Undrafted rookies fight to make Bears roster

Chicago Bears rookie Ian Wheeler talks to media after rookie minicamp, May 11, 2024. (Jazmine Thomas/MEDILL).
Chicago Bears rookie Ian Wheeler talks to media after rookie minicamp on May 11, 2024. (Jazmine Thomas/MEDILL).

By King Jemison
Medill Reports  

The NFL draft was done. But for former Illinois defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr., the show had just begun. 

“When the draft is over, everything’s coming so fast,” Randolph said. 

He was one of the highest-ranked prospects to go undrafted — and thus one of the biggest names on the undrafted free agent market. Mere hours after Mr. Irrelevant was named, Randolph signed a deal with the Chicago Bears reportedly worth $220,000 in guaranteed money according to Spotrac – likely almost $140,000 more in guarantees than some seventh-round draft picks received. 

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

Randolph was one of nine undrafted free agents at the Bears rookie minicamp May 10 and 11. The chances of making the 53-man roster are slim, particularly on a Bears team bloated with young talent after taking a combined 21 players in the 2022 and 2023 drafts. But they do have a chance, as roughly one-third of current NFL players started their careers as undrafted free agents, according to ESPN.

Even if they don’t make a roster, simply signing an NFL contract is a dream fulfilled for many undrafted players. 

“I almost cried when I signed my contract,” Bears undrafted signee Ian Wheeler said. “I’ve been working towards this since I was 7 years old.” 

Wheeler, a running back and kick return specialist, went from walking on at Howard to catching passes from Caleb Williams at minicamp. 

“I thought he was going to be a little bit taller honestly,” Wheeler said of the No. 1 overall draft pick. “But he’s a really good guy and a good quarterback and a good leader.” 

Williams’ arrival has heightened expectations for a Bears franchise that last won a playoff game in 2011, but the vast majority of the 43 players at minicamp will play no role in changing that. Many won’t don a Bears jersey again after that weekend. But Wheeler and Randolph each have a path to making the roster — Wheeler could benefit from the NFL’s new kickoff return rules that have breathed new life into the returner role, and Randolph could benefit from the team’s lack of depth at defensive line. 

“Had (Randolph) not been dealing with a bad ankle all last season, I think he would’ve been drafted,” CBS Sports analyst Tom Fornelli said. “Well worth a shot for the Bears considering that the defensive line is where the real competition is this summer.” 

Unlike players selected in the draft, Randolph got to choose his NFL home. He knew the Bears might have a role for him when he signed. They gave him a hefty chunk of guaranteed money. But those weren’t the only reasons he chose Chicago. 

“At the end of the day, it’s the Chicago Bears, aka ‘Da Bears,’” Randolph said. “And it’s in my hometown state, so the decision was easy for me.” 

King Jemison is a graduate journalism student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. You can find him on X @king_jemison.