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Senior Bowl 2018 Bears Primer: Prospects to keep an eye on

From the highly touted, to the late risers, this year’s Senior Bowl is a talent gold mine for the needs of Ryan Pace’s Bears.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Texas-San Antonio Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

EDITOR: With the Senior Bowl kicking off today at 1:30 pm Central on the NFL Network we wanted to refresh this article on our front page to get you ready for the game. Let us know some of the prospects you’ll be keeping an eye on.

What’s important to remember about NFL Draft season is that it never ends. The constant churning of player evaluations and charting of game tape grinds on even as the NFL season is in full swing. The end of January means this whole process accelerates at a tremendous pace.

Of course, that means as we sit two weeks away from Super Bowl LII between the Eagles and Patriots, a great segment of the NFL will zero in on Mobile, Alabama and the annual college football All-Star game in the Senior Bowl. This is a week where many formerly overlooked NFL stars have been unearthed such as Richard Sherman, Josh Norman, and Russell Wilson. The Bears themselves last year found a potential long-term starter on their offensive line in Jordan Morgan, when John Fox’s staff had an opportunity to coach.

Needless to say, outside of the Scouting Combine and individual player pro days on college campuses later this spring, the Senior Bowl is one of the premier evaluating opportunities NFL teams and prospective players will receive. It’s one Ryan Pace and Chicago would do well to take advantage of again with needs on the defensive edge, receiver, cornerback depth, and more.

(In case you missed it, Jacob had a look at the East-West Shrine game from last week.)

Let’s take a look at both some well-known names and perhaps some underrated targets that will be on hand in Mobile for the Bears to consider by these needs.

Marcus Davenport, Edge, UTSA (South Team)

Pass rushers in the draft will always be at a premium and the lengthy 6-foot-7 Davenport is no exception to that rule. The 22-year-old four year edge rusher out of UTSA is one of the overall most athletically gifted players in the 2018 Draft. Due to that stature and pedigree, currently some mocks have him going as high as No. 7 overall to Tampa Bay - unfortunately before Chicago’s No. 8 overall selection.

Davenport is extremely gifted as a complete defender thanks to his long frame and has proven to be an effective No. 1 pass rusher when relied upon in such fashion (43 pressures on 199 pass rush snaps in 2017 according to Pro Football Focus to go with eight sacks). He’s the kind of player offenses have to scheme around with regularity as a game breaker.

What the defensive end in Davenport does particularly well is how he sets the edge in the run game and how he processes plays. You can move him all over your defensive front because he possesses the awareness, strength, and hand usage that is crucial across the board against any offensive lineman. That assists him not only in the run game, but as a pass rusher who isn’t a one-tree pony. You can’t stop him with one move, and he can be disruptive from anywhere he’s deployed.

Comparisons to current NFL players are often a crapshoot because every talent is unique in their own individual way, but Davenport is already drawing reminders of Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah and even former star Aldon Smith (on the field).

If the Bears are seeking a true starting partner for Leonard Floyd on the edge in the top-10, Davenport will assuredly be that perfect compliment. He also fits the prescribed arm length (if but at a glance without official Combine measurement) that Pace and the Bears seek in their pass rushers. A dynamite week at the Senior Bowl could be all they need to see to confirm their love of him.

Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State (South Team)

NCAA Football: Kansas at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the Bears have a dearth of weapons for their young quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky. If Chicago elects to significantly upgrade the receiver position in both free agency and the draft, the 23-year-old big-bodied Ateman will be an option towards the second round and potentially the latter half of the first. The only real concerns with picking Ateman that high is that he’ll be 24 by September, making him an older rookie, and having a variety of teams pass on him so high because of lost NFL years.

You can’t deny the ability Ateman possesses though, who has a big-man physical game that can immediately translate to the professional level for an impact. Ateman runs the full route tree, has the quickness to beat the press, and the awareness to beat a zone coverage in off-man. He’s simultaneously a threat to take the top off a defense and be an unstoppable red zone force because of his 6-foot-4 frame: a frame that he puts to fantastic use. Get the ball into his hands in any fashion and watch him work (yards after the catch are a clear plus). Eight touchdowns and an average of 19.6 yards a reception in his senior season at Oklahoma State only assist in speaking to that totall skill-set.

What teams such as the Bears will be looking to see from Ateman this week and in the coming months is how he does in strictly one-on-one situations. If he dominates in this scenario, he will end up being a high Day 2 pick, at minimum. He might end up being a fun toy for Trubisky and head coach Matt Nagy to play around with for years to come.

Brandon Parker, OT, North Carolina A&T (South Team)

Based on an exceedingly small sample size, it looks like North Carolina A&T is becoming a scouting hotbed for talent. At least in consideration of the Bears finding their diminutive but electric Tarik Cohen last April, who almost no one had on their radar. The historically black college is starting to gain favorable acclaim in the league for guys that can play at the next level, and for good reason.

This year, the top talent to consider from the school is the freakishly sized Brandon Parker at 6-foot-7, 309 pounds. Parker, at 22-years-old, has had NFL scouts fall in love with him of late due to his gigantic frame and length. With his age in consideration, there’s a lot of hope in a rising ceiling of development for him.

