Brandon Marshall. Devin Hester. Alshon Jeffery. Earl Bennett. While they're not the '07 Patriots or the '08 Cardinals, this group of wide receivers has a chance to be one of the NFC's best in 2012. That's the preseason hype, anyway, as the Bears traded for Marshall and drafted Jeffery in the second round, and have some kind of plan for getting the most out of Hester on offense while keeping him fresh to cause more havoc on special teams.
There's no reason why this plan shouldn't work out, as long as Jay Cutler stays healthy and Marshall stays out of trouble with the law. But I wanted to draw attention, just for a minute, to second-year man Dane Sanzenbacher. At 5'11 and 180 pounds, the undrafted free agent out of Ohio State made the Bears last year in training camp and pitched in 27 catches for 276 yards and three TDs.
Now, unlike most of my posts, I have no real statistical data to back up my idea that this guy is going to have a solid career someday. There was nothing whatsoever about his rookie stats that would lead me to that conclusion. But his touchdown catches--have you seen them? A ridiculous leaping grab against the Vikings with a defender all over him. A drag route against the Packers where he made an instantaneous adjustment to catch a Cutler pass thrown behind him, and another leaping catch on a blown coverage against the Saints.
The thing that inspired me to write this post, however, was a highlight where Sanzenbacher doesn't gain a yard or catch a pass. I recently happened to end up on Earl Bennett's NFL.com page, and the first video the page recommended was a 49-yard catch-and-run by Bennett that Tom Silverstein recently referenced as a horrendous play by Tramon Williams. So I watched it, out of morbid curiosity. There's Bennett catching a pass--there's Williams whiffing on the tackle--there's Bennett weaving through the Packer secondary--oh, and there's Jarius Wynn forty yards downfield, about to make the tackle when WHAM! Sanzenbacher comes out of nowhere and hits him so hard (legally) that Wynn goes flying about four yards.
Let's recap that. Here's this 5'11, 180-lb wideout, with his team down 14-3 early in the 3rd quarter, playing with backups at running back and quarterback and with no real chance against a 13-1 team, in the second-to-last week of an 8-8 season... here's this undrafted free agent sprinting nearly 50 yards to make a block for his teammate on a guy that outweighs him by 105 pounds. And not just any block. Blindside or no, Wynn starts at around the 7-yard line and ends up on the ground, at or around the 3.
Again, this is just a gut feeling, but when I was researching the "Seven Horrendous Mistakes" piece I came across a story about Wes Welker, another undrafted free agent of similar size and build. Apparently, Welker wasn't getting any reps in the Chargers' first training camp, because he was a UFA and thus low on the depth chart. So Welker would walk up to the huddle anyway, listen to the play call and then run his designated route himself--20 yards behind the offensive formation. I think that kind of obsessive effort isn't too far removed from the kind of play that Sanzenbacher made on Wynn.
Point is, anybody who has that kind of heart, I want on my team. There's every chance that Sanzenbacher won't stick on the Bears' 53-man roster this season due to the aforementioned overcrowding. But guys like that tend to make it somewhere. If Sanzenbacher bulks up a tad and improves his play from scrimmage, there's no reason why he shouldn't find a niche in the NFL.