Training camp has officially kicked off for the Chicago Bears, meaning that the 2018 football season is just around the corner. The team has made a lot of moves over the offseason, and expectations are the highest they’ve been in quite some time.
Although their roster now seems to have upside and potential, it’s still far from a finished product. There are still a handful of holes on the roster that they will look to fill next offseason. While it may seem early for NFL Draft discussion, the upcoming class seems to be quite the talented bunch.
From tenacious edge rushers to big-bodied wide receivers, the 2019 class has a lot of talent at a lot of positions. Here are five draft prospects whom the Bears would be wise to keep an eye on in the 2018 season.
Rashan Gary, EDGE, Michigan
Given their offseason acquisitions - on their roster and on their coaching staff - the Bears seem destined for some sort of improvement in 2018. However, there’s always a chance that their record doesn’t change as much as some expect it to. Considering how tough their division is, it could be tough to sneak out of the basement in the NFC North. If such a situation takes place and the Bears don’t compete for a wild card spot, then Michigan edge rusher Rashan Gary would be a fantastic consolation prize.
I was heavily debating between putting Gary and Clemson edge rusher Clelin Ferrell here, but I opted to go with Gary for two reasons. The first reason is that a good chunk of Bears fans are already well acquainted with Ferrell from last season, as he was linked to the team in many mock drafts before he decided to stay in school. The other reason is that Ferrell is a bit more pro-ready than Gary, and he will more than likely end up getting picked before the Bears end up on the clock, regardless of how they do next year.
Gary has been in the spotlight since he played in high school. In his senior year, he was unanimously named the No. 1 prospect in the nation by 247Sports, ESPN, Rivals and Scout after tallying 13.5 sacks and 29 tackles for a loss in nine games. As the first five-star signing of the Jim Harbaugh era in Michigan, Gary entered Ann Arbor with sky high expectations.
Last season, Gary totaled 58 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss in 13 games. While his production wasn’t necessarily elite, he has flashed unparalleled athletic traits since he first put on the maize and blue.
To put it bluntly, Gary is freaky fast. The six-foot-five, 281-pounder absolutely blew up the Michigan Spring Combine last year, posting a 4.57 40-yard dash and a 6.7 three-cone drill, among several other impressive numbers. Even if those times are somewhat fabricated, it’s fair to say that his athleticism is apparent on tape.
Folks, I know Rashan Gary has some things to work on, but that is a 20-year-old, 6-foot-4, 280-pound man exploding off the edge like that, and there simply aren't many who could replicate that at his size. pic.twitter.com/92e4ynh6HJ— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) July 22, 2018
Gary consistently fires off the snap with jaw-dropping acceleration that no man his size should physically be able to have. He has great bend off the edge and can turn the corner well, and he has the speed to chase down running backs in space. He plays with a high motor, takes good angles to the ball carrier and can convert speed to power very well. Gary plays with solid pad level and doesn’t get too high very often when engaging with blockers. His versatility is a plus, too: he has experience lining up off the edge with his hand in the dirt and as a stand-up edge rusher, and he has also had reps as an interior defensive lineman.
Gary has a good rip move and can get inside leverage on the bull rush, but his overall technique needs some work. He doesn’t have a ton of pass rushing moves in his arsenal, and can be taken out of plays if he doesn’t win the initial battle with the offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage. His size makes his fit at the next level a bit confusing, as he’s bigger than most edge rushers but smaller than most 3-4 defensive ends. Nonetheless, he’s an uber-athletic player who should be able to succeed no matter where he plays in the NFL.
Even if Leonard Floyd has a massive breakout year, Kylie Fitts stays healthy and Aaron Lynch reverts back to his 2015 self, the Bears will be in the market for an outside linebacker early on in the draft. If they end up going 5-11 or 6-10, then Gary would be a possible draft target and a fantastic addition to the team.
Joe Jackson, EDGE, Miami (FL)
If the Bears take a bigger step up in 2018, though, then Joe Jackson from Miami would be a great addition to their edge rushing group.
Joe Jackson - not the former White Sox player or the father of the Jackson 5 - has had a productive collegiate career so far. The rising junior has had 14 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss through his first two seasons and is being projected by Athlon Sports as a preseason All-ACC Second-Team player in a conference that is absolutely stacked along the defensive line.
Jackson has a pro-ready frame at six-foot-five and 258 pounds. He has an intriguing blend of size, speed and strength that projects him as a future NFL starter. He fires off the ball with impressive acceleration, and he can bend and turn the corner well when rushing off the edge. Jackson is athletic enough to be able to chase down running backs in space, and he plays with a high motor on every snap.
Miami should be hoisting the Turnover chain a great deal again this year. Big fan of that defense, especially with Joe Jackson as their star pass rusher. pic.twitter.com/H7wjp6mvti— Jonathan Valencia (@JonValenciaBF) June 21, 2018
His ability to convert speed to power is among the best in the class: he has a tenacious bull rush that showcases his ability to get inside leverage on blockers and use the anchor in his lower body to drive them backwards. Even when he’s locked up with a blocker and has lost the initial battle at the line of scrimmage, he can still manage to make something out of nothing and use his lower-body strength to generate some pressure.
Jackson doesn’t have an incredibly deep array of moves in his arsenal, and he isn’t great at redirecting blocks and plugging up holes in the run game. He also doesn’t have experience dropping back in coverage, which he will more than likely have to do, considering that he’s the perfect size for a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Jackson’s physical traits, though, are top notch, and he has the production to prove that he can be a threat at the next level. He would have the potential to be a consistent producer off the edge for the Bears for several years.
