Chicago Sun-Times

6 days to Camp: Some off the radar players to keep an eye on

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We've spent plenty of time here the last three-plus weeks discussing the big stories that lie ahead in training camp and how things will shake out. Let's mix it up this morning and go a different direction. Here is a list of eight players not expected to be in the starting lineup but worth watching during training camp and preseason. Some of them will need to perform well and against odds to land a spot on the 53-man roster. We chose only players who have never started a game in the NFL. A look:

Safety Al Afalava. The Bears went into the draft knowing they needed a free safety but with their draft position, they didn't identify any that would fill their need in what was considered a weak class. They wound up grabbing Afalava in the sixth round, and he's a strong safety although the Bears have said he can play both positions. He's a serious hitter and should provide some exciting moments late in some preseason games that are otherwise not exciting. It could be an uphill battle to make the roster and just being a thumper won't get it done for him. He needs to show instincts first. Missing the bulk of the offseason program because of the rules for schools like Oregon State that are on the quarter system didn't help him.

Cornerback Zack Bowman. He's got to be a candidate for the most improved player from last summer to now. Remember, Bowman didn't make the 53-man roster last September and started on the practice squad before getting a promotion. He did well for himself in shorts and a helmet this spring and needs to build off that momentum. The biggest challenge for the fifth-round draft pick from 2008 will be staying healthy. He's got to stay on the field.

Defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert. The real hit-or-miss nature of the Bears' drafts over the last five seasons makes you wonder about the current class of rookies. First-round pick Jay Cutler should look great. Ditto third-round pick Jay Cutler. The rest of the bunch is unknown and you might as well start with Gilbert, who was drafted to come in and help out a problem area for the defense on the line last season. They don't need him to be on the all-rookie team, and he doesn't have to start, but some meaningful contributions would help bolster the front seven.

Quarterback Caleb Hanie. All eyes will be on Cutler but Hanie's basically blank resume is going to make it imperative that he perform well in preseason. The Bears aren't going to panic if it looks sketchy behind Cutler, who has never missed an NFL start, but seeing some solid outings out of Hanie will make them feel pretty good about a potential No. 2 for a few seasons. You can be young and ineffective and hold down a job as a No. 3 a team is looking to develop. The backup needs to be able to come in and get a team through a game.

Wide receiver Johnny Knox. His blazing speed was something to see at times during OTA's. But as one keen observer noted, it's one thing to run fast in the offseason and it's another thing to run fast wearing shoulder pads and a helmet. He's making the jump from a small program at Abilene Christian, but his skill set would look good in the slot by, say, Sept. 13.

Defensive end Henry Melton. If Mark Anderson can't rush the passer on passing downs, someone needs to be a situational rusher. Melton was a project and that's what you've got to consider Anderson at this point for new line coach Rod Marinelli. We're not writing off Anderson, we're only pointing out if he can't do it would be convenient if Melton is a pleasant surprise.

Wide receiver Brandon Rideau. Watching Rideau get occasional time with the first team during the spring was a good sign. Watching him get time with the first team in camp will be a better sign. He deserves a legitimate chance to make the roster even though he lacks draft pedigree. The keen observer who is waiting for Knox to run fast in pads pointed out that Rideau could pick up some of the sideline routes that Justin Gage ran pretty well for the Bears at one time. Rideau has size and he's something different on this roster. The Bears need to find out if he has talent.

Running back Garrett Wolfe. It looks like veteran Adrian Peterson will be pushed for a roster spot but after seven seasons he isn't going to go without a fight. Peterson has been a security blanket for coaches. They know he can handle any situation at any time, and you can't put a value on what that means. Wolfe was better on special teams last season but has yet to find a niche on offense. He's going to need to step forward and a real case can be made that his opportunity has not come yet.

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If Bowman didn't start a game, I thought he at least played in one. And, if memory serves me correctly, he was "picked on" by the QB and "picked off" the QB. I understand he also played through an injury in that game that turned out to be a torn biceps muscle. For a DB OR a WR, this training camp should be an opportunity of a lifetime. Its wide open! GO BEARS!!

Wide receiver Johnny Knoxville will remind Bears fans of Tommy Waddle with his willingness to make tough catches in traffic in the middle of the defense. And I hear he's petitioning the leauge to play with a throw back leather helmet and no facemask.

Of all the players Biggs listed above, so far, it seems like cornerback Zachery Bowman has made the biggest strides. But, like Biggs also said, its only been in shorts. The biggest question mark with Bowman is durability. If he can stay healthy, he might just pan out for the Bears. Bowman also has nice size at 6-1, we'll have to stay tuned in on Bowman.

