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Draft Bytes: News, rumors and thoughts on the 2016 NFL Draft

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The return of return men, a Buckeye bonanza and a heavy hitter that would look great in a different shade of blue and and orange next fall.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Regional Combine results are starting to trickle in and mock draft season has landed in full force. Tons to talk about in Draftland so let's get to it.

Top Takes:

1.) Wherefore art thou punt return ace? This take was sparked by a reader question (thanks to WCG user JonKneeV) that I thought I'd answer quickly with just a couple of names. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: that simple idea morphed into a mini-research project, and now it's dominating the article this week. I love draft season. JonKneeV asked: "Is there a WR we could take late that could be a development slot WR/scatback/return man that you like? Two years ago I really wanted the Bears to take a chance on De'Anthony Thomas (Oregon) because I thought at the very least he would be a good return man. He's shown some playmaking abilities in a reserve role in KC as well. Anyone like that that doesn't have huge upside but can still be a very valuable player on a roster?"

Excellent question, and thanks for sending me down the rabbit hole. The Bears return game has been lackluster for a few years now and after Devin Hester's remarkable run with Chicago that's hard to take for most Bears fans. So where should the Bears look for a returner to spice things up and help them win the field position battle?

To fully address the question you have to consider the rule changes in the NFL. The NFL has deemphasized the kickoff return in response to concerns about player safety. They may well eliminate it entirely in the future, so pure kick return specialists have much less value than they used to, as their chances to influence a game will be very limited. Punt returns on the other hand will be much harder to legislate out of the game. Based on that, quality punt returners will continue to carry some value moving forward. Either way the Bears are likely looking for a bottom-of-the-roster player who is explosive on returns and will contribute in a limited way in at least one other phase of the game (dime back, 5th wide receiver, etc.).

I focused my search for such players in this draft using the return averages leaderboard from the 2015 college football season. All stats are courtesy of http://www.ncaa.com/stats/football/fbs/. I was looking for seniors (or draft-declared juniors) who returned a minimum of 10 kicks or punts, had a decent average return and scored at least once. Kickoff and punt returners have different skillsets so I weighted the punt return data more heavily (for the reasons stated above). However explosive kickoff returners who have value in other phases should not be totally overlooked, so they were still included on the list. Without further ado, my unofficial list of later round (and possibly undrafted) special teams aces for the Bears to target in the 2016 NFL Draft:

  • DeAndre Reaves - WR, Marshall (5'10"/179) - Kick return average (KRA) was 30.1 yards on 23 returns this year. Scored twice on kickoffs and once on a punt return this season.
  • Carlos Wiggins - WR, New Mexico (5'8"/166) - KRA of 27.6 yards on 24 returns. Scored once on a kick return this season and has 5 in his college career. Despite being tiny he has legitimate track speed, good hands and is a decent speed threat at WR. Plus, the Bears have good luck with Lobos, right?
  • Morgan Burns - CB, Kansas State (5'11/201) - Massive KRA of 33.8 yards (3rd in the nation) on 34 returns. Scored 4 TD's on kick returns this year and 1 TD on a punt return. Could have some additional value as a core special teams tackler/5th cornerback.
  • Cyrus Jones - CB, Alabama (5'10/196) - Returned 4 punts for TD's this season (1st in the nation). Legitimate potential as slot CB. Has a higher profile than anyone else on the list and most certainly would cost a draft pick.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Hunter Sharp - WR, Utah State (6.0/200) - Opened some eyes at the East West Shrine Game. Has real skills at WR and could be a 3rd wide receiver in the NFL. Will get drafted in the mid to late rounds for his receiving skills but did return a kick for TD this season.
  • Demarcus Ayers - WR, Houston (5.11/190) - On the smaller side for an NFL WR but is very fast and has great hands (only 2 drops this year). Was return man as a freshman in Houston with a respectable 27.6 yard KRA (37 returns) and a 95 yard return TD that season.
  • Derek Keaton - WR, Georgia Southern (5'10"/180) - Had a terrific punt return average (PRA) of 15.3 yards, but did not find the endzone on a return during his college tenure. He was the All-Sun Belt First Team Return Specialist this season.
  • Tyler Ervin - RB, San Jose State (5'10"/192) - Played much lighter during the season but weighed in at the Senior Bowl bulked up at least 15 pounds. Shows legitimate burst and could be a 3rd down threat as a runner or receiver. 15 yard PRA (only on 7 returns) but he did take one back for a score this season.

