Every year, we go through training camp looking for a player who can transform himself from fourth-string afterthought to roster lock. It’s always an inspiring storyline, so it’s natural to glom onto a player who has a chance to overcome the odds to win a job. Last year the Bears had Jack Sanborn who went from UDFA rookie, to preseason standout, to starting middle linebacker in the second half of the season. This year it looks Terrell Lewis will be that man.
Lewis was a Rams third–round pick coming out of Alabama in the 2020 draft, but never lived up to his Crimson tide pedigree. He bounced in and out of the lineup over two and a half seasons in Los Angeles and the Rams eventually cut him on Dec. 15 2022. By Dec. 20 he was with the Bears, as a member of the practice squad. He got to work repping with the scout team and it didn’t take long for the Bears to notice his remarkable get off at the line of scrimmage. But the Bears were so deep into the season that they didn’t have enough time to evaluate whether Lewis could get off the line consistently, and if he could do the other numerous things required to succeed at defensive end.
With a full offseason to work with coaches, that started to change this summer.
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“Now you’re seeing it all kind of come together,” said defensive line coach Travis Smith.
The Bears have seen the get off, they’ve seen him set the edge in the run game, they’ve seen the pursuit, and they’ve seen it consistently from rep five to rep 45. Most importantly, they’ve seen production. Lewis played extensively in the Bears’ first two preseason games and notched four tackles, three sacks, one tackle for loss and two forced fumbles.
“He's done a really good job of rushing the passer,” said head coach Matt Eberflus. “He's rushed our guys, you know the front liners and the backups, he's rushed those guys pretty good in terms of the one-on-one pass rush.”
“He’s making sure he wins,” said Smith.
Lewis never lost confidence that he could make it back to NFL relevance, even after he was relegated to practice squad work last season. He always knew the type of player he was supposed to be and always focused on the things he was doing well whenever he took the field, whether that was in limited OTA reps or working with the scout team.
“I try not to think small,” Lewis said. “I always think big. I never have the mindset of I’m trying to make the team. I keep the mindset of I know I belong in this league, I know I should be on a team.”
Lewis would be surprised if he didn’t make it onto the 53-man roster when the Bears make cuts next week, but also understands the nature of the NFL where good players can lose jobs due to stiff competition. The addition of Yannick Ngakoue has made everything tighter in the defensive end group, so something surprising may still happen. Other players competing for a spot, like Trevis Gipson, aren’t just going to give up now that Lewis has started to flash, either. Lewis doesn’t get caught up in counting who might be in and who might be out, or tracking which players may be moving up or down based on good practices and bad practices. Instead he uses his teammates’ impressive performances to further motivate himself.
“I think when we’re out there together we feed off each other’s energy,” Lewis said about playing alongside Gipson. “So when he’ll see me get back there or I’ll see him get back there, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, turn me up T-Lew,’ or ‘turn me up Gip.’ I’m big on like– energy rubs off, so when you see a guy make a play, I feel like you get kind of a FOMO (fear of missing out) type of feeling, like I don’t want to be a guy that’s just out here taking up space, I need to make a play too.”
Ultimately, Lewis is focusing on what he can control on a daily basis. That’s his effort, his preparedness and his performance. If he does everything he can, he’s confident things will work out for him in the end.
“At the end of the day, especially during the preseason, you’re not only playing for yourself and the organization you’re with, but you’re also playing for every other team in the league.”