Jack Sanborn has been one of the Bears’ lone bright spots on the defensive side of the ball since taking over for the departed Roquan Smith last month. He has been all over the field for Chicago’s defense and has racked up 54 tackles in his five starts. While there is no denying the impact he has made thus far, it is fair to question whether the undrafted rookie has shown enough to be penciled in as a starter for 2023 and beyond.
While his meteoric rise has been nothing less than incredible, it was not so long ago that he was considered a backup-level talent who would have to excel on special teams to make his mark in the league. His play becomes even more impressive when you consider that he inexplicably fell all the way out of the draft due to a supposed lack of athleticism. Nevertheless, that has not hindered his ability to make plays in the league. He has looked every bit like the player that patrolled the middle of the field at the University of Wisconsin, where he was a standout on the Badgers’ defense in each of his final three years at the school.
From an athletic standpoint, the 22-year-old is eerily similar to another University of Wisconsin alum who also lit up the stat sheets during his rookie year, Chris Borland. Like Borland, Sanborn has a knack for always being around the ball and is not afraid to take on blockers to clog up running lanes. He may lack the elite straight-line speed of the game’s top off-the-ball linebackers, but he more than makes up for it with natural instincts and toughness. Additionally, his play recognition has been superb, which has made him look much faster on the field than his testing numbers suggest.
While the Bears’ depleted defense may have made Sanborn look significantly better than he is, it is more likely that he could be even more impactful if he doesn’t have to pick up the slack for those around him. The sample size has been small, but he has passed every test put in front of him, and he has done so with flying colors on most of them. Improving the team’s porous defensive line will be one of their top priorities in the offseason, which should allow Sanborn to be even more impactful from the linebacker spot, as that would conceivably make it more difficult for opposing linemen to get their hands on him on the second level.
The linebacker wasted no time showing that he was no ordinary undrafted rookie when he recorded an interception and fumble recovery in the Bears’ preseason opener against the Chiefs. However, the coaching staff was blissfully unaware of what they had in the 22-year-old, as he was mainly used on special teams and was firmly behind Smith during the first half of the season. Nevertheless, he has taken full advantage of his opportunity since taking over the starting job, and it is fair to wonder whether he would be in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation had he seen the field earlier in the year.
The final four games will be vital for Sanborn, as he will have to continue proving that he can hold his own in the passing game (an area he has occasionally struggled). He has improved in that regard in recent weeks, and continued improvement down the stretch would show the Bears brass that the middle linebacker spot is one they will not have to worry about improving in the offseason. Additionally, better ball production would go a long way in strengthening Sanborn’s hold on a starting spot, as that is a point of emphasis in coach Eberflus’ defense.
The Bears have a storied history of high-quality play at the linebacker position, and Sanborn has a unique opportunity (as an undrafted player) to prove that he can fill the shoes of some of the best to ever play the position. He may still have a long way to go, but it is hard to not be excited about his play thus far. Simply put, he has proven to be a football player, and those types of guys tend to find success in the league.