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2018 college prospect preview: Big 12

As the 2018 college football season comes closer, we’ll examine a few players in each conference that the Bears should keep an eye on. First up, the offensive juggernaut that is the Big 12.

Oklahoma v Baylor
Although not a household name yet, Denzel Mims has the potential to be a difference maker at the next level.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The college football season is 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 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 couple of weeks, we’ll be 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. In this edition, I’m joined by our own Josh Sunderbruch as we look at what the Big 12 has to offer in terms of NFL prospects.

Cream of the crop

Jacob: Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor

What if I told you that the best NFL prospect in the Big 12 came from a team who finished 1-11?

Although Will Grier is likely the highest player drafted from the conference, he’s not the top Big 12 player on my board. That distinction goes to Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims, who finished the 2017 season with 61 catches, 1,087 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He has all of the tools to be a top-end receiver in the NFL, despite not having a lot of hype around him.

At 6-foot-3, 208 pounds, Mims has a long, yet muscular frame built for the NFL. He has a fantastic catch radius, due in part to his long arms and impressive leaping ability. The most impressive aspect of his game is how athletic he is for his size. A track and field star in high school, Mims accelerates off the ball with speed befitting of someone three inches and ten pounds his inferior. He has good straight line speed, fantastic body control, and good overall footwork on his routes.

Although Mims is not a great yards-after-catch receiver and is fairly raw from a route running standpoint, the Baylor standout can potentially turn into a top-end X receiver at the next level.

Given Chicago’s investment in the wide receiver position this past off-season, it is highly unlikely that they consider one early on in the draft. Nevertheless, Mims is an exciting prospect who should generate more buzz in draft circles in the coming months.

Top Bears targets

Jacob: Dalton Risner, OL, Kansas State

Bobby Massie’s contract is up at the end of the 2018 season, and it appears likely that this season could be his last with the Bears. If they want to look for a replacement for him, then someone like Dalton Risner, who started on Kansas State’s offensive line alongside Cody Whitehair in 2015, could fit that bill.

Admittedly, Risner might not play offensive tackle at the next level, as he could potentially move inside as a guard or a center. The three-time captain does project as a good offensive tackle prospect, though, which is likely what the Bears would see him as if they were to draft him.

The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Risner is a powerful blocker that has a good anchor in his lower body. He excels at getting inside leverage on his defenders and playing with a balanced frame. He takes good angles on pull blocks and screens, and he consistently plays with great pad level. While not the most athletic offensive lineman in the world, Risner is a tough and strong player whose versatility could help him rise up draft boards.

I currently project Risner as a second round pick, which is inconvenient for the Bears, since they lack a second rounder in 2019 due to the Anthony Miller trade. However, if the team does well and Risner shows off more lateral quickness, then the two would be a good match in the back half of the first round.

Josh: Breckyn Hager, OLB, Texas

Hager is over 250 pounds and has a 38-inch vertical. That’s not “jump out of a pool” stuff, but the man was named one of college football’s most freakish athletes. He’s explosive, powerful, and he turns a corner well on pass rushes. I have seen him with third and fourth round grades. I’ll admit that most of Hager’s best film comes from 2016, since he had a dip in production in 2017. In all honesty, even if there are reasons for that outside of Hager himself, it’s concerning when someone becomes less productive as they develop.

However, I still think Hager is the kind of player Ryan Pace is going to want to target, especially since his father, Britt, played nine years in the NFL. In this case, if Hager does fall, another Pace project might be a steal. He has a relentless drive to get to the quarterback, and even if he’s only a situational pass-rusher as an outside linebacker (one of the knocks against him), that’s an area the Bears could use help. A mid-round talent with a knack for turning the corner sounds like something Chicago likely needs next year just as much as they are missing it this year.

Late-round sleepers

Jacob: Dakota Allen, LB, Texas Tech

The Bears are in good hands at the inside linebacker position with Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan as the starters, and Nick Kwiatkoski and Joel Iyiegbuniwe as solid depth. However, Chicago could be in a position to truly draft the best player available in later rounds this year, regardless of need. That player could someone like Texas Tech linebacker Dakota Allen.

The Bears don’t typically draft players with questionable pasts: Allen was kicked off of Texas Tech after being arrested for robbery in his freshman year. But he seems to have put his past behind him on all accounts. The 6-foot-1, 235 pound linebacker stood out at East Mississippi Community College in 2016 and was a focal point of the ‘Last Chance U’ documentary series that season. He then returned to Texas Tech and totaled 101 tackles, two interceptions, and two sacks.

Allen is a consistent tackler who takes good angles to defenders in space. He has good closing speed, good acceleration off the snap when blitzing up the A or B gaps, and is a fluid mover in space. He’s great at working off of blocks to make plays against the run, and often jumps on top of gang tackles to further ensure that his teammates bring the ballcarrier down.

Allen is not polished from an instincts standpoint, and one would figure that he could play at a much higher speed with more efficiency if he had better pre-snap awareness. However, he seems to be a prime candidate to stand out as a special teamer early on in his career before possibly settling into a starting role with experience under his belt.

As previously mentioned, the Bears don’t need an inside linebacker, so the selection of Allen could be unlikely even without mentioning his off-the-field track record. He’s a high-upside developmental player, though, and he figures to be a solid late-round draft pick wherever he’s drafted.

Josh: Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma

This one comes with an asterisk or two.

Some boards I’ve seen suggest that Anderson is taken in the first round, and they consider him the second best running back in the draft. Obviously, that would not make him a late-round sleeper.

However, other boards have Anderson out of the top 100. Why? When he’s healthy, the 6-foot-1, 219-pound Anderson plays the position extraordinarily well. However, that’s an important qualifier, because his health has not been exceptional. His running style also subjects him to punishment, exacerbating that issue.

Anderson also has significant character red flags. As Jacob points out, the Bears normally stay away from those concerns, and Pace has been cautious since his first couple of months in Chicago with Ray McDonald. However, it’s hard to tell how things look in 2019, and regardless of how some feel about it, the Bears could end up pushing boundaries they would normally steer clear of.

On the other side of things, Anderson is a dual-threat back with the ability to play as a receiving weapon as well as a runner. He does not shy away from contact either.

If Anderson’s 2018 campaign is shaky and the health concerns re-emerge, then he might slide. Pace has shown himself willing an interested in taking running backs often in the draft, and he doesn’t shy away from an injury history. If, and only if, Anderson comes out and then slides, do I think the Bears could pull the trigger. However, it’ll be interesting to see which Anderson plays in 2018. In that case, it’ll also be interesting to see if Pace maintains his standards regarding the types of players he targets and their character.

Jacob Infante is a Chicago Bears and NFL Draft writer at SB Nation’s Windy City Gridiron. He also covers the NFL Draft for USA Today SMG’s Draft Wire. He can be reached through Twitter @jacobinfante24 or emailed at