Sinclair, others fighting for NFL opportunity on practice squads

When the Chicago Bears manage to hold opposing tight ends in check on Sundays, Gannon Sinclair can take a little bit of satisfaction in a job well done.

The former Missouri State standout hasn’t played a down for the Bears defense, nor is he even on the team’s active roster. But that does not mean he isn’t playing a key role in preparing Chicago for some of the league’s best offensive threats.

It’s all part of a thankless and demanding job in which Sinclair doesn’t know whether he’ll be staying, moving up or moving on every week. He’s one of eight former Missouri Valley Conference players on an NFL practice squad entering Week 7.

The 22-year-old says he does not believe coming up through the FCS gives a player any worse chance of making an NFL roster. While a former star might consider serving as a glorified practice dummy a difficult adjustment, Sinclair is convinced it’s the best path for someone like him with limited game experience.

"It really doesn’t matter where you come from – it comes down to how you play," he said. "I know we have some FCS or Division II players on the active roster playing well. For me, this is the route I wanted to learn and gain as much experience as possible."

Former Illinois State star Cameron Meredith, now Sinclair’s teammate, has filled in nicely for Chicago’s banged-up receiving corps with eight catches for 95 yards. The Redbirds are the only MVC program with two former players on practice squads – offensive lineman Michael Liedtke (Kansas City) and defensive end Shelby Harris (Oakland).

"(Liedtke) was there for the Missouri State game (last Saturday) and came down and said hello," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said. "A lot of those guys keep in touch and we try our best to keep up to date on how they’re doing. It’s a hard thing to (make it in the NFL) so we’re real proud of those guys."

Sinclair is proud of how far he’s come after going through his entire high school career without starting a single game because he "just wasn’t good enough." He was determined to get good enough, however, and attended the North Dakota College of Science in hopes that he would get an opportunity to move up from the junior college ranks.

That came when Missouri State took an interest in Sinclair after he was an ICCAC second-team all-conference pick with 16 catches for 234 yards and two touchdowns in 2012. He only caught 29 passes in 24 games with the Bears, but seven of the 18 he hauled in as a senior went for touchdowns as Sinclair earned All-MVC honorable mention honors.

With a chance to be selected in the NFL Draft, Sinclair dropped out of school following that season in order to train and participate in pro day workouts at the University of Minnesota and Missouri State. Although he didn’t hear his name called in the draft, Sinclair signed on as a free agent with Arizona in early May.

He was released by the Cardinals after the fourth week of training camp before getting another shot when Chicago picked him up off waivers. Sinclair was again let go before the team’s final cuts, though the Bears thought highly enough of him to bring the 6-foot-7, 270 pounder back for the practice squad.

"I’m not looking at (being on the practice squad) like it’s a step back or anything like that so much as I am a chance to learn and soak it all in," he said. "I’m not concerned with starting or playing here, I’m just trying to learn what I didn’t earlier on."

Sinclair has been paying his dues while learning from the likes of Bears starting tight end Martellus Bennett throughout what has become a lengthy stay on the always-changing practice roster. He’s hesitant to get too comfortable, staying in an extended stay hotel not too far from the team’s practice facility in Lake Forest, Illinois.

"There is uncertainty. It’s just one of those things. You just have to deal with it and keep playing well," Sinclair said. "You never know when it’s going to be your last day and you have to be able to move on easily."

"You can get cut and hopefully, go to another practice squad or you can move up (to the active roster)," he added. "There are only two or three guys, including me, who have been on the practice squad the entire time."

Sinclair has taken his role seriously, emulating Green Bay’s Richard Rodgers, Seattle’s Jimmy Graham and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce – just to name a few – while preparing Chicago’s defense for game day. He’s given that player’s jersey number during that week of practice and is asked to mirror his routes, technique and tendencies.

He appears to be doing a good job. Though Graham had seven receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown in a 26-0 road loss in Week 3, the Bears have limited the other five starting tight ends they’ve faced to a combined 10 catches for 80 yards and a score.

"When you’re on the practice squad, you’re not any different than any other player," insists Sinclair, who joins the team on the sideline on game days. "You’re in the same meetings and all those things. You’re just not playing in the games."

Sinclair, though, has gotten something he didn’t bargain for when he agreed to join the Bears. Despite having never played on that side of the ball at any level, he’s been asked to work in as a defensive end and linebacker against Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and the first-team offense.

"It is a big step up (from the FCS), but it’s fun," he explained. "I wouldn’t say it’s too overwhelming, though it is tough. I’m not so much beat up as I am exhausted. The offense can rest while the defense is getting its work in, but a lot of the practice squad players like myself have to go both ways. It’s non-stop."

North Dakota State’s John Crockett (Green Bay), Northern Iowa’s L.J. Fort (Pittsburgh), South Dakota’s Tyler Starr (Atlanta), Southern Illinois’ Jayson DiManche (Cleveland) and South Dakota State’s Bryan Witzmann (New Orleans) are other MVC products currently on practice squads who hope their under-the-radar performance leads to a chance to play on Sundays.