It’s been four years since the Bears saw potential in Roy Robertson-Harris, an unheralded, undrafted free agent from UTEP who the team had move from outside linebacker to defensive line.
Consider that move a success for both team and player — Robertson-Harris enters 2019 as an important piece of the Bears’ defensive line rotation, and the 26-year-old has found uncommon stability for a player with his background.
“A lot of undrafted guys don’t make it far,” Robertson-Harris said. “I’ve been blessed to stay on this one team for as many years (as I have). Just trying to contribute as much as I can, do whatever coach needs me to do to contribute to this team, I’m willing to do it. It’s been a blessing to be here as long as I have. Made a home out of Chicago and this team.”
The Bears have 19 undrafted rookies on their 90-man roster right now, down from 20 after wideout Emanuel Hall was released on Tuesday. Most of those players will be fortunate to stick on a practice squad in 2019, with the hope they can work their way on to a roster in 2020. And most of those players won’t wind up playing an important role on a playoff team — the numbers are stacked against undrafted free agents trying to make it in the NFL.
Still, contending teams stay contending by developing late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents into important, contributing players. Consider Robertson-Harris an example of one of those success stories.
Robertson-Harris played the third-most snaps among Bears defensive linemen in 2018 (behind Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman), and played the most special teams snaps of any defensive lineman as well. He finished the season with three sacks and 28 total pressures, and did so while playing every technique on the Bears’ defensive line.
“I’ve always though that the more you can do, the more you’ll get to do,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “And so if we can put him in a position to win on that particular day, a matchup that we like, we’re going to put him in that situation. He’s gotta be versatile. He’s gotta be able to play on the edge, he’s gotta be able to play in the A-gap. The more he can do, the more opportunities are going to present to himself, and the more plays he can make, the more playing time he’ll get.”
Rodgers’ focus was getting the 6-foot-5 Robertson-Harris to play with lower pad level given his stature (he’s the Bears’ tallest defensive lineman). Once he was able to do that, the Bears began to see his natural athleticism take over. Robertson-Harris showed it right from the start of 2018: His sack of Aaron Rodgers in Week 1 actually broke the future Hall of Fame quarterback’s leg, and his pressure of DeShone Kizer later in the game led to Khalil Mack’s statement-making pick six.
“When you have a scouting staff like Ryan (Pace) and his group, and you guys meet together in the beginning of everything and say look, these are the traits that you’re looking for in developing a defensive lineman,” Rodgers explained. “And using the template, I think there’s guys out there. Well if they have those traits, let’s see if we can work him in to being a really good defensive lineman. Some guys don’t have those traits, some guys do. He had those traits.”
The Bears’ defensive line is arguably the strongest, deepest unit on an NFC North-defending roster. It’s difficult to build the kind of depth the Bears have across their defense without finding and developing a player like Robertson-Harris. He’ll be a restricted free agent in 2020 after earning $645,000 as an exclusive rights restricted free agent in 2019.
Robertson-Harris, though, isn’t focusing on his long-term future. He has a more immediate goal in mind, one set by the depth in the Bears’ defensive line room.
“I feel like I’ve improved a lot,” Robertson-Harris said. “I’m obviously not where I want to be. Just continue to grow every day, take it a day at a time, a week at a time, a game at a time. I’m just trying to grow, get my technique down, trying to be like Eddie and Akiem, man.”