon, Tom Waddle or Keith Ortego?
Is Kyle Adams the next Ryan Wetnight or Fred Pagac?
Is Winston Venable the next Brandon McGowan or Cameron Worrell?
In the last 40 years, only 12 undrafted rookies have survived the Bears’ final roster cutdown. But five made it Saturday, giving the Bears nine rookies on their 53-man roster after final cuts were made in for next Sunday’s season opener against the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field.
The fortunate five were: Sanzenbacher, a wide receiver from Ohio State; Adams, a tight end from Purdue, Venable, a linebacker-turned-safety from Boise State; defensive end Mario Addison from Troy; and linebacker Dom DeCicco from Pittsburgh.
The drafted rookies to make the team were offensive tackle Gabe Carimi (the Bears’ first-round pick), defensive tackle Stephen Paea (second round), safety Chris Conte (third round) and quarterback Nathan Enderle (fifth round). Linebacker J.T. Thomas, a sixth-round pick, was placed on the reserve/injured list.
Notable among veterans surviving the cut was defensive end Nick Reed, who played in all 16 games with the Seattle Seahawks in 2009, but was out of the NFL last year. But with 10 defensive linemen on the roster — the Bears had eight last year — Reed or Addison might still be in limbo.
The Bears cut 14 players to get to 53, with no big surprises. Most notable were tight end Desmond Clark, who is second among Bears tight ends all-time with 242 receptions and 18 touchdowns in eight seasons, but played in five games in 2011; defensive tackle Marcus Harrison, a fourth-round pick in 2008 who started nine games in 2009, but was on the bubble after arriving in camp overweight; and running back Chester Taylor, who averaged 2.4 yards per carry in 2010 after signing a four-year, $12.5 million contract.
Running back Harvey Unga, who missed most of training camp for personal reasons, was placed on the reserve/left team list.
Most of the other players cut could make the eight-player practice squad: wide receiver Kris Adams, guard Ricky Henry, tackle Levi Horn, running back Robert Hughes, defensive tackle Jordan Miller, tight end Andre Smith, linebacker Patrick Trahan and safety Anthony Walters.
The dust still hasn’t settled yet. With the Bears in need of linebacker depth — they have only five on the roster — and with veteran discards from other teams on the market, nobody on the fringe of the roster can celebrate too much yet. But whomever survives to see the Falcons next Sunday still faces a daunting reality: After beating tremendous odds to get here, they’ll have to beat even greater odds to stay for very long.
Of all the players who have played as undrafted rookies, even those who came off the practice squad, the biggest success stories are rare. Jay Hilgenberg made the team in 1981 as a long-snapper and became a seven-time Pro Bowl center; James ‘‘Big Cat’’ Williams made the Bears in 1991 as a defensive tackle, but started nine seasons at offensive tackle, making the Pro Bowl in 2001; Dennis McKinnon starred on the ’ 85 Super Bowl team and was productive when healthy, but had his career shortened by injuries.
But sustained success proved elusive for most: Mike Tomczak, Ryan Wetnight, Carmeon Worrell and Brandon McGowan made the team out of training camp. Tom Waddle, Todd Burger, Shane Matthews, Terry Cousin, Fabien Bownes, Anthony Marshall and Ahmad Merritt had moments of glory after coming off the practice squad. Palatine’s Jim Schwantz, who made the Bears’ practice squad as an undrafted rookie in 1992, made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer with the Cowboys.
But there’s only one Jay Hilgenberg. And only one Big Cat.
But Sanzenbacher, Adams, Addison, DeCicco and Venable at least have what every player in their situation treasures most: a chance.
‘‘Man, I’m so happy,’’ said Addison, who was a long shot coming into camp from Troy. ‘‘Words can’t explain it right now. I’m very grateful. I’m very surprised.’’
Addison said he didn’t even know about the practice squad when he came to camp. But he’s not concerned about ending up there.
‘‘I thought about it,’’ Addison said. ‘‘But right now I’m not worried about [what happens next]. I’m just happy that God let me get this far. As long as I go out and play my ass off, I’ll be good.’’