Bears defensive end Dominique Robinson almost bristled at the question: “Did you feel like a rookie out there?”
“Man, a rookie is just a title,” Robinson said after making his NFL debut in the Bears’ 19-10 victory over the 49ers on Sunday at Soldier Field. “I got drafted here to play football. I showed them I can play football and I made the 53 [roster], so that’s what I’m doing.”
Robinson’s confidence spoke for a Bears rookie class that was noticeable by not only its quantity but its quality against the 49ers. Of the 46 active players, 11 were true rookies, including three starters — cornerback Kyler Gordon, safety Jaquan Brisker and left tackle Braxton Jones.
Tight end Jake Tonges (nine snaps) and running back Trestan Ebner (four) also played on offense. Punter Trenton Gill (six punts, 42.6 gross, 39.0 net with one inside the 20), linebackers Jack Sanborn (15 snaps) and Sterling Weatherford (15) and cornerbacks Jaylon Jones (15) and Josh Blackwell (nine) contributed exclusively on special teams.
It didn’t take long for the rookie class to make an impact. Brisker recovered a fumble on his fifth NFL play. And Robinson sacked 49ers quarterback Trey Lance on his fourth NFL play –beating veteran right tackle Mike McGlinchey with an inside move, then taking Lance down with one hand clutching the back of Lance’s jersey.
“On film, [McGlinchey] oversets,” Robinson said. “He overset and I took it, hit him with a swipe and then got to the QB. I’m thankful for those gloves. I was able to latch on and bring him around until he went down.”
It’s hard to tell which was most impressive — that film work led to Robinson’s recognition of an opportunity; the one-hand takedown; or that Robinson was on the field in the first place.
Robinson was drafted in the fifth round as a supposed project — a quarterback-turned-wide receiver-turned defensive end at Miami (Ohio) who was still learning the nuances of his position, let alone perfecting them at the NFL level. But there he was, alternating with Al-Quadin Muhammad at left end in Week 1 — and making plays. Robinson also shared a sack with linebacker Roquan Smith to give him 1.5 for his NFL debut in 28 snaps.
“It builds some confidence,” Robinson said. “I mean, I was confident coming in, but after that [first sack] — confidence boosted to the roof. So at that point, I’m playing now.”
Confidence has been a theme of this rookie class — none of them give any impression they are just happy to be here or are in any way awed by the opportunity. They’re thinking big, and veterans are thinking big for them, like safety Eddie Jackson teaming with Brisker. “We’re going to be the best [safety] duo they’ve ever seen,” Jackson said. “I’m proud of him.”
And Brisker is on board with that. “Every single day we have that conversation,” the second-round pick from Penn State said. “That’s my guy. The longer we keep working together with this defense and stick together, it’s going to be crazy.”
Jones, the fifth-round tackle from Southern Utah, allowed sacks by Samson Ebukan and Nick Bosa in the first quarter, but improved as the game went on.
“There’s a lot to clean up, but the biggest thing was not batting an eye,” Jones said. “I’m actually pretty proud of myself. It’s not easy to do — to give up a bad rep like that and come back and not bat an eye and keep on going.
“Obviously they weren’t the best reps, but [I] stuck in there and I fought and fought and fought. That was the biggest thing for me –I know I can play, but making that step [up] in my game when you have a bad play or a couple of bad plays was huge.”