Former Illinois standout competing to cement spot on Bears defensive line

Bears - Keith Randolph Jr.
Chicago Bears rookie Keith Randolph Jr. poses with Medill graduate students after rookie minicamp on May 11, 2024. (Melissa Isaacson/MEDILL)

By Akshat Jain
Medill Reports

Keith Randolph Jr. did not start playing football until his junior year of high school. Receiving no basketball scholarship offers coupled with a desire to play collegiate sports at the Division I level led him to the gridiron. Seven years later, he is now competing for the fourth and final spot on the Bears’ defensive line.

Randolph was one of nine undrafted free agents signed by the Bears this offseason. At the rookie minicamp May 10 and 11, the group was joined by 23 unsigned rookies, four unsigned veterans and two first-year Bears, all competing for a coveted spot on the 53-man roster.

The former Illinois standout, who started 29 games at defensive tackle and racked up 13 tackles for loss and 4 ½ sacks in 2022 enroute to earning third-team All-Big Ten honors, signed a three-year, $220,000 fully guaranteed contract with the Bears as an undrafted free agent.

Randolph told reporters May 11 that he appreciated the organization’s investment in him.

“It means a lot. It made me feel wanted,” Randolph said. “For them to come get me and give me a good amount of guaranteed money, it’s a blessing and I am just thankful for the opportunity.”

While it is a steep climb for an undrafted free agent to earn themselves a roster spot — only 80 undrafted players made NFL Week 1 rosters in 2023 — the Bears have found an undrafted free agent worthy of a roster spot in each of the past two seasons (linebacker Jack Sanborn in 2022 and quarterback Tyson Bagent in 2023). Dane Brugler, NFL draft analyst at The Athletic, wrote that defensive tackle is a position offering opportunity on the Bears’ depth chart.

“The top three at defensive tackle are set — Andrew Billings, Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens,” Brugler wrote May 9. “But Randolph can vie for the No. 4 spot.”

Bears coach Matt Eberflus said “movement and skill” are the two most important traits he is focused on seeing from undrafted players during the camp.

“You need to have a certain skillset to be able to play up here, and you need to have that to get your foot in the door,” Eberflus told reporters Thursday, May 9. “Then it is all about development, about work habits, about being able to play smart and play the right way.”

Lining up against the No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Caleb Williams, Randolph said the week had been a “surreal experience.” While he said he is blessed to be out on the practice field, his focus remains on competing hard at every rep.

“I can get better. That is really what I am focused on. Just trying to improve each and every day,” Randolph said.

Akshat Jain is a graduate journalism student at Medill. You can connect with Akshat on LinkedIn.