Hendrick Ekpe didn’t receive much praise leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft. He wasn’t at the Scouting Combine, he wasn’t profiled by any major media outlet, and the scouting services that did rank him, did not place him in a range where he was expected to be drafted or guaranteed to be picked up as an undrafted free agent.
In an interview following his biggest game of the season - a career-high two sack performance against Rutgers, Ekpe talked about his plans after college. He focused less on his NFL dreams than he did on finding a way to combine his marketing degree with his love of working with children. If everything goes right for him through training camp and preseason, he may have to settle for marketing child-sized navy and orange Ekpe jerseys for the next few years.
Ekpe was a two-year starter in the Big Ten, playing defensive end in the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ 4-3 defensive scheme. He was often lauded by Gophers beat writers and coaches as a player ready to “break out.” He showed more steady progress through the years but never had an exponential step forward to qualify as a break out season. This steady progress culminated in a senior season with 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and a forced fumble.
On tape, he flashes an explosive first step, but does not time it well consistently. He can win with leverage on the outside, and has the play strength to bull-rush offensive linemen, but he is often controlled by a single blocker and his spin move seems to do little more than prolong his time removed from the play. His best traits might be his awareness and drive. He doesn’t get tricked by play action, draws, or screens. On one particularly impressive tackle-for-loss against Iowa, he recognized the screen and stayed patiently with his blocker. As soon as the pass was thrown, he shed his block to tackle the receiver right as the ball arrived.
Earlier in that same game, he was chop-blocked at the beginning of an outside zone run to the opposite side. The run broke away for about 30 yards, and at the end of the play, Ekpe was the second-closest Gopher to the runner and was gaining ground. He didn’t make the tackle, but he displayed the drive to regain his balance and stick with the play to the end while showing off impressive play speed for his position.
In interviews, he comes across as thoughtful and confident. He projects a good understanding of defensive strategy as well as the offensive schemes of his opponents. When asked about what’s important for success, Ekpe sticks to well-trodden territory: put in the work, focus on fundamentals, do your job and wait for the plays to come (i.e. don’t abandon your role for the chance to make a flashy play). These may all be clichés, but they are the clichés you want to hear from a player competing for a fringe roster spot.
His pro day workout showed respectable defensive line numbers: 4.87 forty-yard dash with a 1.63 10-yard split; 22 bench press reps; 31.5 inch vertical; a 9.5 foot broad jump; as well as a 4.47 shuttle and a 7.33 three-cone.
The most impressive of these (if accurate) is his 10-yard split, which equaled No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett and would have put him in the top ten among linemen who attended the combine. However, in the Bears 3-4 scheme, he will be competing for an outside linebacker spot, and his numbers are less impressive when compared with other linebackers.
Weight: 245 pounds
Contract and salary cap
According to Over The Cap, Ekpe’s undrafted free agent deal with the Bears is for three years, $1,665,000, with none of it guaranteed. He has a base salary of $465,000 in 2017 which will escalate to $555,000 in 2018, and $645,000 in 2019 (should he be on the roster). He has no performance incentives or bonuses and his base salaries are his exact cap hit for Chicago.
Reason for improvement in 2017
Ekpe improved steadily throughout his college career, and he comes across as a hard worker with a high football IQ who will be responsive to coaching. The Bears’ coaching staff should be an improvement over his college crew, and they may be able to release that “break out” potential many Gophers fans saw in him.
Reason for regression in 2017
He may not adjust well to outside linebacker or to a 3-4 scheme. And with below-average athleticism for a linebacker, NFL speed could be an issue. Or he may perform admirably, do everything right, look promising, and still never make the 53-man roster.
Final roster odds
There’s no denying it’s a long shot for Ekpe to make the final roster. He may be the least heralded of all of the Bears’ undrafted free agents this season. His intelligence, work ethic, motor, and dependability are all attractive qualities to have in a backup and could help him land the last outside linebacker slot over a more hit-or-miss prospect. For that to be a possibility, he will have to exceed expectations, show immediate-contributor ability on special teams, and hope that an older, perhaps injury-prone, veteran is cut in favor of infusing more youth into the position. All of this adds up to a roughly 10 percent chance of making the team.