May 12, 2009

When the Bears acquired Jay Cutler last month, and followed it up by selecting defensive back D.J. Moore in the draft, they unofficially became the 13th member of the Southeastern Conference by virtue of having five former Vanderbilt Commodores on their 2009 roster.

Three -- Cutler, wide receiver Earl Bennett, right tackle Chris Williams -- are expected to start at crucial positions on a Bears offense that ranked 26th last season. Williams was the No. 1 pick in 2008, Bennett the No. 3. The defense includes former starting linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, signed in 2003 as a free agent, and last month's fourth-round pick Moore.

Bennett, Cutler, Hillenmeyer and Williams never played on a Vanderbilt team with a winning record. Moore's 2008 team finished with a 7-6 mark by virtue of a win in the Music City Bowl, completing the first winning Vandy season since 1982.

The Bears, however, see an intangible in players from upper-tier academic schools that traditionally do not have success on the football field.

"I was told many years ago, by a true giant in this business, that when kids come out of those schools, they also take a quantum step in the league," said Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. "They were more prepared to come into the league because they were more grounded, understood how to balance academic load with football load, needed less structure, meaning they could handle time and money better, because they had to balance football and school 50-50, vs. maybe 80-20 at some football-first programs.

"They've had to carve out ways to get better at football while maintaining a high academic standard. You know they haven't hit their ceilings because they haven't been able to devote the time yet to football that you can at the perennial football factories. If they have enough talent, and that's the key, they play to their ceilings."

Programs, like the players they produce, have distinctive traits. Penn State has a tradition of producing dependable-quality players, which also had a downside: Nittany Lions were coached so well that often they were at or near their ceilings already. With apologies to Kerry Collins, whose reputation is owning as much to staying power as to spectacular skills, when Penn Staters leave Happy Valley they simply have often been close to as good as they were going to be.

The Super Bowl-runnerup Arizona Cardinals supplement their talent evaluation with a five-point "winner grade": football character, how hard the prospect plays the game, how smart the player is and how physical he is. "When you're trying to ascertain the 'football character' part of it, I think the program as well as the individual really help you get a feel for the kind of guy you're bringing in," said Arizona GM Rod Graves.

Angelo and others in the past have assumed a link between winning in college and NFL success. But exact correlations are difficult. The Bears selected four Florida Gators in the 2003 draft, giving them five along with defensive end Alex Brown, and finished with a 7-9 record that cost coach Dick Jauron his job.

With four of those same five on the roster in 2006, the Bears went 13-3 to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning, perhaps inexplicably since Manning had never beaten any Gator team in his four distinguished years at Tennessee.

The Bears have posted winning seasons in three of the last four years with Hillenmeyer as their principal strong-side linebacker. His chief competition now is Nick Roach, from another academic power: Northwestern.

Maybe there is something to be said for trying to achieve some sort of geographic critical mass to keep up with the Bears' five Commodores. The Lions followed their 0-16 season by trading for linebacker Julian Peterson (Michigan State) and signing free agent linebacker Larry Foote (Michigan). Those moves also included using the first pick of the 2009 second round on Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas. The signings and draft give the Lions a summer roster with nine products of Michigan programs.

For their part, the Bears also have been spending time and draft picks on defensive backs from small Louisiana schools, including cornerback Charles Tillman (Louisiana-Lafayette), and safeties Bobby Gray (Louisiana Tech) and Chris Harris and Kevin Payne (Louisiana-Monroe).

They also selected Craig Steltz from Louisiana State last year, but "LSU is only going to be able to get so many," Angelo said. "... The secondary schools in Louisiana are far superior to those in those other states for skill positions. Florida has Central Florida, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, South Florida, all building up to that, but that's why Louisiana was a little bit of a gold mine.

"There are certain pockets, certain programs that do a better job, for whatever reason of preparing kids for the NFL."

Gallery: First look at NFL rookies.

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