Bears Sunday Playbook: Undrafted players making an impact

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When it comes to Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr., Bears coach John Fox is effusive in his praise. He can’t say enough good things about a player who went from undrafted to the Pro Bowl as Harris did with him in Denver.

“He was very competitive and willing to learn,” Fox said. “He is a tremendous competitor. It showed first on the kicking game like most players on the entry level. He kept flashing and kept doing good things so he got more opportunities on defense. He’s really flourished ever since.”

And Harris has become an example that Fox’s coaching staff points out to their current crop of undrafted players at Halas Hall.

Fox has history of playing and rewarding undrafted players. Draft standing and contract status can be trumped if another player’s determination and work ethic.

Harris and Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, whose Fox’s Broncos signed as free agent in 2013 after he went undrafted and played for the Jaguars in 2012, are two recent examples.

Marshall is the leading tackler of the Broncos’ top-rated defense, and Harris signed a five-year, $42 million deal last December.

“When I first got here, [assistant secondary coach] Sam [Garnes] told me about Chris Harris and his situation and how he came in and was on the bottom of the depth chart and he just worked his way up,” nickel back Bryce Callahan said. “That kind of inspired me that people could do that.”

Callahan, linebacker Jonathan Anderson and safety Harold Jones-Quartey are three undrafted rookies who have started this season for the Bears’ defense.

The Bears also signed defensive linemen Mitch Unrein (undrafted in 2010) and Bruce Gaston (2014) and added them to their rotation. Unrein played for Fox in Denver. When Unrein was signed, Fox said he has the “football character we’re looking for.”

The same appears true for Callahan and Anderson. They have earned their playing time after stints on the practice squad and impressing Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on the fields at Halas Hall.

“It was just playing my hardest, making plays and acting like it was the game,” Callahan said. “I was giving 100 percent effort.”

It’s that type of mindset that Anderson believes every successful undrafted player has to make it in the NFL.

“I absolutely do,” Anderson said. “In a sense, it makes us more hungry because we feel like we have something to prove because we weren’t picked up at all.”

Being an undrafted player has its emotional twists and turns. Callahan, for instance, made the initial 53-man roster but was later waived and re-signed to the practice squad after Week 2. He was promoted to the active roster on Oct. 19 and made the No. 1 nickel back after the bye week.

“It’s a roller coaster ride,” said Callahan, who didn’t play nickel back in college at Rice. “I won’t lie. You just have to keep your head straight and keep working.”

Considering Callahan and Anderson success stories is premature, but their rises still are noteworthy. Callahan has four pass breakups in the last two weeks. Anderson, who played at Texas Christian, made 2013 second-round pick Jon Bostic expendable and recorded 13 tackles in a win against the Chargers.

“Every day has been work,” Anderson said. “Every day I feel like I have to prove myself. I don’t take any days for granted.”

WATCH LIST

BEARS

RB Jeremy Langford

Matt Forte may not play, which means the rookie will be leaned on for the third consecutive week. He totaled 324 yards in back-to-back wins.

TE Zach Miller

Will his breakout run continue? The Bears need every game-changer they can get on offense and he scored three times in the last two games.

CB Tracy Porter

Will his shutdown efforts continue? Quarterback Brock Osweiler would have a miserable day if Porter successfully limits one of his top receivers.

BRONCOS

WR Demaryius Thomas

He’s as elite as they come in his position. Thomas has 68 catches for 816 yards, but only one touchdown so far this season.

OLB Von Miller

He’s also as elite as they come in his position. “He’s a guy where, you better know where he is on the field at all times,” coach John Fox said.

TE Vernon Davis

A recent trade addition from the 49ers, Davis hasn’t made much of an impact yet. It’s in the Bears’ best interest to keep it that way.

COACH’S COMMENT

“They’re very similar, both slashers and good zone runners, which is what this running game is all about — to run behind their pads. They can make one cut like they like in this offense. Both guys are tailor-made for this type of running game.”

– Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on Broncos running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson

UNSUNG SPOTLIGHT

Bruce Gaston / No. 76 / Defensive end

With Jeremiah Ratliff and Ego Ferguson out of the picture, the Bears need capable big-bodies to fill out their defensive-line rotation.

Enter Gaston, a St. Rita High graduate.

An illness slowed Gaston’s availability after he signed off the Packers practice squad on Oct. 17. But Gaston has been active the past three weeks, which including getting 32 defensive plays in the Bears’ 37-13 win against the Rams. According to press-box statisticians, Gaston had two solo tackles and two quarterback hits in St. Louis.

Gaston, who is 6-2 and 310 pounds, said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s scheme is different than the Packers. He’s asked to do more after primarily being a nose tackle in Green Bay.

In his limited time, Gaston, who went undrafted out of Purdue in 2014, has impressed Fangio.

“[He] did well with his snaps,” Fangio said. “He’s coming and developing within the system, learning it, being more comfortable with what we’re doing, and his play reflected that the other night.”

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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