Rookie Review

With a new coaching staff in place in 2004 the team will be in a period of transition, but a crop of young talent will provide stability.

In a fourth losing season out of five under Dick Jauron there was one glimpse of hope. Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs moved into the starting line-up and did more than just get on the field.

Tillman, who finished 5th in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, became the team's top cornerback. When Chicago drafted him 35th overall many people including myself said, "who?' A year after taking Roosevelt Williams at the top of the third-round it seemed like GM Jerry Angelo repeated the mistake. Another cornerback from a small school, but Tillman proved to be a star in the making.

Despite drawing numerous flags early Tillman remained confident and improved dramatically throughout the season. His game winning interception against the Vikings is one of the best defensive plays of the year. Tillman is earning the reputation as a shutdown corner and has a chance to build on that next year.

Briggs, a third-round choice, had the reputation as a hard hitter coming out of Arizona and popped a few teammates in Bourbonnais. He seemed to be the obvious choice to start at strong side linebacker when training camp broke, but Bryan Knight got the nod. After three games the team admitted they made a mistake and inserted Briggs. While not a flashy player, he's a solid pro.

Justin Gage emerged as the Bears biggest down field threat. After being inactive for the team's first 5 games he finished the season with an average of 19.9 yards on his 17 receptions.

Bobby Wade didn't have the big plays that Wade did, but proved to have staying power. He won the punt return job out of training camp, but fumbled his first opportunity in the season opener. He didn't see the field again until Week 6. Wade finished the year with just 12 receptions, but offers something different from the Bears big receivers. He's a small elusive wide out that can also make something happen on a reverse.

For all the success the rookie class had the most important draft pick didn't see the field until Week 15. Rex Grossman won his first two starts as a pro, which is something that hasn't happened for the organization since 1965. He showed flashes of what everyone involved with the franchise is the quarterback they've been looking for since Jim McMahon.

While Grossman didn't finish the season finale because of a torn tendon in his right middle finger, the injury shouldn't be a factor next season. He's expected to take 4-6 to heal and is expected to be ready for any offseason camps.

Michael Haynes is still is a question mark. He played sparingly in all 16 games and finished with two sacks. There wasn't immediate pressure for Haynes to come in and start because veterans Alex Brown and Phillip Daniels were ahead of him on the depth chart.

However both the Bears and Haynes expect him to challenge for a starting job in '04. He can play both sides, which makes him a valuable commodity in age of specialization. Chances are the left side will be where Haynes fits in the long run with Brown his counterpart on the right.

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