In Saskatchewan, Andy Fantuz was a star.
Last season, as a member of the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders, Fantuz led the league with 1,380 receiving yards on 87 catches, helping the club reach the Grey Cup. He earned the 2010 CFL Most Outstanding Canadian Award, and was so popular, the team created a breakfast cereal in his name, known as "Fantuz Flakes."
Yet the lure of the NFL was too much for him to ignore, which is why he jumped at the opportunity to sign with the Chicago Bears back in February. While not the fastest player, Fantuz has very good size (6-4, 221) and showed great hands while up north. It was thought he might be able to fill the team's need for a big-bodied receiver.
Unfortunately for Fantuz, the transition has been harder than he imagined. He currently sits at seventh on the wideout depth chart and will need to leapfrog veteran Sam Hurd and camp standout Dane Sanzenbacher if he's going to make the final 53-man roster.
It's not an impossible task but one that shines a spotlight on every move Fantuz makes on the practice field. For the first few practices, he pulled in every ball thrown his way. Yet he hasn't been as sure-handed since then and his lack of speed is noticeable.
WR Andy Fantuz
John E. Sokolowski/US Presswire
The Bears filled the team's need for a big pass catcher by signing Roy Williams early in free agency, meaning Fantuz is going to have to earn his way onto the team through special teams.
Bear Report talked with him after last night's practice about his transition from the CFL to the NFL.
"It's just a different game," Fantuz said. "Learning the different rules. The pace of the game is a lot quicker down here. For me personally, getting off the jam and playing special teams is something that I haven't had to do much in the past, so it's been a big adjustment for me."
Fantuz was dealt a tough blow when the NFL lockout hit. He never had an opportunity to get a playbook and came into training camp without any knowledge of coordinator Mike Martz's complicated system. In addition, he was denied the opportunity to work with the coaches in mini-camps and offseason training activities. As such, he had to come in cold and learn the game on the fly.
"I'm starting to get [the offense] pretty down pat now," said Fantuz. "It was a lot harder than I expected it to be and a lot more precise and specific. But the more reps you get, the more comfortable you get. When you're not thinking as much, you can play faster and play the type of football you want to play. I'm getting to that point now."
Fantuz does have one very distinct advantage over the rest of the rookie receivers on the roster: experience. The 27-year-old has five seasons of professional football under his belt, playing in highly competitive situations such as the Grey Cup. None of the other young wideouts can say the same.
So while he hasn't been a standout on the practice field, his experience could allow him to distinguish himself during the Bears' first preseason game against the Buffalo Bills this Saturday. The bright lights and packed house shouldn't faze him like it may the kids who have never been in such a situation. While they might be nervous, Fantuz will be focused. If he can outshine the competition this weekend, expect him to start earning more reps in practice next week.
"I feel like I'm getting better every day," he said. "I've just got to keep improving and get in the games and show what I've got and we'll see what happens. I'm improving as a player every day down here and I'm having a lot of fun. I just can't wait to play in the game."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.