- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Evan Rodriguez acknowledges that offseason struggles prepped him well for a fast start once the countdown to real football got under way with the start of Chicago Bears training camp.
"I'm a lot more comfortable now," he said.
That became abundantly apparent Saturday night, when the team strapped up full pads and Rodriguez, a rookie tight end, put together somewhat of a clinic against the team's defense with clutch grabs, more precise routes, and a display of the athleticism the Bears lauded back in April after drafting him with a fourth-round pick.
"I was pretty confident out there," Rodriguez said of his strong outing the night prior. "I've been doing this since I was a baby. But minicamp pretty much set the bar for me. It basically got me in tune. I knew the expectations coming into training camp from minicamp."
In other words, he needed to improve.
Sloppy routes, slips and dropped balls during May minicamp left observers wondering whether the brass made the right call in drafting Rodriguez, who also appeared to be poorly conditioned. Even offensive coordinator Mike Tice pointed out during the rookie's first minicamp that after an encouraging start that Rodriguez "got a little sluggish."
Rodriguez gradually improved as the offseason and organized team activities progressed, but perhaps the inconsistent showings at minicamp served as a wakeup call in the rookie's preparation for training camp.
"Minicamp was my first time being out there with the vets. So I really didn't know what to expect," Rodriguez said. "That really prepared me well for training camp."
Rodriguez pointed to subtleties in explaining some of the improvements in his game. Asked where he improved most from the offseason to training camp, Rodriguez said, "my fundamentals, my footwork I would say; my route running, little things like that."
The Bears, however, need big things out of Rodriguez, who was drafted to assume the role of an "F" tight end in the club's new offense. While Rodriguez likely won't become a starter with Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth expected to receive the majority of the snaps this season, he'll compete for that "F" role with Kyle Adams, who was undrafted in 2011, but appeared in nine games in 2011 as a reserve after a career at Purdue in which he caught 79 passes for 660 yards.
It's no secret the Bears receiving corps in 2011 finished among the league's worst, ranking 28th or worse in receptions, catch percentage, drop percentage and first-down percentage on throws of 10 air yards or fewer, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The Bears added weapons at receiver to address those issues, but the addition of Rodriguez could take away even more pressure because of his prospects for posing matchup problems for defenses in base sets.
For Rodriguez to be on the field to do such a thing, he knows not dwell on just one strong outing.
"It's relaxing (to have a quarterback looking to throw you the ball). Every time you catch a ball, your confidence goes up," Rodriguez said. "Every time you drop the ball, you've got to go back to square one. It's my first year in the NFL, so I'm just doing whatever role they need me to do. (The challenge will be) just staying healthy, learning the whole system; trying to learn more than one role, more than one position out there."