Coming into Chicago Bears 2012 training camp, Dane Sanzenbacher was an afterthought. With the offseason additions of Brandon Marshall, Eric Weems, Alshon Jeffery and Devin Thomas, most gave the second-year receiver a slim-to-none shot of making the final 53-man roster.
Yet just like last season, Sanzenbacher had the last laugh.
To start camp, it was a given that Marshall, Jeffery, Weems, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester would be the top five wideouts on the roster. The question then became, if the Bears kept six receivers, would it be Sanzenbacher or Thomas to round out the roster?
"You watch the film on Dane and you have to keep him in a quarterback's perspective," said QB Jay Cutler. "I know there's numbers, [and] he's got to contribute with [special teams coordinator] Dave [Toub] and the special teams group. But every single day he's come out, he's catching balls. He's doing what he's supposed to do. He's going to be hard to let go if we have to."
Most assumed Thomas would get the call, as he was an accomplished kick returner. Up until Aug. 5, that scenario was playing out. Yet on that day, Thomas unexpectedly announced his retirement from the NFL. The door was seemingly opened for Sanzenbacher, yet the team immediately went out and signed Rashied Davis, a valuable special teams player who had proved himself in Chicago for six seasons (2005-2010).
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
As with Thomas, most assumed Davis, and not Sanzenbacher, would find his way onto the roster. Yet Davis showed poorly in the preseason and an injury kept him out of practice last week. As a result, the team waived Davis.
Again, Sanzenbacher appeared headed for a roster spot.
"[He's mad a] big impression. The same type he made last year, coming in as an undrafted free agent and earning a spot on the roster," said coach Lovie Smith. "He has a role, what he can do. Quick receiver in the slot. Shows up every day. He's a good football player."
Yet rumblings soon began about the Bears keeping only five wideouts, which would have left Sanzenbacher on the outside looking in.
"I have just as much to prove [this year] I feel like," said Sanzenbacher. "You go into the locker room on your family day and you still don't have a guaranteed locker yet. It's the same situation just a year down the road."
Heading into the preseason finale against the Cleveland Browns, he again needed to show his worth.
During a first-quarter pass play, Sazenbacher did just that. Lined up in the right slot, he worked down the seam and got a step on the defender. QB Josh McCown threw a nice touch pass and Sanzenbacher, with a defender on his back, was able to pull in a one-handed grab falling to the ground for a 30-yard touchdown.
"(It's) good for him," Smith said at halftime. "He has great hands. He had a good camp. We expect him to make those kinds of plays."
That catch encapsulates Sanzenbacher's value as an NFL wideout. He's not a burner, has suspect hands and is only 5-11, 180, yet he has a knack for making the big play. For five games last season, he filled in for the injured Earl Bennett. He caught three touchdowns during that stretch, which finished tops amongst Bears receivers in 2011.
Sanzenbacher runs very good routes and is crisp getting in and out of his breaks. His acceleration allows him to create separation from opposing corners and safeties. And as he's shown the past two years, he's at his best when the pressure is on.
The club also began incorporating him into special teams this offseason, using him as a punt and kick returner, as well as a coverage player. His value goes beyond what he can provide as a slot receiver. He's definitely been put through the ringer but Sanzenbacher has once again rightfully earned his place on Chicago's roster.
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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.