The college football season concluded earlier this week, with a thrilling National Championship game ending with Alabama breaking Georgia’s hearts on a walk-off overtime touchdown. It was a perfect ending to an exciting season that featured a wide array of intriguing prospects. While play on the field may be finished for the winter, all eyes remain on top college players, as fans and front offices alike start to build projections on early selections in April’s NFL Draft.
With the Bears’ season officially wrapped, their head coaching search completed, and their coaching staff quickly coming into place, it is clear that we have officially entered mock draft season. Now while it is impossible to accurately project what players will go where at any point in the pre-draft process, it is evident that there is a strong list of prospects that should already be on the Bears radar even before Pro Days and the NFL Scouting Combine begin.
Besides the quarterback & running back positions, and to a lesser degree the safety position, there really could be an argument made for the Bears using a first round pick on a young standout at any of the remaining positions on-the-field. Most can agree that top positional priorities for the Bears include wide receiver, pass rusher, and cornerback, but given they have just gone through their fourth double-digit loss season in a row, the need for an injection of young talent on both sides of the ball is of paramount importance.
The Bears are currently slated to pick eighth in the Draft, but as we have seen in recent years, General Manager Ryan Pace, has not been shy about moving up to snag his guy or moving down to stockpile additional picks. So, fans should not marry themselves to the idea that the Bears will still be in the eighth slot on draft night.
What can be expected, however, is that with a quarterback-heavy draft class in a quarterback desperate Top-10, the Bears have a great chance at helping themselves mightily by either landing a top two or three rated prospect, regardless of position, or trading back to acquire additional picks.
Top Bears Draft Targets
First things first, we can eliminate the quarterback class from Bears first-round considerations, as well as guys like Saquon Barkley and Derwin James, who are transcendent players, but are blocked by young talent at the running back and safety positions. There are certainly positions of need, but as has been the case with Pace in his first three drafts, he has not been afraid to pull the trigger on a guy he sees star potential in, even if that player does not fill an apparent need. (See: Kevin White, Cody Whitehair, & Jordan Howard).
In a little over three months, Ryan Pace and Head Coach, Matt Nagy, will work together for the first time to select a building block that will add to a bright future in Chicago that already includes young cornerstones like Mitchell Trubisky, Leonard Floyd, Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, and Eddie Jackson. Let’s take a look at some early leaders to be on the Bears’ draft-card come draft night.
School: NC State
2017 Stats: 12 GP, 72 Total Tackles, 23 TFL, 10.0 Sacks
2016 Stats: 13 GP, 56 Total Tackles, 21 TFL, 10.0 Sacks
Height/Weight: 6’4″/275 lbs
Scouting: A prototypical 4-3 defensive end capable of leveraging an elite set of pass rushing skills to go toe-to-toe with opposing lineman. Chubb has the quickness to get around the edge and put constant pressure on the quarterback in passing downs, but is also capable of setting the edge and stopping the run with his sheer size and strength. Chubb shows a relentless intensity and propensity to blow opposing lineman off the ball, which is evident in his back-to-back 10-sack seasons. He would be a perfect fit for any defensive unit, but especially one looking for young pass rushing talent like the Bears.
NFL Comparison: Michael Bennett
He is currently the top pass rushing prospect in the draft class, and is a top-five talent overall. The chances of Chubb being available for the Bears at No. 8 are slim given the natural fit he would provide teams like the Colts (No. 3 overall pick) and the Buccaneers (No. 7 overall pick) who are not looking for QB help. Like Aaron Donald and Leonard Williams, expect the Bears to miss out on Chubb by a pick or two unless they are willing to move up from No. 8.
— NC State Football (@PackFootball) November 30, 2017
2017 Stats: 8 GP, 33 Total Tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4.0 Sacks
2016 Stats: 11 GP, 55 Total Tackles, 12.5 TFL, 11.0 Sacks
Height/Weight: 6’6″/265 lbs
Scouting: A physical pass-rusher with a ton of length, and the long arms to match. Key has shown that he can effectively use his frame to get at the Quarterback to the tune of 12.5 sacks his Sophomore season, a school record. His length is reminiscent of current Bears pass-rusher Leonard Floyd, but Key has exhibited a larger burst and stronger looking physique than Floyd did coming out of Georgia. Key would be a fierce option rushing the passer from the four or five technique, but has also shown he can handle dropping in to coverage when necessary.
NFL Comparison: Carlos Dunlap
Bears Pathway: A disappointing Junior season that included a leave of absence, injuries, and an undesired weight gain, has caused Key’s draft stock to tumble. However, towards the end of the season he was able to get back to being the type of player that scouts saw as a Top-five pick during his record-breaking Sophomore season.
If everything checks out at the upcoming scouting combine, the Bears should still consider Key a top target regardless of his disappointing Junior season. He has shown throughout his collegiate career that when 100 percent, Key has all the tools and the physical attributes to be a high-end pass rusher in the league. Plus, a pairing of Arden Key and Leonard Floyd coming off the edge would cause opposing O-Lines nightmares for years to come.
