The college football season is just around the corner, which means that the next few months will be full of major upsets, nail-biting finishes, Cinderella teams and flat-out entertaining football. They will also serve as a time for NFL Draft nuts to find the best player in the upcoming draft class, discover a few hidden gems and determine which prospects would be good fits on their favorite professional team.
For the next few weeks, I’m going to be going from conference to conference, finding the best player, a potential Chicago Bears target and a sleeper to give you all a general idea of what to keep an eye on in the coming college football season. We did this concept last year and enjoyed doing it, so we decided to bring it back for another year. This week, we’ll be taking a look at the conferences outside of the Power 5 - the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC - and seeing which prospects to remember over the next few months.
Cream of the crop:
Jacob: Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
It’s highly unlikely that the Bears will be able to draft Ed Oliver in next year’s draft, as he currently projects as a consensus top-five pick at the very least. Defensive tackles normally don’t go that high, which serves as a testament to just how talented he really is.
One could make a realistic claim that Oliver is the most gifted player in all of college football. The six-foot-two, 290-pound defensive tackle out of Houston is the most athletic defensive lineman to enter the draft since Aaron Donald in 2014, and Oliver has the potential to be just as good as the Los Angeles Rams star, as well. He fires off the ball with an insanely explosive first step, plays with a very high motor and has the speed to chase down running backs in space and match them step for step.
Oliver can convert speed to power at an incredible rate, and he has the ability to consistently get inside leverage on an offensive lineman and just flat out toy with them. He has a handful of pass-rushing moves in his arsenal, and he excels at turning the corner on stunts. He can improve on eating up gaps against the run, and his game would benefit from adding a little bit more mass to his frame. However, Oliver is an elite defensive prospect who gives physically-gifted prospects from years past like Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney a real run for their money.
The former five-star recruit probably won’t be available when the Bears pick in the draft come next April. He’s better suited as a 4-3 defensive tackle than a 3-4 defensive end, too. If he just so happens to be available when Chicago gets on the clock, then the decision to draft him would be a no-brainer in most cases.
Top Bears targets:
Jacob: Sutton Smith, EDGE, Northern Illinois
As if the recent injury scare surrounding Leonard Floyd didn’t make it apparent enough, the Bears are extremely thin at the outside linebacker position. None of the players currently projected to make the roster outside of Sam Acho are reliable enough to be expected to stay healthy for an entire season, and, outside of Floyd, none of them would start on the vast majority of other NFL teams.
Edge rushers who are six feet tall and weigh 225 pounds aren’t usually the most attractive options when the NFL Draft rolls around. Scouts typically love long, lengthier prospects at the position, so the smaller edge rushers usually tend to fall down the draft board a little bit.
That said, though, Sutton Smith is not your average undersized edge rusher.
The local product Smith is a fantastic athlete with incredible production who dominated the MAC in 2017. He ended his redshirt sophomore season with the highest totals in the nation in tackles for a loss and sacks with 30 and 14, respectively, with the latter statistic tying current Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Joe Ostman. Smith has great explosion off the snap, fantastic speed in space, great lateral quickness and, quite possibly, the best bending ability in the nation. His rather small stature allows him to get under offensive tackles and get leverage easily. He has a solid array of pass-rushing moves in his arsenal, and his hands are always active. For his size, he is also good at eating up gaps against the run, and he plays with a high motor.
Smith plays as a defensive end at Northern Illinois, so he will have to work on dropping back in coverage in order to prove that he can make an impact in the NFL. He may even have to transition to an off-ball linebacker if teams aren’t persuaded that he has the strength to take on NFL offensive tackles. Regardless of where he plays at the next level, Smith is a fantastic athlete who can rush the passer at a very high caliber.
Jacob: Jamal Davis II, EDGE, Akron
The Bears will almost certainly pick an edge rusher early on in next year’s draft, but it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see them double down on the position. If they choose to do so, then a high-upside sleeper like Jamal Davis II would be a fantastic pick on Day 3 of the draft.
Davis only had two sacks in 2017, so he is fairly unproven as a pass rusher. However, it’s his athletic upside that makes him an intriguing NFL prospect. The six-foot-four, 235-pounder has great speed off the edge, fires off the ball and can move with impressive lateral quickness. He has great straight-line speed, can work off of blocks to make plays in space and has the athleticism to chase down running backs in space. Davis is good at getting his hands inside of the shoulders of offensive linemen, and he has solid bend when turning the corner. The redshirt senior spent his first year at Pittsburgh before joining the Akron program in January of 2016.
That’s not to say that Davis is a finished product, though. Although he has a few good moves in his pass-rushing arsenal, such as an effective swim move, but he will need to add some more techniques to his game to become a more productive pass rusher. He also lacks top-end strength in his lower body, as his anchor isn’t much to call home about. He can also be a little bit high in his pad level when engaging with blockers. Davis also doesn’t have a lot of experience against NFL-caliber offensive tackles, which makes his lack of pass-rushing production that much more concerning.
Despite his question marks, Davis is a long and athletic edge rusher with a lot of room to grow into a solid contributor at the next level. The Bears would be wise to bring him on as a long-term rotational piece down the line.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.