There he was.
As I stood in the third level of Soldier Field's north end zone on a freezing December evening, I surveyed the personnel on the field. Marty Booker was lined up wide left.
Lined up to the right, I saw No. 85. With the game on the line against their biggest rival and the Bears driving down field, Earl Bennett, the SEC'S all-time career receptions leader from Vanderbilt, was lined up wide to the right.
While struggling to feel my toes, I quickly envisioned Soldier Field erupting into an icy frenzy with Earl Bennett pulling down a floating pass from Kyle Orton along the sideline of the end zone. I waited for the snap.
But Kyle Orton called for a timeout. Bennett would not return.
Chris Williams and Craig Steltz made it onto the field in that game too—but Williams was the third tackle, and Steltz was bulldozed by Ryan Grant on the goal line for a Packers touchdown.
Matt Forte has a tremendous rookie season in 2008 and quickly developed into a fan favorite. But outside of his success, there was little to none from the team's rookies outside of contributions on special teams.
Many of the current team needs are at positions that the Bears drafted last year. So, before we get carried away and moving with the upcoming 2009 draft, let's take a step back and analyze some of last year's picks who could potentially make big impact in their second season with the team.
Chris Williams, OT - First Round Pick (14th, 14th overall) from Vanderbilt
Coming from the strongest offensive tackle class in recent history, the pressure is on Chris Williams to anchor the left side of the line and improve both run and pass blocking up front.
Missing an entire season could have stunted his development; or, he may be a better player from having time to learn the system and hit the weight room. Barring any major setbacks, Williams is a lock to start at left tackle in 2009, and his effort will determine his success.
Earl Bennett, WR - Third Round Pick (Seventh, 70th overall) from Vanderbilt
Not believing how Brandon Lloyd and Marty Booker could possibly be better options, many fans have been busy hypothesizing numerous Earl Bennett conspiracy theories, ranging from Bennett angering the coaches to the staff being blind to Bennett's superior ability.
The most likely explanation for Bennett's lack of action during his rookie campaign is his inability to adapt to the NFL level, which was recently confirmed by ChicagoBears.com.
Bennett has great hands, but a lot of scouting reports listed him as a sloppy route runner, a trait that can surely keep a rookie off of the field. Early speculation is that he will have a more prominent role in 2009, but remember, we heard the same thing about Mark Bradley during every offseason he spent with the Bears.
Craig Steltz, S - Fourth Round Pick (21st, 120th overall) from LSU
Steltz primarily played on special teams in 2008, but saw extended action with the defense at the end of the season in lieu of the injured Mike Brown.
Steltz isn't as fast as Danieal Manning, but has better instincts and is a big hitter, which, despite classifying him as a strong safety, may not matter very much in a the Bears' two-deep zone system.
A good offseason could push Steltz into the starting free safety role; otherwise, expect him to remain a kick coverage standout.
Zackary Bowman, CB - Fifth Round Pick (Seventh, 142 overall) from Nebraska
Bowman's performance against Minnesota was the talk of the town. So was the fact that he was being placed on the IR after the game. Given his injury history, Bowman's potential success with the Bears with questionable at best.
But with Nathan Vasher's future in question and injuries having plagued the secondary for the past three seasons, the odds of Bowman getting onto the field to prove himself weigh in his favor.