During training camp, Chicago Bears tight end Fendi Onobun was a happy football player. He was making plays in practice and had worked his way up the depth chart, taking reps with the first-team offense. The former collegiate basketball player, now in his fourth season playing football, felt like the flip had switched.
"I'm definitely understanding the game a lot better," Onobun told Bear Report in late July. "Coming in from 2010 to now, just understanding the game, understanding how to read defenses, knowing assignments, a lot better."
It's been a rough ride for Onobun since then. In the first preseason game, he was targeted three times by backup quarterback Josh McCown, yet he caught no passes. On one of those incompletions, Onobun alligator-armed a pass that resulted in a pick six for the Carolina Panthers.
But the most disappointing play came in the red zone. Onobun ran a flag route and was wide open in the end zone. The pass hit him in the hands yet he couldn't hang on to the ball.
Following that game, Onobun began taking most of his snaps with the second and third teams during camp. Right now, he's in a serious fight to keep a roster spot, something of which he's fully aware.
"Just based off the first game, I've just got to make those plays and catch the football. That's simply what it comes down to, catching the football when my number is called," Onobun told Bear Report today. "I know that's what it comes down to. That's a strength that I have, that I possess, that I've shown throughout OTAs and training camp. Now I've just got to put in the game."
Last week against the Chargers, Onobun didn't receive a single target, which isn't a good sign for a player expecting to be the No. 2 pass-catching tight end in Chicago. Yet the Bears passed just 14 times in the second preseason game, due mainly to the injury to third-string quarterback Matt Blanchard. Because of that, Onobun was able to get a real sense of his progress as a blocker.
"I'm actually really impressed with my performance in the run game," said Onobun. "I know, as far as blocking, that's something that hasn't been a strength of mine. I've been very adamant in improving that area of my game. We didn't really throw the ball too much when I was in, in the second game."
Despite his improvement in the run game, it's unlikely he's going to beat out either Steve Maneri or Leonard Pope for the edge blocker role in Marc Trestman's offense. Onobun's place in the passing game.
"One thing about this offense, they're going to use guys to their strengths," he said. "I think me being able to use my speed and athleticism and get open and pull safeties and pull backers, that's a strength of mine. That's where I would expect to be used more so than not."
Over the next two weeks, Onobun must perform when given the opportunity. Dropped passes, missed assignments and an inability to beat man coverage are not going to earn him a spot on the final 53-man roster. Two weeks ago, Onobun was a borderline lock to make the team. Now he's firmly on the bubble.
"For us with Fendi, it's a process," said tight ends coach Andy Bischoff. "Here's a guy who has played a very limited amount of football. But when you talk about the skill set that you see at moments, it really excites you. We're hopeful to be able to have some opportunities with him this week and down the road, we'll see. But confidence-wise, he's been extremely positive, coachable, wants to do the right thing and we feel like he's growing in the system."
The Bears don't have any other true pass-catching options to back up Martellus Bennett, so if Onobun can keep his head above water in the final two preseason games, he should be able to slide on to the final roster. But it's definitely not a given and Onobun is going to have to play much better than he did in Week 1 if he's going to earn that spot.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.