2.) It's good to be a Buckeye. Ohio State has an absolutely loaded draft class this year. By the time it is all said and done it might turn out be an historic one. The scariest thing is that they are chasing their own record. 14 OSU players were drafted in 2004. They broke Miami's previous record of 11 that was set in 2002. Ohio State has 14 players headed to the Scouting Combine this year, far more than any other school. The quality of the class is amazing. It contains one the best overall prospects in the draft (J. Bosa), and top-5 positional talents (arguably) at 8 other spots (RB Elliott, WR Thomas, OT Decker, TE Vannett, DT Washington, WLB Lee, CB Apple, FS Bell). That's a stunning amount of quality players from a single school. If you factor in that Noah Spence started out at OSU (before being kicked out and landing at Eastern Kentucky) this class has unprecedented talent. As an aside, the Bears could do a whole lot worse at ILB than Buckeye middle linebacker Joshua Perry. He's getting a little overshadowed by the flood of players headed out of Columbus this year, but he has skills and is a load at over 250 pounds.

3.) Lester posted a very timely offseason piece this week about the state of the Bears center position. Some interior lineman played well at the all-star game practices and it's starting to look like there's some solid depth in this class of centers. Not a ton of guys who will knock your socks off, but the kind of gritty contributors who can make a roster with some positional versatility and stick long term as effective, low-cost options that really help a 53-man roster. Not surprisingly more than few of them hail from Big 10 schools that have a strong tradition of offensive line play. Some names to keep an eye on include Max Tuerk (USC), Jack Allen (Michigan State), Graham Glasgow (Michigan), Ted Karras (Illinois, listed as OG, but may play C as well), Matt Skura (Duke) and Cole Toner (Harvard, currently an OT but may kick inside).

Player's Lounge- Every week I will look at a player who is trending in the draft process

Keanu Neal is name I didn't hear until a few weeks ago in scouting circles. Living in the NW whenever I hear someone described as "the next Kam Chancellor" or "Mini-Kam" I get interested very quickly. Chancellor is a force for the Seahawks and a very effective defensive weapon against both running plays and passes to TE's. He was also a draft steal in the 5th round. Neal is a 6'1" and 216 pound junior safety for the Florida Gators and the Chancellor comparisons come into focus when you watch him hit. He has no reservations about laying the lumber. None. I watched Florida's game against Alabama and Neal waged a war against Heisman Trophy winner Derek Henry. Derek outweighs Keanu by 26 pounds but the Florida safety gave him no quarter in multiple high-impact collisions. Neal is one of those defenders who just knows how to maximize his mass and transfer its effects to opposing players. He has long legs and good speed once he gets going. His play recognition is good and once he locates the ball he comes downhill in a hurry; against the run or the pass. It has been a while since the Monsters of the Midway had a monster hitter in the middle of their defense. Seeing Neal team up with Adrian Amos next year in Chicago would be a very intriguing and exciting possibility.

Reader Question of the Week - I'll pick a question from a reader each week and answer it here. If you have a question you'd like to be considered you can either leave it in the comments section below, or send it to me directly on Twitter (@thedraftsmanFB) with the hashtag #askEJ.

Twitter user @1YUNGSPAM asked: "...what do you think of Bryce Williams or Ben Braunecker as late-round TE picks to compete with Khari Lee?". I certainly think Lee will face competition for the backup TE on the Bears roster this year. It could come from multiple free agents, from a late round draft pick or an undrafted free agent. Bryce Williams from East Carolina will probably be drafted in the middle rounds as he has both good size (6'5"/260) and some skills to go with it. With the overall lack of TE talent in this draft there is only a very slim chance he lasts until the late rounds.

Braunecker on the other hand could certainly be there late in the draft or in the UDFA frenzy. As TE from Harvard he had a bit of breakout season as a pass catcher. He is unsurprisingly (for an Ivy League player) not huge, but certainly not tiny at 6'4"/240.  He shows decent speed, movement skills, leaping ability and knack for contested catches. Depending on his combine performance (especially his strength and explosion numbers) he could be worth a flyer if Bears coaches decide they want a smart (his major at Harvard is molecular and cellular biology), versatile player to move around the offense and special teams. I could see him being move/Joker TE, H-back (if he can improve his blocking) and core special teams player.

That's all for now... Stay tuned to WCG for more NFL Draft coverage as the week rolls along.