Greg Little, OT, Ole Miss
Charles Leno Jr. is one of the more underrated players on Chicago’s roster. He’s so underrated, in fact, that he’s almost become overrated. Nevertheless, he’s a decent starter who won’t need to be replaced any time soon. It’s the right tackle spot, though, that fails to elicit as much confidence.
Bobby Massie will hit the open market next offseason, and he hasn’t been consistent enough to warrant being considered a long-term option. The Bears don’t really have any young depth projects along the offensive line except for Jordan Morgan, who’s much better suited to be a guard in the NFL. Adding an early draft pick like Greg Little would be a great way to ensure that Mitchell Trubisky stays upright for years to come.
Little, not to be confused with the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver of the same name, is anything but: he stands in at six-foot-six and weighs approximately 325 pounds. He was the No. 2 high school prospect in the 2016 graduating class behind the aforementioned Rashan Gary. He originally verbally committed to Texas A&M, but decommitted days after doing so and eventually joined Ole Miss.
Little is a very good athlete for his size. The rising junior has a solid kickslide, quick feet, impressive lateral quickness and can advance to the second level quickly. He also takes good angles to defenders in space. Given his length and athleticism, he will likely be able to play left tackle at the next level, even though playing right tackle isn’t out of the question, either.
Little has shown that he can play with a squared frame and good pad level, which, combined with his lower-body strength, allows him to combat bull rushes with pure power and refined technique. He can also pick up double-team blocks and pack a punch.
Little doesn’t necessarily play with a nasty edge, and he sometimes tends to take plays off if he isn’t directly engaged with someone. His ability to counter pass rushing moves still needs some work, too, as his hand usage is inconsistent and his technique can fall apart on occasion.
Little isn’t a finished product yet, so selecting him would bet on the hope that he develops into an impact player with time. His physical traits are among the best in all of college football, though, and he has shown the ability to be a top-tier blocker as both a pass protector and a run blocker.
Andraez “Greedy” Williams, CB, LSU
The Bears gave rather pricy extensions to both Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara this offseason, but the former isn’t an ideal No. 1 cornerback, while the latter doesn’t have much room to grow and has an out in his contract after 2019. That said, Chicago could look to draft a cornerback at some point next year. Who better to add than someone whose nickname is “Greedy”?
Andraez Williams, known better by his nickname, is a rising redshirt sophomore who figures to be the next stud cornerback to come out of LSU. As a redshirt freshman last season, he led his team and tied for the fourth-highest interception total in the nation with six. He also broke up ten passes and added 38 tackles.
Williams has a long and lanky frame at six-foot-two and 183 pounds. He’s a fantastic athlete for his size who accelerates very well coming out of his breaks, can change direction very well and is very good at mirroring his receivers’ routes. He has great straight-line speed and can match receivers step for step on deep routes.
Williams has good physicality at the line of scrimmage and has shown that he can jam receivers in tight press man coverage. His ball skills are among the best in this year’s class, and he can position his body to make catches and deflect passes in ways that a good chunk of cornerbacks can’t do in college.
While his coverage abilities are impressive, he still has work to do as a tackler. He’s average at best at shedding blocks, and even if he does shed his blocks then he’s no guarantee to bring the ball carrier. He doesn’t play with a very high motor against the run and often stands there and watches when a gang tackle is being made.
Overall, though, Williams is a tall and athletic cornerback prospect with plus skills in coverage. He currently figures to be a mid-first round pick for many, so the Bears would be in range to select him if they were to go 7-9 or 8-8.
Michael Jackson, CB, Miami (FL)
Not to be confused with the famous singer of the same name, Miami’s Michael Jackson is a Bad man who is a Thriller of a prospect and can rob passes like a Smooth Criminal.
I’ll be here all night, folks.
The rising senior was a three-star prospect coming out of high school, and received sparse playing time in his first two seasons. He broke out in his junior year with four interceptions, which tied for the highest total on the Hurricanes with fellow draft prospect Jaquan Johnson, who himself could be an early draft pick next year.
Jackson has ideal size for the boundary cornerback position at six-foot-one and 200 pounds, and he has long arms and a pro-ready frame. He’s physical at the point of attack, and he does a good job of jamming wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and knocking them off of their pattern. He has fluid hips, can change direction well and has good deep speed coming out of his breaks.
His ball skills are also impressive, as he can position himself to make a play on the ball very well. He’s good at tracking down deep balls and can high point a pass fairly well, too.
Jackson’s also one of the best tacklers at the cornerback position in the 2019 draft class. Considering that he also has experience as a safety, that’s not necessarily surprising. He’s a form tackler who takes good angles to ball carriers and can lower the boom if necessary.
Jackson isn’t spectacular in zone coverage; his strength comes in press man coverage. His instincts aren’t entirely developed yet, so he can have the occasional lapse in judgment when operating in zone. His athleticism is solid and is quite good for his size, but he isn’t a freak of nature in that regard.
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has a penchant for lengthy and physical cornerbacks, and Jackson fits that bill to a T. Kyle Fuller currently specializes as a off-man defensive back, so adding someone who excels in press-man would be a great compliment to his skill set. Jackson would be a great target in the middle of the first round.
Jacob Infante is a Chicago Bears writer at SB Nation’s Windy City Gridiron. He is also an NFL Draft writer at USA Today SMG’s Draft Wire. He can be reached through Twitter @jacobinfante24 or emailed at email@example.com.