A player that needs to contribute early is rookie defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert. I realize the Bears have said Tommie Harris is fine, but having another player that can man the the under tackle position effectively would go a long way's in helping Chicago's pass rush and overall defense. What we do know about Gilbert is that the guy can penetrate from his defensive tackle position. Last season in college he had an amazing 22 tackles for loss [which lead the nation] to go along with 9.5 sacks, hopefully he can carry this ability over to the NFL. Gilbert has nice size at 6-5 288lbs, but could add a little bulk, I'd like to see him somewhere between the 300-310lb range. If Gilbert can add bulk and keep his athleticism, he could be something special. A lot of scouts think Gilbert's quickness off the snap and long arms could create a mismatch with shorter armed NFL guards. The last athletic defensive freak [Urlacher] Chicago drafted out of the WAC panned out pretty good for the Bears, hopefully Gilbert will also.

Another under the radar player Biggs did not mention that could surprise as a rookie is 7th round wide receiver Derek Kinder of Pitt. Before he tore his ACL he was a first team All-Big East player and was chosen as a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff award. Most players that tare their ACL's usually take a full season to fully reccover. With Kinder's size 6-1 210lbs, and hands, he could be the prototypical split end the Bears need at receiver, and again, it's been a full season since Kinder tore his ACL, he could surprise and be a pretty good split end for the Bears at receiver, can't wait to find out GO BEARS!!

Biggsy, I'm sure you probably thought of it but I would have grouped the rookie WRs together. Sure Knox is the one we could be awestruck by but the other WRs are just as important to this team.

Awesome job during this off-season & I personally can't wait for MORE MORE MORE!

Nice point about Derek Kinder, I couldn`t believe he dropped to the Bears in the 7th round. I hope this preseason all we do is throw the ball, I know we will be able to run it, but I want to really get a feel for this group of receivrs, so throw to all of them as much as possible, and find out IF we have the players we need to make a run at the "Big Dance", or if we need to keep looking.

Biggs my focus will be in the trenches, none of the above matter without the bigs up front on both sides. Pace, Omyaile, Williams and Garza on offense and Brown, Wale, Anderson, Harris and the intended misuse in my opinion of Gilbert. With Jared Allen as a prototype for size and speed at the DE spot I like Gilberts size on the outside not wasted inside were them long legs are exposed, yes I've heard he plays low that's also good on the outside. On offense Garza still scares me and I don't care what that bean counter says he is the weak link on a o-line that needs a size and attitude change. He is even caled a finese guard not athletic but finese which is code for weak. Loyalty and his friendship with Kruetz will hurt the running game in short yardage again. Looking forward to camp GO BEARS!!!!!

By Brad Biggson July 25, 2009 7:33 AM

"The real hit-or-miss nature of the Bears' drafts over the last five seasons makes you wonder about the current class of rookies. First-round pick Jay Cutler should look great. Ditto third-round pick Jay Cutler."

Wait are you saying we have two Jay Cutlers? Well why don't we trade one of them for a pair of first round picks?

By Anonymous on July 25, 2009 9:27 AM
"Wide receiver Johnny Knoxville will remind Bears fans of Tommy Waddle with his willingness to make tough catches in traffic in the middle of the defense."

Yes I will never forget that great Waddle speed. A true burner if ever there was one. Waddle is the single greatest reciever in NFL history, no wait the Greatest player in NFL history.

By Kevin Armstead on July 25, 2009 9:48 AM
"Another under the radar player Biggs did not mention that could surprise as a rookie is 7th round wide receiver Derek Kinder of Pitt."

How many recievers do you want on this team Kevin? I don't know if you heard but we already have the next Tom Waddle, thats game, set and match my friend. Intresting note about Urlacher and Gilbert, as the draft approached for Urlacher he became more popular and teams where all over him, as the draft approached for Gilbert he went from being a possible first round pick to a third rounder as teams moved away from him. Why do you think so many teams moved away from Gilbert?

Brad I do not know how you can consider any of these guys off the Radar on your blogg. I mean most of these guys are already being mentioned as the greatest players of all time on your blog. Heck I heard Hanie was out at the reflecting pool walking on the water this morning. Wolfe is suppose to be the next Dunn because both are short, so that means they are the same player.

How about Hillenmeyer vs Pisa the winner is on the team the loser a long shot? McKie is he still the Fullback or is the kid from Cal going to make some noise.

How many rookie starters? Maybe one.

Iglesias the most likely in my opinion, maybe over Bennett or maybe Bennett moves to the slot and Kinder makes the team, with either Knox or Davis cut.

