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College Prospects Preview: Kickoff

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It’s not just pro football that’s starting soon. The college season is approaching fast, and it’s only natural that Chicago fans will keep an eye out for talent that might improve the Bears in the future.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

All optimism aside, it’s highly likely that the Bears will probably have 6 or 7 wins next season. Any worse, and the team is even farther away than we hope. Any better, and then perhaps we should just stop worrying and trust Ryan Pace and John Fox to handle things. Over the last few years, a six-to-seven-win performance would land a team a pick somewhere in the range of 8th to 14th pick in the draft. With an “extra” fourth-rounder in his pocket, Pace could conceivably move up a spot or two (like he did for Leonard Floyd and Mitchell Trubisky), but having spent a third-rounder already, his potential to be really dynamic is limited. It’s even possible that he’ll move down in the first, but we’ll believe it when we see it.

In the future, each edition will take a look at a different conference, but to kick of this series, we’ll go through the non-Power 5 players. To be honest, due to the availability of games, many of us will probably only watch these guys intermittently. For later editions, though, there’s a real chance to watch these players on Saturday and make wishlists.

Josh: The Bears’ likely draft position (#8 to #14) means that at least when I’m looking at players who might be potential Bears, I’m assuming that the really top guys will be out of range. Not everyone is going to think that way, though. It’s reasonable to think that the Bears will struggle enough, or that Pace will trade aggressively enough, that even one of the top two or three players in the draft is on the board.

Heading into this next year, I find myself looking for “Pace” guys, instead of trying to single out players I, personally, might choose for the Beloved.

Jacob: This year is a bit of a do-or-die season for John Fox. One more bad year, and he could be looking for a new job come January. Ryan Pace isn’t on as hot of a seat, but another bad season would undoubtedly affect his job security quite a bit.

Despite all of the work the Bears did in the offseason, they still have a handful of needs that must be addressed. If Pace - assuming he stays on as general manager after the year - can fill them next offseason, then he could finally bring Chicago out of the NFC North’s cellar.

Top Targets:

Heading into 2017, exactly one Ryan Pace pick has seen the field for more than a handful of snaps so far. Pace needs to get the best possible players out of his top picks, and while Kevin White is a question mark and Mitchell Trubisky is a walking Pandora’s Box of hope and fear alike, Leonard Floyd has turned out okay so far. What’s next?

Josh: I think Pace wants the kind of player who gets stats. He wants his top draft picks to be stars, and so that’s what I’m looking for here.

Courtland Sutton-WR, SMU (6’4, 218lbs) fits the bill. Sutton had over 1200 yards last season and 10 touchdowns. A converted defensive back, he’s got a big body and is already getting buzz as one of the top wide receiver candidates. If he just doesn’t get hurt and holds on, he might even go before the Bears pick, as some folks think he might be the best receiver available next year. Regardless of how I feel about receivers in the first round, it’s obvious Pace doesn’t share my sentiments.

Jacob: I don’t like to be unoriginal, but I have to agree with Josh here.

The Bears have a fairly deep group at wide receiver, but none of them are true No. 1 guys. Courtland Sutton - WR, SMU (6’4”, 218 lbs) could be that player. Not only is he big, as Josh mentioned, but he’s a great athlete, as well. He blends strength and physicality with finesse and solid route running ability. He is very good when going up for 50/50 jump balls, which is a factor the Bears will likely miss with Alshon Jeffery gone. I expect Sutton to be a first-round pick, and he could be a good option for Chicago to help boost their wideout group.

Hoping They Slide:

One of the best things that can happen for a team is that a talented player who fills a need slides for some reason. Maybe there are four great tackles in the draft but only three teams are interested in building their lines in round one. Perhaps a potential difference-making 3-4 OLB is on the board when four or five 4-3 teams are picking in a row. It happens.

Josh: I’m skeptical that Pace will spend his top pick on an offensive lineman, unless it’s much later in the draft. However...

Mike McGlinchey-OT, Notre Dame (6’8, 312lbs). McGlinchey is currently the top tackle prospect heading into the 2018 draft, per CBS Sports (and many, many other sources). Even assuming that the Bears are drafting in the Top 10 next year, unless something goes wrong for McGlinchey there’s a good chance he will be gone before the Bears pick unless they have another season like 2016. However, if he falls through no fault of his own, it would be a shame not to take a chance on him anywhere after #10.

Jacob: Chicago has a fairly solid group at edge rusher, but they could use some more youth at the position.

Enter Jaylon Ferguson - EDGE, Louisiana Tech (6’5”, 255 lbs). He will be entering his junior year, so there’s no guarantee that he’ll be in the 2018 NFL Draft. If he is, however, then he should be a player to focus on. Ferguson is coming off of a season in which he recorded 14.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss. He also had an impressive freshman year, when he had six sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. In fact, current Bears offensive tackle Dieugot Joseph told me that Ferguson was the best player he had ever faced at the collegiate level.

The Louisiana Tech product isn’t much higher than a Day 2 pick at the moment, but that could definitely change over time. Since the Bears don’t have a third-round pick, they’d be better off selecting him in the second round.

Later Round Hopefuls:

If a team is really going to build through the draft, the team needs to find 3-4 eventual starters a year. That means that while the quarterbacks and elite edge-rushers might be the exciting players to watch, it’s really the ability to find talent in later rounds that could make the difference. There are players who won’t make a “Top 20” list who are still worth keeping an eye on, both because they’re exciting players and also because they might make a difference for the team that lands them in later rounds.

Josh: Honestly, the later rounds are the best places to take a chance on non-Power 5 guys. One example for a later round might be a little more visible, just because NDSU gets some coverage these days.

Nick DeLuca-LB, NDSU (6’3, 236lbs). DeLuca spent 2016 on the bench rehabbing a shoulder injury. Add that to the fact that he plays for North Dakota State, and it’s easy to see why he might be a late-round pick. However, as the Bison website is proud to report, he was also nominated for the Butkus Award, and in his junior year he had 59 solo tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, 4 quarterback pressures (3 sacks and 1 hurry), 8 plays on passes (including 2 interceptions), and a pair of forced fumbles. If he comes back from his surgery at that same level of performance, he might make an interesting alternative to Nick Kwitkowski and the aging interior of the Beloved.

Jacob: Given that the 2017 season hasn’t started yet, there haven’t been a lot of small-school prospects that have broken out yet. However, there is a player who has succeeded at a Power-5 school who looks to dominate a smaller stage.

Kareem Orr - CB, Chattanooga (5’11”, 195 lbs) transferred over from Arizona State at the end of his sophomore year. He broke out in a big way with his freshman campaign, when he tallied six interceptions. His total fell to one in his sophomore year, but he improved statistically in tackling and passes deflected. Now that he’s playing at Chattanooga, the competition he faces will be a step down from Pac-12 wideouts. This could be the year he comes back to his freshman form.

The Bears still need help at cornerback, despite the additions of Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper. If they were to pick up a free agent or draft someone at the position early on, then they could double down and add Orr as a solid depth piece.

Next up will be the ACC, but for now we’re asking that you tell us who you might be watching outside of the Power 5.