The Bears have had a good amount of success mining the undrafted free agent market in Ryan Pace’s tenure as general manager, which is noteworthy after the team announced its 2019 21-member haul on Thursday.
In the past, the Bears unearthed Bryce Callahan, who developed into a key contributor on the league’s best defense in 2018 and signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Denver Broncos earlier this year. Also part of the Bears’ 2015 class of undrafted free agents was wide receiver Cameron Meredith, who led the team in receiving yards in 2016 but had his Bears career cut short by a severe knee injury during 2017’s preseason. Defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris was signed in 2016 and, after a year on the illness/non-football injury list, emerged as a productive rotational piece on the Bears’ defensive line.
Those are three standouts; depth pieces in tight end Ben Braunecker (2016), outside linebacker Isaiah Irving (2017) and cornerback Kevin Toliver II (2018) have stuck on the roster after being undrafted as well.
No undrafted free agent — or late-round draft pick — is ever handed a roster spot. Those have to be earned, starting with rookie minicamp and extended through OTAs, training camp and preseason games/practices. Even then, just because an undrafted free agent makes the initial cut doesn’t mean they’ll be on the Week 1 roster, with Pace and his front office scouring the waiver wire on cut-down day for potentially-better options.
So it’ll be an uphill climb for all 21 of the undrafted free agents who will arrive at Halas Hall for rookie minicamp this weekend. At best, one or two of this bunch will have a chance to stick in Chicago after cut-down weekend. But there are a few players with better opportunities than others to make an impression, and then the Bears’ roster. A few names to keep an eye on:
Tight ends Dax Raymond, Ian Bunting and Ellis Richardson
The Bears only have three tight ends on their roster after subtracting Daniel Brown in free agency and not drafting anyone last weekend, so there’s likely a need for at least another body or two on the practice squad, if not the roster. The pressing need here is insurance in case Adam Shaheen can’t stay healthy for the third consecutive year, which would leave a hole at the “Y” (in-line) spot.
Based on traits and outside evaluations, Raymond has the most impressive profile, ranked by the Athletic’s Dane Brugler as the 14th best draft eligible tight end in this year’s class. The 6-foot-4, 255 pound Utah State alum is old for a rookie (24) but has the size and athleticism to potentially be a swing tight end in Matt Nagy’s offense, able to play both the in-line and move positions.
The 6-foot-6, 247 pound Bunting could get a look at the “Y” spot and ranked 33rd on Brugler’s list. Richardson, a 6-foot-3, 240 pound prospect, played in a triple option offense at Georgia Southern, so his receiving numbers (10 catches, 81 yards in 2018) were low.
Kicker John Baron II
In reality, there’s not much separating Baron from Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and Elliott Fry at the moment, in that none of them have ever kicked in the NFL. (Jones, Blewitt and Fry will be allowed to practice at rookie minicamp this weekend for that reason). Baron hit all five of his field goal attempts from 50 or more yards in 2018, and in his career at San Diego State hit both of his attempts from 50 or more yards when the score was within three points in the fourth quarter.
The Bears also will bring in four other kickers on a tryout basis for this weekend, when we’ll get our first look at how Nagy and Pace’s unorthodox kicking competition will play out. The full roster of kickers who will be at Halas Hall this weekend:
Wide receiver Emanuel Hall
The Mizzou speedster was surprisingly available in the pool of undrafted free agents after he expected to be a Day 2 pick, while other analysts had him as a solid mid-round target. A string of injuries that hobbled him throughout his college career — he only played in four games in 2018 — are likely the culprit, though it remains head-scratching that no team took a late-round flier on a guy with good productivity when healthy (56 receptions, 1,334 yards, 13 TDs in 14 games between 2017-2017) and blazing speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine).
Hall will arrive in Lake Forest this weekend with the most buzz of any undrafted free agent, though he faces an uphill climb to earn a roster spot for two reasons. First, the Bears’ depth chart at receiver is locked into Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Cordarrelle Patterson, and Riley Ridley wasn’t drafted in the fourth round to not make the team. That leaves, at best, one open spot for which Hall, Marvin Hall, Javon Wims and a handful of others will battle.
The second reason for Hall’s uphill climb: How can he prove he’ll stay healthy in October when it’s only May? His best case would be to force his way onto the Bears’ roster with standout practices in May, June, July and August; if that fails, his goal may need to be putting enough good things on tape during preseason games to get snagged by another team with a more clear opening at receiver.
Offensive linemen Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher
The hype about Bars being a fourth-round pick if he were healthy — he tore his ACL and MCL in September — is overblown, but he was a solid member of Notre Dame’s offensive lines over the last few years, initially starting his college career as a tackle before kicking inside to guard.
Mustipher, meanwhile, was a reliable and durable center for the Irish from 2016-2018, though he was ranked as the 17th best player at his position by Brugler. But there’s a common denominator between Bars and Mustipher: Both were recruited and coached by current Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand at Notre Dame, who left his post in South Bend after the 2017 season to join Nagy’s staff. That doesn’t mean either will make the Bears’ roster, but the Hiestand effect makes it easy to see why both wanted to come to Chicago to give themselves a shot at a career in the NFL.
Bars, in particular, could be an interesting talent to stash and develop on the practice squad for a year, especially if he’s not 100 percent recovered by training camp.
Edge rushers Matt Betts, Dylan Carrol and Chuck Harris
The Bears should have a wide-open competition for roster spots behind Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch, which went to Irving and Kylie Fitts a year ago. But neither Irving nor Fitts has place on the 53-man roster locked down, opening up an opportunity for any of these undrafted free agents to stick with the Bears.
Betts comes to Chicago from a college in Montreal, so how he handles the massive step up in competition will be the first thing the Bears will look for. At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, though, Betts at the least has the size profile of the kind of player the Bears have coveted at outside linebacker. The same goes for Carroll, a 6-foot-4, 245 pounder from Division II Grand Valley State.
Harris will come to Halas Hall with a fan of his already in his position group, having the Buffalo connection to Mack. That, of course, means little for his ability to make the roster, but he did have four sacks in five games for Buffalo in 2018.
For everyone else
Like every other NFL team, the Bears will have rabid competition near the bottom of the depth chart during OTAs/minicamps/training camp. Just because there’s not a clear opening for a player right now doesn’t mean someone can’t make a name for himself in the coming months and stick on the Bears’ roster over someone with more name recognition.
But given that only one or two of the 21 players brought into Halas Hall this weekend will make the Bears’ roster, at best, a difficult path awaits.