Sanborn has big opportunity during homestretch of Bears' season

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Eight months ago, it might have been hard to envision Jack Sanborn in this position.

He had just gone undrafted out of Wisconsin and now faced an uphill battle to make the rebuilding Bears roster. A few weeks into training camp, Sanborn’s roster spot was all but secure. He had recorded two takeaways in the Bears’ preseason opener and cruised through cut-down day without breaking a sweat.

The Wisconsin product by way of Lake Zurich spent the first eight weeks of his rookie season being a consistent special teams contributor but rarely saw the field on defense.

The Bears NFL trade deadline decision to ship Roquan Smith to Baltimore opened the door for Sanborn to have a late-season audition to be the starting MIKE linebacker, with Nick Morrow sliding over to WILL.

Sanborn was productive during his first five starts in the middle of the Bears’ defense. From Week 9 through Week 13, Sanborn recorded 44 tackles, 21 stops, and two sacks, per Pro Football Focus. Those 44 tackles ranked second in the NFL over that period, just one tackle behind Atlanta Falcons’ linebacker Rashaan Evans.

“Sanborn's been good,” Bears head coach Matt Eberflus said Monday. “He's been consistent with his play. When I talk to 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, I thought his tackling was better. I would say his ball production probably needs to improve.

“As a rookie to be able to handle, you know, the huddle and be able to make calls and adjustments along the way. That's been pretty cool for him, for us to watch that."

Sanborn’s play has been one of the few non-Justin Fields bright spots for the 3-10 Bears this season.

Knocked for his lack of NFL-caliber athleticism in the pre-draft process, Sanborn has shown that his instincts and play recognition make his game speed much faster than the straight-line speed he showed in the pre-draft process.

In a defense that prioritizes the WILL linebacker spot and not the MIKE, Sanborn has a good opportunity to carve out a starting spot on the 2023 Bears' defense over the final four games. At the very least, he can pencil himself into the roster and be ready to compete for the spot in training camp if the Bears bring in a low-cost veteran.

But to do that, Sanborn must ensure he maintains his trajectory. In the NFL, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

The Bears gave each player a few things to study during the bye week that they need to improve on. Sanborn has been working on his run fits and lowering his target level on tackles.

But he knows that to plan himself in the Bears’ plans for 2023 and beyond, he has to start making game-changing plays. Increasing the “T” in Eberflus’ “H.I.T.S” principle needs to be a focus for a Bears’ defense that has struggled to take the ball away in 2022.

“I think one of them is really just kind of punching the ball, forcing fumbles,” Sanborn said Monday of increasing ball production. “That’s something that we preach it and we do it so much in practice. It does translate to the game. I’m talking about me, specifically. It does translate to the game. But at the same time, I think there are a couple times where an extra punch here and there maybe could jar the ball loose. That’s enough to change the game.”

Sanborn earned his NFL opportunity with hard work, availability, and a willingness to do whatever is asked to help the team. That the Bears were entering Year 0 of a full-scale roster gutting also helped present him with a rare chance that might not have been available elsewhere.

For undrafted rookie linebackers, opportunities like this don’t come around more than once. Sanborn doesn’t know if he has done enough to earn a spot on the 2023 roster. Of if he does, he’s not saying it publicly.

That’s how he’s built. Focused on the daily task at hand. The wood must be chopped daily, and the rest will take care of itself.

“I just want to continue to get better, continue to do my job and do it at a really high level,” Sanborn said of his goals for the final month. “A lot of things can go into that. A lot of things can show that, but that’s kinda what I’m focused on. Then, getting a win. Helping this team win games. That’s what I’m here for and that’s what I want to do.”

The Bears will have to replace most of their front seven this offseason. Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles need to find long-term fits at WILL linebacker and the three-technique. Edge rushers that can consistently generate pressure are also at the top of the wish list.

If Sanborn can remain a disciplined tackling machine while upping the ball production over the final four games, he could cement himself as a low-cost starter at MIKE linebacker in 2023. That would allow the Bears to focus on the positions of greater need.

RELATED: Bears rookie report card: Sanborn, Brisker acing Year 1

Jack Sanborn has made the most of a rare opportunity presented to him. The NFL door was only slightly ajar when his name wasn’t called after seven rounds of the draft in April. He pried it open with hard work and a smart decision to join a franchise whose culture blends perfectly with what defines Sanborn as a linebacker.

Smart football, toughness, grit, and the hunger to never stop improving. Traits a rebuilding team can't get enough of as it looks to build a sturdy, winning foundation.

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