Caleb will shine.
Alfalva will make the team, and become a good special teamer.
Knox will suplant Davis.
Melton and Gilbert make the team.
Bowman makes the team is good special teams guy and backup corner.

Rideau cut.
McKie cut.
Davis cut.
Hillenmeyer cut

The Bears still need a vet widereceiver to make it to the big dance and win it.

How about bringing back the Honey Bears?? The last time the Bears won it all was with the Honey Bears on the sidelines.

I'm looking forward to Turenne and Deleston making some noise in camp.

way to blow another attempt at being funny schrute/creighton. for chrissakes you can't even spell shrute right, much less any other word that has more than 2 syllables. perhaps when you are at one of your fake pool parties you can fill your pockets with rocks and take a one-way trip to the deep end of the pool. maybe you can win the 'ooh, you're blue' game? good luck!

i'm pulling for afalava and rideau to make the squad and #81 get shown the door.

Random Thoughts on cloning - I think the Bears off Season, after Cutler, specifically targetted adding youth, depth and competition AND I think they accomplished this goal. Of course, it may take a year or two before we appreciate the fact that they're laying the foundation for the future without selling out 2009.

Now a lot of people will critize their lack of 'impact' players - but I think you can see the beginnings of a depth of talent at all positions

CB: Tillman, Bowman
CB: Vasher, Graham

WR: Hester, Knox
WR: Bennett, Rideau, Kinder
WR: Davis, Iglesias

SS: Payne, Afalava
FS: Stelz, Bullocks (this and more o-line d-line work will be targetted again next year)

DE: Anderson, Melton
DT: Harris, Gilbert
DT: Dvorcek, Harrison

Now many of these players won't immediately strike fear in the hearts of oppossing offenses but they DO represent, I beleive,
a stronger sqaud than 2008.

And the two guys, more than anyone else who should feel this draft are Tommie Harris and Mark Anderson. They gave Marinelli Gilert and Melton for a reason. And thats either to push Harris and Anderson or to spell them, both are good. Tommie Harris may not want to talk to Warren Sapp in the off season, I wonder if Gilbert wants to?

Graham backs up

"Under the radar and barely making the team" and "under the radar and surprising everybody to become a major contributor" are probably two different categories. I don't see the other guys making major contributions, but Brandon Rideau, precisely because he has a unique set of characteristics, seems to me like a guy that can make a major contribution. If he gets a legitimate chance.

Momo, not to take away from rideau he has managed to make the team a few years but so far all he showed is he's tall and can beat third team cuts in pre-season. Bowman is my pick to make an impact giving the injury history at corner. When he's healthy he shows good instincts and matches up with taller recievers.

Rideau deserves a roster spot. He may also be the best option to start opposite of Hester. Brandon is big and has good hands. Perfect for the dirty yards needed. The Rashied Davis experiment needs to end. Knox can do everything he can, and better. I am also ready to boot Mark Anderson out the door. The one move wonder just cant figure out that speed can be negated. Henry Melton is a former RB that has good upside. Hes a tank that can hold the point, something that Flash Anderon cannot do. Afalava is another player I cannot wait to see put on the pads. He has that mean steak you love to see at the safety spot. Gonna be some major roster changes this year. And if Vasher cannot get it going by the pre season, do not start him. He was brutal last year and he does not like to come and support the run. Not a good mix at CB..

uh yes we do have 2 Cutlers - actually we have 3 - and I would want 4 if possible as those 2 Cutlers in the draft are no misses, unlike the names that would be there instead, (if you doubt me, just look at our drats) as someone said we have no 2005 draft picks left on the team! what could possibly make you believe the 2 non Cutlers would still be here a few years from now?
But I did like reading Brad said hit or miss - totally true, which is exactly what his point was on 2 Cutlers, Cutler is not a hit or miss.
I would like to see Gilbert early and often - led the nation??! wow, thats pretty big there,
I can't stand Davis drops last year but I would give him a few games at the slot - 1 drop and he's gone though - thats right 1.

and 9 sack? hmm, need to watch him in ST games!

Is it just me or does something funny happen to QBs who wear burnt orange and navy blue? Rex Grossman was never injured before he got injured. Kyle Orton started a bunch of games before he got injured. Jim Miller, Erik Kramer, the list goes on and on. It is imperative that Hanie doesn't just look good, but can do the job if called upon.

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This page contains a single entry by Brad Biggs published on July 25, 2009 7:33 AM.

7 days to Camp: Payne, Steltz leaders, but nothing set at safety was the previous entry in this blog.

5 days to Camp: The names change, special teams remains same is the next entry in this blog.

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