- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Much is made every year in training camp about the Bears' top draft choices and where they'll fit in with the team.
For rookies drafted in the first few rounds, their roster spots are virtually assured. After all, the Bears wouldn't have drafted them, and then signed them to lucrative contracts, if they weren't going to keep their top picks around for a while.
Unfortunately, that kind of situation is of little consolation to eight particular rookies currently in camp. They're the undrafted free agents, players who signed contracts with the Bears after failing to be chosen by any of the 32 NFL teams during April's annual college draft. UFAs, as they're known, are the longest of long shots to make the team, and they're the guys who have to work the hardest just to be noticed by Bears coaches and officials -- let alone ultimately be kept on the regular-season roster.
Former Northwestern University standout wide receiver Eric Peterman is one of those eight rookies fighting the odds to make the team. Peterman was a high school standout at Sacred Heart-Griffin High in downstate Springfield before becoming a four-year letterman at Northwestern. An honorable mention All-Big Ten as a senior last season and voted team MVP as a junior, he left NU fourth on the school's all-time list with 2,011 receiving yards and seventh in receptions (160) and touchdown receptions (12).
Peterman, like his fellow undrafted brethren, knows what he's up against and what he has to contend with. He's in camp more for the love of the game and the chance to fulfill a dream of playing with his favorite pro football team. It's certainly not for money; there's rarely a signing bonus or big contract for UFAs. They'll earn about $24,000 for training camp, prorated from the NFL minimum season-long salary of $290,000 for rookies.
In a sense, the UFAs are living the dream that virtually every Bears fan would love to realize. They're rubbing shoulders every day with guys like quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Brian Urlacher, eating meals with receiver Devin Hester and defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, and taking part in team meetings with the likes of defensive tackle Tommie Harris and center Olin Kreutz.
Peterman has no preconceived notions that he's a lock to make the team. At the same time, he's giving it his all to be one of the lucky ones to be among the last to make the regular-season roster.
"I'm just trying to do my best," Peterman said. "I love the people out here. They're just showing great support. I can't believe how many people come out for practice every day. People I've never seen before are chanting my name and all the local people. I'm just having a great time."
Occasionally, one of the UFAs goes on to become a star like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo or veteran Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner. Ogunleye came into the NFL as a UFA, having signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2000, and is now one of the best players in the league.
Peterman has opened some eyes in camp with his dogged determination. But like most pro sports, football is a game of numbers. Right now, Peterman is listed fourth of five players for right-side wide receiver. Unfortunately, there are 10 receivers in camp, and only six will likely make the final cutdown in a few weeks.
It's pretty much a certainty that Hester, Rashied Davis and Earl Bennett will make it, leaving three spots open for the other seven candidates: rookies like Peterman, Juaquin Iglesias, Johnny Knox and Derek Kinder, and second-year players John Broussard, Brandon Rideau and Devin Aromashodu.
"I'm just trying to learn the playbook -- the offense as well as special teams," Peterman said. "I'm playing a lot of different spots right now. I guess the learning process is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I guess that would be a surprise, just the offense and all the audibles and everything that comes with that."
Bears head coach Lovie Smith said he's giving guys like Peterman every chance possible to make the team.
"All players here have a chance to make the team," Smith said. "You let the guys continue to play and you go from there."
As a result, expect the lanky 6-foot-1, 202-pound Peterman and the other young receivers to see considerable playing time this Saturday in the Bears' preseason opener at Buffalo.
"I think just making plays when the lights come on," Peterman said. "They put a lot of emphasis on the preseason games, so when the lights come on, it's all a matter of whether I can make plays or not.
"They've already told us we're going to get a lot of reps [at Buffalo]. Whether it's on offense or punt returns, kickoffs or wherever, I'm just [trying] to play my hardest, make the plays and get their attention."
Although he's working primarily with the second- and third-string offense, as well as backup quarterbacks Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez, Peterman has had a few reps with Cutler at the helm, and has come away with a great appreciation of someone he hopes to remain teammates with once the regular season begins on Sept. 13 at Green Bay.
"Jay's a brilliant guy," Peterman said. "He has unlimited talent. It's just unbelievable to see him work every day. He makes it look so easy."
Peterman is doing all he can to make a spot for himself on the final 53-man roster to start the season. He doesn't care if he sticks as a wide receiver or a special-teams player.
The main thing -- in fact, the ONLY thing -- is just to make the team.
"It's not going to be easy," Peterman said. "It's something I'm aware of, but I'm just trying to have fun and enjoy the experience while I have it. I'm learning a lot, trying to do my best, put my head down and go as hard as I can and see what happens."
Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.