Chicago Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn says ‘expectations are high’ for 2024 season at Ed Block Award banquet

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Even though Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles is still in the thick of piecing together the offseason roster puzzle, linebacker Jack Sanborn believes the Bears defense will be on the rise in 2024.

Speaking before he accepted the Ed Block Courage Award on Tuesday at Manzo’s Banquets in Des Plaines, Sanborn said Bears defenders began to click and play to their abilities midseason in 2023. With much of the defense returning — and Poles adding safety Kevin Byard and potentially defensive line help via free agency or the draft — Sanborn thinks the unit can build on the growth it saw over the final two months of the season.

Sanborn said he has exchanged messages with new defensive coordinator Eric Washington and is “very excited” to see how he influences the defense.

“I think expectations are high. Expectations should be high,” Sanborn said. “Everyone is understanding of that and feeling that. We want to be the best defense in the NFL or one of the best defenses in the NFL. And with the coaching and players that we’ve got, I think we definitely have an opportunity to do that.

“It comes down, though, to what we do when it actually counts on Sundays. The amount of work everyone puts in now in this time and when we get back for OTAs and then going into training camp, all that will dictate exactly where we will be. But expectations are high, and we’re definitely putting the pressure on ourselves.”

Bears players voted for Sanborn to win the Ed Block Award, which is given to a teammate who displays courage, compassion, commitment and community service.

On the field, Sanborn, who joined the Bears as an undrafted rookie in 2022, played in all 17 games and started 10 in 2023, mostly as strongside linebacker but also filling in at middle linebacker two games when Tremaine Edmunds was injured. Sanborn came back from a season-ending ankle injury in 2022 to record 65 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, an interception, two passes defended and a sack in 2023.

Off the field, the Bears highlighted Sanborn’s leadership and charitable endeavors, including children’s hospital visits and a Christmas shopping spree he and running back Roschon Johnson sponsored for 10 kids from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago.

“At times I could even do more, and I want to do more,” Sanborn said of charity work. “Definitely at times I’m focused on my career, my job as I go about it. But the organization does such a great job with giving everybody an opportunity in a multitude of ways to go out into the community. … A lot of the guys do a great job of turning out, giving back to the community, especially during the holiday season.”

While Bears coach Matt Eberflus attended Oregon’s pro day on Tuesday, Bears owner Virginia McCaskey, Chairman George McCaskey, President and CEO Kevin Warren and linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi all were on hand for the award luncheon, which helps raise money for scholarships for children at Maryville Academy.

But the McCaskeys and Warren didn’t address the media in the middle of an eventful month for the team as leaders on the football operations side weigh how to build up their roster with the No. 1 draft pick in hand and those on the business side plot how to build a new stadium. George McCaskey and Warren will likely speak with reporters at the NFL owners’ meetings in Orlando, Fla., later this month.

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Sanborn joked that maybe he would get intel from Warren about the stadium process. And he called Poles’ opportunity with the Nos. 1 and 9 draft picks next month “exciting.”

“(From) a fan perspective, it’s definitely exciting times for Bears fans all together,” Sanborn said. “I don’t think you’d want anyone else other than Ryan having that job. He’s been through it I guess going back to last year, and I trust he will make the best decision.”

A day before Sanborn’s luncheon, cornerback Jaylon Johnson spoke at a news conference for his contract extension and was asked about the potential of the Bears trading quarterback Justin Fields. Johnson said the players understand the business and will have to maturely accept whatever decision the Bears make about their quarterback.

Sanborn was asked what Fields’ situation — filled with ongoing speculation — would be like for a player.

“It definitely must be tough,” Sanborn said. “But at the same time, I think everyone in the building is a professional, and I think Justin is right up there with the best of them in terms of that. I’m sure he’s focused on himself right now, improving himself as a player. I think we’ll see where it goes.”