A four-year starter for North Carolina A&T, Parker was the key cog and leader of an Aggies offensive line that helped buoy two black college football championships in three years following a 12-0 undefeated season in 2017. The Aggies have recently had one of the better rushing offenses as well as one of the better protected quarterbacks in their specific college league in the past few seasons, and that’s been in great part thanks to the services of Parker.

For his size - which is again, a must - Parker slides and moves his feet quite well. To the point where you never see him lose a rep because he’s out of position, because you can’t beat him to any spot. There is rarely a wasted movement in conjunction with a pass rusher when watching Parker protect. He doesn’t overreact or break his bubble too quickly so as to ruin his leverage either. He’s always calm and composed, and knows when to attack or let the rush come to him. What stands out in that light, is also his hand usage, as he’s able to stone pass rushers as well as keep control of them on the occasions they do catch him “off guard”.

All in all, Parker has the makings of the ideal blind side protector in the NFL. What must happen now for him is to showcase his ability against fellow NFL level talent at the Senior Bowl. With a good week, he’ll solidify himself as an early Day 3 pick and potentially make a team looking for a long-term starter on its offensive front satisfied. If that organization is the Bears - who under Pace have proven they’ll look in every nook and cranny for talent - then former teammates Cohen and Parker could help create some offensive magic on the lakefront for awhile.

(One can only imagine the lighthearted ribbing the two would do together with the Bears in non-football terms. This team could use more swagger, let’s be honest.)

Getting a short-term developmental prospect such as Parker that might eventually replace one of the Bears’ current tackles is how you set the table for consistent contention.

Jaleel Scott, WR, New Mexico State (North Team)

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, Scott is one of the lankier receiving prospects in this year’s draft class. He doesn’t fit nearly in tune with names such as Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, SMU’s Courtland Sutton, and Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, but undoubtedly possesses some sleeper talent on the outside. A likely Day 3 selection at this juncture, the only concern NFL scouts will have is quickness off the line and the ability to generate separation without posting up.

That’s where Scott’s Senior Bowl week will play in to his eventual draft stock and whether the Bears warrant investing in him. His concerns of one-on-one situations are greater than that of say, Ateman’s, but will pay immediate dividends should he win these battles in Mobile because he has everything else in the package for a receiver.

Some guys that are Scott’s size don’t play to their frame. In his case, he plays above and beyond that stature, constantly using his body control and leaping ability gifts to make freakish contested catches over helpless defenders in the secondary. That translated to nine touchdowns and 1,079 yards in Scott’s final season at New Mexico State. Also to his credit, he rarely catches with his body, which is necessitated for someone of his build. He is someone a quarterback can trust with a heave into blanket coverage because he’s going to protect his passer, bar none. Either he catches the ball or no one does.

For Scott’s size, he’s a solid and underrated route runner who can run the full tree if asked. It’s not about the lack of can do with him here. It’s about whether he should, and if it maximizes the best of his ability, which might limit his output in the NFL.

As mentioned the primary concern - and it could prove incremental - is how Scott wins against press coverage in the NFL, especially against guys that can match up with him physically. The ideal pro cornerback isn’t the 5-foot-11 man of old. You have the long Jalen Ramsey’s and Patrick Peterson’s of the world now that take away those contested leaping catches. Scott will be placed in these struggles all the time at the next level and will be expected to win. If he proves capable, he’ll be a diamond in the rough No. 1 for any team such as the Bears that takes the flier on him.

Darius Phillips, CB, Western Michigan (North Team)

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Even with a strong week at the Senior Bowl, it’s uncertain Phillips will merit an early weekend selection in April’s draft. Let’s be clear: many teams will regret passing on the well-rounded Western Michigan product.

The 5-foot-10, 190 pound four-year starter is one of the most underrated prospects in the entire draft class because he’s a jack-of-all trades. Phillips is a cornerback who is physical as a run defender as he doesn’t shy away from contact, an athlete with the necessary instincts and toughness to lock down receivers of any mold, and the ball skills (12 interceptions in his last three seasons) to have defensive coordinators salivate at his field-tilting ability.

What you always look for in secondary players is hip fluidity, pad level, and instincts. Phillips has all three in spades and rarely wastes a step while backpedaling or working in tune with offensive players. Anticipation, awareness, and finishing. The core tenets of playing defensive back.

In essence, savvy and complete corners such as Phillips are those who can swing the outcomes of football games. Which is an understatement as to what he offers, because he’s a complete football player as he also adds value as a four-year kick returner: scoring five touchdowns and averaging 24.6 yards a return over the course of his underrated career. Something to keep in mind for the Bears if you want to give Cohen a spell as a higher used offensive weapon.

If the size concerns don’t matter for you (they shouldn’t as you see him flash), then nabbing a guy like Phillips in the mid-rounds of the draft is the type of pick that swings the fortune of a franchise defensively. Let’s not pretend the Bears won’t have a cornerback need (especially in depth) even if Kyle Fuller returns. Chicago could desperately use some more playmakers on the back end, and they’d do much worse than an addition of Phillips.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.