By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Seeing the names of rookie Bears this time of year is usually not a good thing.
Anybody around this team for the better part of two decades is more familiar with a first-year player being either plain weird, plain bad, quickly hurt or some combination of the three. It has always been something, and almost never something positive.
You know the recent hits, because they’re pretty much still on the team: Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Matt Forte and Devin Hester, to list material successes going back five years or more. Brian Urlacher, too, of course, and the brief revelations that were Anthony Thomas and Tommie Harris. It’s not all ugly, just mostly so.
My first season covering the Bears on a regular basis was the summer of Rashaan Salaam, he of the misguided contract holdout and inaudible live interviews. In years to follow, we saw too many kids arrive that were obvious franchise setbacks. Curtis Enis, Cade McNown, David Terrell and Cedric Benson started out as headaches and never brought return on investment, while the likes of Marc Colombo, Chris Williams, Dusty Dvoracek, and Gabe Carimi were only in headlines for being badly injured.
Then there’s the other group of those who just simply couldn’t play. Sorry to do this, but we remember picks – high picks — like John Allred (2nd round), Russell Davis (2nd), Michael Haynes (1st), Mark Bradley (2nd), Dan Bazuin (2nd), Michael Okwo (3rd), Jarron Gilbert (3rd) and Juaquin Iglesias (3rd) only for what they didn’t do, not what they did.
Wait. Gilbert jumped out of a pool in a pre-draft YouTube video. I take that back.
Point is, it is refreshing to see a new coaching staff willing to put rookies in prominent positions that have opened due to attrition or incompetence. Jon Bostic has the middle linebacker spot, for now outrunning his technical mistakes to make plays. The right side of the offensive line is manned by Kyle Long at guard and Jordan Mills at tackle.
A pessimist would argue that it may not be a good sign that unproven professionals are being asked to handle such significant responsibility for a team with reasonably high expectations. The pessimist would point to a lack of worthy veteran depth that necessitates such moves, and say that it’s easy to laud this as some kind of progress before actually seeing it against the Bengals and beyond. He would reference the similar excitement over any number of the names just three paragraphs above.
And the pessimist might be correct.
But the Bears trusting rookies to this degree is an indication of two things at a minimum. First, there is some measurable quality to this year’s class. Their latest first-rounder is a sure-fire starter and probably more, with some around the league even prematurely whispering about his top-level attributes. Mills is an upgrade over J’Marcus Webb, which is to say the 5th-rounder is already not awful. We’ll take that at this point. And Bostic is indeed the athlete they scouted, even if unrefined.
Second, management and coaches are unfazed by ancient stigma and seem appropriately aware that it is more a young man’s sport than ever. Speed, explosiveness and elasticity are at a premium, and there’s no reason to bury it on the depth chart. Old tropes about serving apprenticeships and the use of frustrating “redshirt” seasons are being eroded by the economic realities forced by the salary cap and the opportunities created in an instant by the game’s still-brutal collisions.
What’s more, advanced sharing of information continues to blur the lines between college and the pros. The NFL is not the arcane mystery it used to be to a rookie coming in wide-eyed out of the cornfield. Chances are that drafted players have already been coached by someone with experience in the league, played in a pro-style system, or at least exposed to familiar terminology. Once-heavy playbooks are now on phones or tablets, and coaches cross-pollinate things more than ever at both formal conventions and casual dinners.
Rookies who can play, can play.
There are still perfectly fair questions about whether the Bears getting their respective shots are wishful over-promotions merely waiting to be exposed or fully-deserving starters set to lock in their roles for years. It’s likely not one or the other.
It’s just a nice change to see it here, and it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.