- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- In hindsight, it was either a huge mistake by the 31 other teams that passed on him, or one of the biggest steals the Bears have had in a long time when Jarron Gilbert was still around in the third round of April's NFL draft.
Gilbert and the Bears prefer the latter explanation.
The Bears didn't have a first- or second-round pick in this year's draft, after trading those picks to Denver for quarterback Jay Cutler. So Gilbert became the team's de facto No. 1 pick, even if it occurred on the fourth pick of the third round, the 68th selection overall.
"Jay's the first-round draft pick here," Gilbert said with a laugh after Sunday afternoon's training camp practice session at Olivet Nazarene University. "But yes, there's definitely a pressure. I'm the leader of the class, basically, as far as draft picks [go]. I put pressure on myself to come out here and perform."
Nine other defensive ends and seven other defensive linemen were picked before the Bears chose Gilbert, who had been projected by several draft services as a potential early- to mid-second-round pick.
"I was a little upset the first day [when I was not picked in the first two rounds of the draft]," Gilbert admitted. "But as soon as I heard the Bears call my name, I was very appreciative, and this is the best situation I could be in, really."
There was no real knock against Gilbert. He's got the size at 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds. He also compiled an outstanding college résumé while at San Jose State, ending his collegiate career as the school's all-time sacks leader with 22.5, which ranks fifth overall in Western Athletic Conference history.
He set another school record with 42 tackles for loss, which ranks sixth in WAC annals.
Still, he was either overlooked or passed up by every other team in the NFL. But that's all history as Gilbert goes from big man on campus to just another guy trying to make the team in his first training camp with the Bears.
Although listed on the Bears' depth chart as a defensive tackle, Gilbert has the versatility to play any position on the defensive line, another reason why the team was pleasantly surprised he was still around when it came time to make its first pick in the draft.
"Basically, my biggest strength is my athleticism," Gilbert said. "Right now, I'm just trying to match my athleticism with technique and pick up more technique as it goes."
During Sunday's practice, Gilbert worked at both defensive tackle and end in drills and scrimmages, forced and recovered a fumble and offered up a decent pass rush. At the same time, however, he did make a couple of anxious rookie mistakes, including a false start, but it's all part of becoming a professional, he said.
"I'm feeling pretty good, learning day by day, getting more accustomed to this level," Gilbert said. "I'm learning a whole new game here. It's a faster pace, guys are bigger, stronger and faster, and there's adjusting to the play."
Gilbert saw considerable action against the Bears' first-string offense Sunday, which meant he went up against Cutler. But as much as he would have liked to have earned some brownie points in getting to the Bears' heralded new quarterback, Gilbert played the good teammate.
"I don't go against Jay; I stay 3 or 4 feet away from him at all times," he said with a laugh, acknowledging he doesn't want to become known as the guy who hurt the new franchise player.
But Gilbert admits to being somewhat in awe of Cutler, happy that he's a teammate, rather than an upcoming opponent Gilbert and the Bears would have to face.
"Just watching him out here, he's a great player," he said. "I've never seen a quarterback like that who can throw the way he does. It's great to see him on the field."
With seasoned veterans like Israel Idonije, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris and 31-year-old Adewale Ogunleye (the oldest member of the defensive line) ahead of Gilbert, playing time early in the season could be at a premium.
"[Gilbert's] looking good early on," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He's a good athlete. He's been around for a while and we've seen some of the things he can do. He's got good agility, good quickness inside for an inside guy, but he has enough strength to be able to play against the run, too.
"It's a little too early for rookies to start talking about getting into our starting lineup. We have some good veterans around here. Hopefully, [Gilbert will] keep working and will make us play him this year."
But at the same time, Smith won't rule out anything.
"There's a lot of great competition at all the positions [on the defensive line], and that'll only make our team better," he said.
While he looks to become an impact player someday, Gilbert isn't going to rush anything, either. He's only 22 years old and is looking for a long and prosperous career in the NFL, following in the footsteps of his father, Dean, who played four seasons with the New Orleans Saints in the mid- to late '80s.
"Everybody has to prove himself during camp," said Gilbert, who is behind Harris on the Bears' depth chart. "Obviously, Tommie is a great player. I'm just coming in and I'm trying to contribute to the team the best I can and prove myself every time I come out here. I'm just trying to get better day by day."
Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com
Jarron Gilbert is out to prove teams made a mistake by letting him fall to the third round.