Dane Sanzenbacher not letting go
After best performance of preseason, Bears undrafted rookie looks like a lock
CHICAGO -- Conventional wisdom would seem to indicate that the next time we hear Dane Sanzenbacher's name in any consequential way for the Chicago Bears -- other than him making the 53-man roster on Saturday -- will mean that another receiver has been injured.
But whether he is a weekly inactive ready to step in, or a significant part of the team's offense, Bears fans should be relieved to have Sanzenbacher, who appeared to have unofficially nailed down the sixth receiver spot in a 24-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns in the teams' final preseason game Thursday night.
The undrafted rookie free agent arguably gives the Bears' wide receiving corps more depth than at any other position on the team. It's ironic, of course, because receiver was a position of great concern going into the season, and it's still without a marquee player. But if Sanzenbacher is the most lightly regarded receiver the Bears have, they could do a lot worse.
Sanzenbacher caught four passes for 50 yards, including a 22-yarder on a third-and-13 from the Browns' 28-yard line, keeping alive a drive that resulted in a 22-yard field goal on the first series of the game.
He also returned five punts for 31 yards, muffing one but recovering for a 2-yard gain.
It just seemed like he was in every play in the first half.
"If nothing else, I'm just grateful for the opportunities I had," Sanzenbacher said. "Because as an undrafted free agent, the coaches gave me every chance in the world to make this team, so it's on nobody but me whatever happens."
On a night when "Project Runway" may have won the local market's overnights, the best thing that could be said about Sanzenbacher going into the game was that even the Bears' coaches treated him as a lock for the final roster, even if he never did.
There are very few people who could walk into a situation as a rookie and be on the team. Everybody has to scrap their way on there. You've had to do that since you were coming through the college ranks, slowly starting to build your name and your credentials and keep trying to get better.” -- Dane Sanzenbacher
"I think any rookie, and even broader than that, any player trying to come into the NFL, has to overcome odds," he said. "I mean, it's a tough league to get into. They've told us from Day 1 that it's a privilege to play in this league and nobody's entitled to it, so I knew coming in it was going to be an uphill battle."
Despite his college credentials -- team MVP at Ohio State last season with the second-most touchdown catches (11) in the Big Ten among them -- he still came into the NFL with all the stereotypical labels of a smallish undrafted wide receiver.
But Sanzenbacher said he takes no offense at being called scrappy or overachieving.
"There are very few people who could walk into a situation as a rookie and be on the team," he said. "Everybody has to scrap their way on there. You've had to do that since you were coming through the college ranks, slowly starting to build your name and your credentials and keep trying to get better.
"It's going to be a fight to get in and a fight to stay in for the amount of time you're in the NFL."
At 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Sanzenbacher probably will not be able to occupy a spot on the coverage teams but his fourth-quarter, 65-yard punt return for an apparent touchdown that was called back because of a Bears' penalty, sure didn't hurt his chances.
"He's impressed us just about every day in some form," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Tonight, though, to show that he can take the ball the distance on a punt return was something we haven't seen. He's a good football player. He's consistently been that way throughout camp."
Another Bears receiver praised lately as simply a good football player also had high praise for Sanzenbacher.
"He's a tough player, a guy who learned the system fast, is playing multiple positions, and he's doing a great job at it," Earl Bennett said. "It's about the heart, it doesn't matter how big or small you are. He's one of those guys who doesn't look at it that way. He's just one of those guys who comes out making play after play."
The next 48 hours until the Bears' final cutdown, Sanzenbacher said, will be tough.
"This has been the longest interview process," he joked. "It started in like January, so I guess I'm glad to finally be at this point."
Don't be surprised if he finds himself active on more game days than not.
"If he makes the football team," Smith said, "we'll probably have a role for him."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.