Matt Eberflus embraces Bears’ youth movement

The Bears have 15 rookies on the 53-man roster, but their first-year head coach sees that as opportunity rather than a challenge. “You have to play ’em,” he said, “because the experience they get in that first season, it’s invaluable.”

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Bears rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon is expected to start against the 49ers in the regular-season opener.

Bears rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon is expected to start against the 49ers in the regular-season opener.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

In his second full offseason as the Bears’ general manager in 2003, Jerry Angelo put his biggest imprint on the franchise when 12 rookies and 14 first-year players were on the 53-man roster for the season opener. 

It included two first-round picks — quarterback Rex Grossman and defensive end Michael Haynes. But also two later picks who would end up starting by Week 5 — cornerback Charles Tillman (second round) and linebacker Lance Briggs (third round). Plus an intriguing fourth-round pick in defensive tackle Ian Scott and two promising fifth-round receivers in Justin Gage and Bobby Wade. 

All in all, 11 of the team’s 12 draft picks made the Week 1 roster, plus one undrafted free agent, safety Cameron Worrell. Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, cut by the Packers, was put on the practice squad.

Predictably, the Bears struggled in Dick Jauron’s fifth season. They started 0-3, 1-4 and 3-7 before rallying to finish 7-9. Jauron was fired after the season and replaced by Lovie Smith. 

As it turned out, quality trumped quantity in that massive rookie class, but overall it made a big impact: Five players started in Super XLI three years later — Grossman, Tillman, Briggs, Scott and Hillenmeyer. Three others played in the game — Worrell, safety Todd Johnson and tight end Gabe Reid, a December pickup. 

That’s the last time the Bears were as rookie-heavy as they are today. After cutting guard Zachary Thomas but adding three players off waivers — cornerback Josh Blackwell (Eagles), defensive end Kingsley Jonathan (Bills) and linebacker Sterling Weatherford (Colts) — the Bears have 15 rookies on their 53-man roster, three times as many as they had in Week 1 last season. 

The list includes nine of the Bears’ 11 draft picks — headed by three likely Week 1 starters: cornerback Kyler Gordon (second round), safety Jaquan Brisker (second round) and left tackle Braxton Jones (fifth round). Plus wide receiver/kick returner Velus Jones (third round) and punter Trent Gill (seventh round). 

But it also includes defensive end Dominique Robinson (fifth round), running back Trestan Ebner (sixth round), guard Ja’Tyre Carter (seventh round) and safety Elijah Hicks (seventh round). And three of their own undrafted free agents: linebacker Jack Sanborn, cornerback Jaylon Jones and fullback Jake Tonges. 

There’s still some dust to settle. But general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus have made it clear that inexperience is not a detriment to them. In fact, it might be a benefit.

Playing rookies often has been tricky. Sometimes there’s just too much at stake to watch a player take one step back in September in order to take two steps forward in December — or the following year. But Eberflus embraces that idea.

“You can understand why a coach [is skittish about playing rookies],” Eberflus said. “He’s a little bit gun-shy, wants to play with the more experienced guy because [that player] knows what he’s doing. 

“But to me, if you have the right guys in there and they’re young, you have to play ’em because the experience they get in that first season, it’s invaluable. They’re gonna learn so much ball by playing rather than sitting on the sideline. And if they’re good enough athletically, you’ve just got to put them out there, and they’ll figure it out eventually.” 

That’s generally much easier said than done. But this is what change at Halas Hall is all about — Poles’ ability to find young players and Eberflus’ ability to develop them. It’s that way with every new regime, of course. But Eberflus embraces the challenge of developing rookies with such enthusiasm, it can breathe hope into a hard-bitten skeptic. In August, anyway.

“You’ve just got to coach ’em up and coach them through the ups and downs of it and keep their confidence up,” Eberflus said. “But I believe in that because you build a faster, stronger football team when you do that.” 

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