Bears rookie Jack Sanborn looks like a keeper, but ...

The undrafted free agent from Wisconsin and Lake Zurich has been impressive in five starts since Roquan Smith was traded. But coach Matt Eberflus is holding Sanborn to the same high standard he held Smith to. “His ball production probably needs to improve.”

SHARE Bears rookie Jack Sanborn looks like a keeper, but ...
Bears rookie linebacker Jack Sanborn sacks Lions quarterback Jared Goff in the Bears’ 31-30 loss Sunday at Soldier Field.

Bears rookie linebacker Jack Sanborn had two sacks of Lions quarterback Jared Goff last week — in his second NFL start.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bears coach Matt Eberflus should be gushing about linebacker Jack Sanborn as one of the few success stories on a defense that has been a disappointment in Eberflus’ first season, even considering all the circumstances.

An undrafted free agent from Wisconsin via Lake Zurich, Sanborn, 22, is the best example yet of the next-man-up philosophy that coaches like Eberflus cherish — an unheralded player overlooked by every NFL team in the draft who replaces a two-time All-Pro and puts up similar numbers.

Sanborn is not Roquan Smith. But with 54 tackles in five starts, his 10.8 average is better than Smith’s average in his last five games with the Bears. And Smith was leading the NFL in tackles when he was traded to the Ravens.

Still, to Eberflus’ credit, he’s holding Sanborn to the same standard to which he held Smith: It’s not enough. Eberflus made it clear that “ball production” was the reason Smith wasn’t worth the $20 million he was seeking from the Bears in a long-term contract. And Sanborn doesn’t get any dispensations because he’s a rookie or because he wasn’t drafted. He has to be better.

Eberflus doesn’t want Sanborn to be just a tackle machine, but a playmaker.

“Sanborn’s been good,” he said. “He’s been consistent. When I talk about linebackers, it’s about hits on the ball. Can you affect the ball? Are you tackling? Are you punching the ball? Are you taking the ball away?

“He’s had a lot of tackles. He’s improved his tackling. Last week [against the Packers], I thought his tackling was better. His ball production probably needs to improve.”

So although Sanborn has been impressive in his first five games, the audition is far from over. He sure looks like a keeper — a player the Bears can plug into their defense for 2023. But he has to show more to earn that status.

That’s why football was part of Sanborn’s bye week.

“Just little stuff with run fits, tackling, tackling lower,” he said. “I think that’s what the game’s about, is improving. Any way you can improve a little bit, especially in the bye week, you’ve got to do that to go into the next week.”

Sanborn has two sacks but no takeaways on defense this season. He had a fumble recovery on a punt return against the Falcons on Nov. 20. His interception against the Lions the previous week was nullified by a penalty.

But as a football-gene player with a nose for being in the play, Sanborn should have takeaway potential in a better defense. He said he has missed opportunities in the past and is cognizant of taking better advantage of his opportunities to create takeaways.

“I think of them as just punching the ball — forcing fumbles,” Sanborn said. “That’s something that we preach it and we do it so much in practice. It does translate to the game. But at the same time, I think there are a couple of times where an extra punch here and there maybe could jar the ball loose. That’s enough to change the game.”

Sanborn has the intangibles to make it, things that are overlooked in the draft process.

“To be able to handle the huddle and make calls and adjustments — that’s pretty cool for us to watch that,” Eberflus said.

Defensive coordinator Alan Williams sees similar intangibles.

“You can’t measure heart. You can’t measure instincts,” Williams said. “The only things we measure — the arm length, the speed — that still doesn’t say ‘good football player.’ He transcends that. He may not have the measurable. But he’s a good football player. And that’s what you want: good football players.”

So heading into the final four weeks, Sanborn has one goal.

“I just want to continue to get better, continue to do my job and do it at a really high level,” he said. “[And] helping this team win games. That’s what I’m here for, and that’s what I want to do.”

The Latest
The man was in the 1400 block of South Harding Avenue when he was killed around 1 a.m. Sunday, police said.
The women were on their way Saturday night to a police station to make a report when they hit an SUV, according to police.
A 28-year-old man was pronounced dead at Mount Sinai Hospital.
The girl was shot in the 200 block of South Campbell Avenue, police said.
Festival organizers made the announcement over social media, advising attendees to wait until further notice before heading to Grant Park.