The defending NFC North champs have a mix of drafted and undrafted rookies that figure to make an impact this season
Remember when I said last year that conventional wisdom says to build your team with rookies? Well, it turns out I was right as the 2018 Chicago Bears won the franchise's first NFC North title since 2010 with a handful of rookies as contributors. Wide receiver Anthony Miller (423 receiving yards, 7 TDs), offensive lineman James Daniels (10 starts at guard), defensive lineman Bilal Nichols (three sacks, two forced fumbles), linebackers Roquan Smith and Joel Iyiegbuniwe (combined for 131 tackles), and cornerback Kevin Toliver (16 tackles, two pass deflections) were all first-year players. Chicago is hoping for more of the same from the latest crop of rookies.
The Bears used the 2019 NFL Draft to select both positions of need and depth. They also brought in an impressive list of undrafted free agents. As they look to repeat as division champions, they'll need as much fresh talent as they can afford to keep. Here are five rookies that should catch your eye as the Bears begin the 2019 preseason this week.
David Montgomery and Kerrith Whyte Jr., RB
Running back was a position of priority for the Bears heading into this season. Despite the production from Jordan Howard since he was a fifth-round draft pick in 2016, he didn't quite fit in with head coach Matt Nagy's offensive philosophy compared to Tarik Cohen. So the Bears traded Howard to the Eagles, signed Mike Davis in free agency, and then added Montgomery and Whyte via this year's draft.
Montgomery was the 73rd overall pick for the Bears after posting impressive numbers in his final season at Iowa State. And while he's more known for being a pure runner (2,295 yards, 26 TDs) as opposed to a pass-catching back (582 receiving yards, 0 TD catches), his combination of speed, strength, and agility is exactly what Nagy seeks in a running back. Whyte (seventh-round choice) could find himself in a bit of a roster crunch, but if he doesn't make the active roster, he seems like a strong candidate for the practice squad (for the Bears or another team). He totaled 3,700 all-purpose yards (with 15 total touchdowns) for Florida Atlantic as the No. 2 guy behind Devin Singletary who's now with the Buffalo Bills.
Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher, OL
The five men who will make up the Bears starting offensive line are already set in stone, but the three or four guys behind them are not. And that's where this pair of former Notre Dame standouts come in. They're already familiar with Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who coached them in South Bend from 2015-17. Bars (guard) and Mustipher (center) look to be the next group in the recent pipeline of Fighting Irish offensive linemen who have found success in the NFL.
Both men are strong as run and pass blockers and have decent speed compared to most guys of their size. Both also should get a chance to provide depth and support to Chicago's offensive line rotation. Bars is coming back from a knee injury that cut short his final season at Notre Dame and caused him to miss most of the offseason program. As undrafted free agents, both know nothing is guaranteed and each is playing with a chip on their shoulder. I believe that they can play in the NFL and they'll have the next four weeks to prove it.
Stephen Denmark, CB
The Division II Valdosta State product is a former wide receiver (337 receiving yards at VSU) who switched positions in hopes of increasing his chances of making it in the NFL. Denmark made 26 appearances on defense in college, posting 41 tackles for loss, eight pass deflections, and two interceptions. He's a long shot to make this roster considering the talent and depth the Bears already have, but this is a great opportunity for him to show teams across the NFL that he belongs. He is another practice squad possibility depending on how things work out.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of www.chicagobears.com)