Bears coach Matt Eberflus espouses the next-man-up philosophy like every football coach ever. But he couldn’t ignore the obvious. The next man up in this case won’t be as good as Roquan Smith.
“Obviously you have a Pro Bowl player that is leading the NFL in tackles — I’m not sure you do really replicate that,” Eberflus said. “So you shift guys around, and put guys in place and next man up — he plays and it’s gonna be good for that locker room, getting experience and more playing time.”
He sure sounded like he was talking about Jack Sanborn, the undrafted rookie from Wisconsin and Lake Zurich. Veterans Joe Thomas and A.J. Klein also are candidates to fill the snap-count void left by Smith’s departure — with Nick Morrow likely moving into Smith’s weak side linebacker position. But Klein, who has started 81 games in 10 NFL seasons with the Panthers, Saints, Bills and Ravens, just arrived Wednesday.
And Sanborn seems to have leap-frogged Thomas in the linebacker pecking order. In fact, with his 13 snaps on defense against the Cowboys last week (while Thomas played eight snaps) it’s almost like he was being primed for the opportunity that was about to come.
Sanborn was an immediate hit in training camp and was impressive in the preseason on special teams and in a reserve role on defense. The Bears could use a veteran to help stabilize a defense that not only is missing Smith but allowed 42 points to the Cowboys last week. But, in full rebuild mode, it’s probably more prudent to give Sanborn, 22, a chance to play, learn and grow — an opportunity he’s earned in the eyes of the coaching staff.
“[Because of] the way he practices,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said when asked what he likes about Sanborn. “He plays hard. He plays physical. In terms of the H.I.T.S. principle, he does hustle. He is intense. Those are the first two steps. When he got a chance to play in the preseason, he did turn the football [an interception and fumble recovery].
“So I would say, ‘What’s there not to like about Sanborn. He just needs a chance to get on the field and perform.”
The 6-2, 234-pound Sanborn, a first-team all-Big Ten linebacker at Wisconsin last season, is ready to go. Though he went undrafted, he’s had the look and demeanor of a player who deserves to be here.
“It’s definitely an opportunity,” Sanborn said. “I’m sad to see Roquan gone. It’s tough. But you gotta keep going. Everybody’s got to keep moving forward and try to get better.”
Sanborn has acclimated quickly to the NFL and the bigger challenges it presents.
“You’re a professional,” he said. “You’ve got to come in every day and be a professional –that’s what it’s about. It’s different than college. It’s different than high school. There’s more to it –more expectations … I don’t want to say pressure, but you’re doing it not only for yourself but a lot more people –everyone that works here. Doing it for Chicago. So a lot more goes into it. It’s definitely bigger. But at the same time, it’s still football.”