- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

MIAMI — Second round or second day draft pick. Division I or Division II player. On television all the time or never on ESPN.

The Chicago Bears don’t care. Rookies play and learn on the job.

The latest examples are free safety Danieal Manning, return man Devin Hester and defensive end Mark Anderson. All will play big roles for the Bears in Sunday’s Super Bowl against Indianapolis.

“I’ve always been a coach that believes in playing rookies,” coach Lovie Smith said. “We want to see our best players on the field no matter how old they are. You would like for them to have more experience, but we don’t go on that.”

Drafting well and playing the kids early has been a hallmark of the Bears’ rebuilding effort spearheaded by Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo.

Including injured reserve, the Bears’ roster has 30 home-grown draft picks, including 11 starters and three regular contributors.

Since becoming general manager in 2001, Angelo has hit with first-rounders Rex Grossman, Tommie Harris and Cedric Benson, late first-day picks Manning, Hester, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs, Tank Johnson and Bernard Berrian and day two selections Anderson, Alex Brown, Nathan Vasher and Chris Harris.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been fortunate that we’ve had rookies contribute just about every year in some way,” Angelo said yesterday. “I don’t think you ever expect it. … In the old days, they said for every rookie you start, you’re going to lose two or three games. I think free agency has changed that, and the college games look more like [NFL] games than they did 10 years ago.”

This year’s talented trio helped the Bears to a 15-3 record and their first NFC title since 1985.

A second-round pick from Division II Abilene Christian in Texas, Manning needed only two games to supplant Chris Harris as the starting free safety. He finished fourth on the team with 67 regular season tackles and also had two interceptions.

Selected 15 slots behind Manning (57th overall), Hester left Miami a year early but fell into the second round because he didn’t have a true position. As a return man, Hester set an NFL single-season record with six touchdowns.

On the second day of the draft, the Bears struck gold with Anderson in the fifth round. Anderson did not start a game, but his 12 sacks led all NFL rookies and ranked eighth overall.

“It seems like each year the rookies get better and better,” Smith said. “We thought it was a deep draft with players that could come in and play.”

All three players faced questions as they began their professional careers.

Could Manning, a dominant player at a lower level, make the transition quickly? Was choosing Hester —strictly a return man as a rookie — worth a second-round pick? And at 258 pounds, was Anderson big enough to handle offensive tackles?

The answers were yes, yes and yes.

Manning made the surprising decision to come out after three seasons, a rare move for a small-college player. But he made an immediate impression on another small-town Texas guy — Smith, who took an interest in his development.

“He took me under his wing, and I’ve been in his office a lot just asking him how my play is,” Manning said.

Manning’s role was amplified at midseason when veteran free safety Mike Brown sustained a season-ending injury.

“Athletically, he’s as good as anybody we’ve got,” linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. “You see the way he moves on the field, and you can tell he’s gifted. Whenever you can come in right away and contribute, it’s a credit to you. Some rookies take that first season as a redshirt year and adjust to the NFL, but he overcame that pretty quickly and got himself ready to play.”

The same goes for Hester, who started only five games on defense for the Hurricanes. But Smith wanted to upgrade a return unit that ranked 29th on kickoffs and 10th on punts.

“I liked what we were doing offensively, and I liked what our defense was putting together, but that third phase is important,” Smith said. “I watched his highlight tape, and I saw what I’ve seen most of this year — he’s a special player when he gets his hands on the ball. I felt he would really solidify that third phase. He’s done that and more.”

Hester returned three punts, two kickoffs and a missed field goal for touchdowns. He led the league in punt return yardage (600) and boosted the Bears to second in punt returns and ninth in kickoff returns.

It has forced teams to game plan for Hester. They must make a decision whether to punt directionally and, on kickoffs, try to hit the corner and risk kicking it out of bounds.

“I hope they kick it to me and not try to give up too much good field position,” Hester said. “If they want to kick it out of bounds, then it could help our offense as well.

“You have to have the mentality that you can’t be stopped. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be back there.”

The most unlikely contributor among the draft picks is Anderson. And the Bears aren’t afraid to admit it.

“Mark Anderson was a surprise,” Smith said. “I would like to say we thought he would get [12] sacks, but sometimes you get a guy who steps up like that.”

Said Hillenmeyer, who was drafted by Green Bay in 2003: “Mark’s a surprise because he was a late-round pick. I was a fifth-round pick and got cut two games into the season. He was a sixth-round pick who put up big numbers and was a dominant player. That has to be the best value pick in the draft.”

Anderson’s first game, against Green Bay, was his “Welcome to the NFL” moment.

“The speed of the game was pretty brutal — I wanted to sit down the rest of the game,” he said.

Anderson adapted to the new tempo and had sacks in nine of 16 games.

After defeating New Orleans in the NFC title game Jan. 21, Hester and Anderson went to dinner to let the enormity of their rookie campaigns sink in.

“I was just happy to make the final 53,” Anderson said. “After that game, we went out and it was fun to reminisce about just how good this season has been for us.”

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