LSU's Arden Key is an absolute monster💯 pic.twitter.com/XUlgK5kFxX
— College Town™ (@CollegeT0wn) August 17, 2017
School: Notre Dame
2017 Stats: N/A
2016 Stats: N/A
Height/Weight: 6’5″/325 lbs
Scouting: A rare athlete who at 325 pounds has the footwork of a player half his size. Nelson is one of the rare draft prospects who is about as close to a can’t miss as a player can be. As a run-blocker, Nelson explodes off the ball and creates a ton of force that allows him to move opposing rushers where he desires. Nelson is athletic enough to get to the second and third levels, springing his running backs for long gains, as was the case for Notre Dame’s Josh Adams in 2017.
Nelson has also shown an elite ability as a pass-blocker through pure size, strength, and natural instincts. His aptitude for identifying defenders coming from various angles is one of the reason why Notre Dame’s offensive line was one of the best in the country.
NFL Comparison: Marshal Yanda
Bears Pathway: Ability-wise there may not be a better prospect in this year’s draft. The question is really whether or not the Bears see value in selecting at the guard position with their first-round pick. Drafting Nelson would likely mean the end of Josh Sitton’s tenure in Chicago, but would fortify an interior unit featuring former Pro Bowler, Kyle Long and young standout Cody Whitehair.
Ryan Pace has already shown that he is emphasizing the importance of an improved O-Line in 2018, by bringing on Harry Hiestand, one of the best O-Line coaches in football and Quenton Nelson’s former coach at Notre Dame. It will be interesting to see if this early emphasis on protecting the QB and creating lanes for runners will extend to the Draft.
Quenton Nelson for Heisman. That's a 330-pound guard getting across the play to pick up a 190-pound safety. No problem. pic.twitter.com/C1LRk7KldE
— Irish Illustrated (@PeteSampson_) October 24, 2017
And a bonus clip just to illustrate the kind of athlete we are dealing with here…
I don’t think I’ve seen an individual performance by a collegiate offensive lineman as impressive as Quenton Nelson @BigQ56 was against LSU. It’s a literal blocking highlight reel. Terrible conditions. Damn good front 7. What a way to cap an amazing career. pic.twitter.com/JYernzGCy8
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 7, 2018
*Roquan Smith – Undeclared
2017 Stats: 15 GP, 137 Total Tackles, 14 TFL, 6.5 Sacks, 1 FF
2016 Stats: 13 GP, 95 Total Tackles, 5 TFL, 0.0 Sacks, 2 FF
Height/Weight: 6’1″/225 lbs
Scouting: The SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus Award Winner, and All-American, Roquan Smith showed that he has an innate ability to diagnose and disrupt plays quickly form the inside linebacker position. During his dominant Junior season, it was apparent that Smith had more than enough power and speed to not only shed blockers and close down runners, but also contribute in coverage. His aptitude for big hits and sure tackling makes him the top inside linebacker prospect in the draft this year.
As an underclassman, Smith has still yet to declare for the NFL Draft, but with a 13-tackle performance, which included 2.5 TFL in the National Championship game, Smith has raised his stock to the point where many experts now consider Smith to be a lock for the Top-10. Expect him to declare for the draft before the January 15 deadline.
NFL Comparison: Thomas Davis
Bears Pathway: Since Brian Urlacher’s retirement after the 2012 season, the Bears have been looking for the next great middle linebacker to lead the defensive unit back to prominence. Roquan Smith can be that guy. Danny Trevathan is a solid pro, while Nick Kwiatkoski and Christian Jones are nice depth pieces, but adding a natural leader with an unbelievable amount of skill and intangibles instantly makes the ILB position a strength for the Bears.
At only 20-years old, Smith is still growing at a position where he dominated top collegiate competition in the SEC. He would be an ideal piece to add to a defensive unit that is on the upswing with young talent starting to come into their own.
Roquan Smith. Sheeeeesh. pic.twitter.com/ZG0zyxazhM
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 2, 2018
2017 Stats: 13 GP, 60 Total Tackles, 8.0 TFL, 1.5 Sacks, 1 INT, 7 Passes Defended, 1 FF
2016 Stats: 15 GP, 66 Total Tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 Sacks, 6 INT, 7 Passes Defended, 1 FF
Height/Weight: 6’1″/202 lbs
Scouting: Bursting on the scene as a Freshman at Alabama, Fitzpatrick immediately made an impact on a deep squad by exhibiting his identity as a rangy ball-hawk who can see plays develop and make quarterbacks pay for ill-advised passes. Leveraging a strong mix of size, speed, and tackling, Fitzpatrick looks to have all the characteristics to be lock down defender at the next level.
Fitzpatrick showed his versatility with the Crimson Tide, by lining up at both the corner and safety positions, but he himself has admitted that his comfort level is higher at corner. The 2017 Jim Thorpe Award winner is, at this point, head and shoulders above the rest of the defensive back draft class, and should be a lock to break the Top-10.
NFL Comparison: Xavier Rhodes
Bears Pathway: Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara were a strong duo in 2017, but neither players are guarantees to remain with the Bears in 2018. Fitzpatrick would be a perfect option to fit in for either departure here, as he provides the length and the agility to go up against opposing teams’ No. 1 wide receiver.
If the Bears are able to keep Fuller on the roster in 2018, a duo of Fuller and Fitzpatrick would instantly put the Bears Cornerback position at one of the toughest matchups for offensives across the league year in and year out.
— College Football (@CFBvids) August 21, 2017
Best of the Rest
Connor Williams – OT, Texas
Clellin Ferrell – DE, Clemson
Calvin Ridley – WR, Alabama
Denzel Ward – CB, Ohio State
Courtland Sutton – WR, SMU