Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, whose inconsistent performance last season at Purdue dropped him into the fourth round of the draft, will be the Chicago Bears starter for the regular-season opener, the team announced on Sunday.
The elevation of Orton to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart was not totally unexpected following a poor performance by starter Chad Hutchinson in Friday night's preseason game. Hutchinson registered a 0.0 passer rating in the game and, for the preseason, his rating is an anemic 23.1.
On the flip side, Orton has generally performed well in preseason, albeit against backup players from the opposition defenses he has faced. The former Purdue star, who was just the seventh quarterback chosen in this year's draft and the 106th prospect taken overall, has completed 27 of 42 passes for 409 yards, with two touchdown passes and a pair of interceptions, for a passer rating of 92.3.
"Kyle Orton has played well every time he's had an opportunity to play, so we're excited about what he can do," said coach Lovie Smith. "He deserves this opportunity."
Chicago veterans were largely complimentary of Orton following Friday's game. Said center Olin Kreutz: "You think about that 'it,' and whatever that is, he's got it."
The Bears lost their projected starter, former first-round draft choice Rex Grossman, two weeks ago to a broken ankle that could sideline him the entire 2005 season. Grossman was able to start only three games in 2004 before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
In a major shakeup on the depth chart, Hutchinson plummeted off the depth chart Sunday, with veteran Jeff Blake, signed after the injury to Grossman, moving into the No. 2 slot. Kurt Kittner is No. 3 in the playing rotation.
The wild depth chart shuffle continues the instability from which the Bears have suffered over the last several years. Chicago used four different starting quarterbacks in 2004 and has been forced to use at least three starters in six of the last seven seasons.
The shakeup is certain to ramp up criticism of general manager Jerry Angelo, who did not bolster the quarterback depth chart with an experienced veteran in the offseason. The Bears met with several free agents, notably Brad Johnson and Jay Fiedler, but could not secure the services of any of them. Team officials then opted to stay the course and to hope that Grossman, a first-round choice in 2003, could stay healthy.
Some veterans pointed to the success enjoyed by Pittsburgh rookie Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 to suggest that starting a rookie quarterback is not a death knell for the season.
"The swagger [Orton] has, as long as he keeps it and keeps playing with his head up and is confident, then we'll go a long way," said wide receiver Justin Gage.
Added wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad: "He's a confident kid. You can tell that he's a confident kid, borderline cocky. That's always good in this business, because you've got to have a little swagger about yourself."
Orton, 22, entered the 2004 college season considered as one of the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy, started the year strong, then saw his play deteriorate after the first four games of the year. In 44 appearances at Purdue, including 35 starts, Orton completed 786 of 1,336 passes for 9,337 yards, with 63 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions. For his career, he averaged 219.39 yards per game in total offense.
Regarded as a bit of a steal in the fourth round, Orton signed a four-year, $1.84 million contract that included a $458,000 signing bonus.
"I'm not scared at all about being a rookie quarterback,"
Orton said Sunday. "I think I'm where I need to be. ... I have a
lot of improvement I can make. Now I've got to quicken that
ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.