The Bears have officially been eliminated from playoff contention, which makes now as good of a time as any to begin talking about the NFL Draft.
With two selections in the second round and no other draft picks after that until the fifth round—though they are projected to receive a fourth-round compensatory pick for the loss of Adrian Amos—Chicago will need to get create with how they attack the draft this year.
The Bears could potentially have several needs to address this year, and among them is the offensive line. Even though they kept all of their starters from last season’s unit—one that sent two players to the Pro Bowl and had an altogether good season—their offensive line regressed tremendously in 2019.
Their play at both offensive tackle spots dropped off from last year overall, even though Charles Leno Jr. has bounced back to have a solid second half of the season. James Daniels hasn’t made the leap in his second year that many expected, Cody Whitehair hasn’t been awful but also hasn’t been much to write home about, and both Kyle Long and Rashaad Coward have proven that right guard is a major need on Chicago’s roster.
I will eventually preview the interior offensive linemen in this class, but for now, we’ll take a look at the 2020 draft’s best offensive tackle prospects. As one of the deepest position groups in this year’s class, this year’s pool of tackles features several potential long-term starters, as well as a few under-the-radar gems that could be had later in the draft.
The Bears will have a myriad of other needs this offseason, so there’s no guaranteeing they’ll be able to draft an offensive tackle early this year. However, the position is one of the most important in football, so they might be willing to use a draft pick on one for their long-term benefit.
I’ve already covered this year’s group of quarterbacks and tight ends, and more positional previews will be sure to come as the regular season ends and the offseason approaches. This early in the season, I still have quite a bit of tape to watch before my board starts to become more concrete. A lot can change from now and the draft, and the aforementioned articles have already become outdated in terms of their rankings. At this stage in my draft analysis, this is meant for more of a positional primer for you all to get to know the class a bit better.
So, without further ado, here is how this year’s group of offensive tackles stacks up with each other.
Tier 1: Cornerstone blockers
Prospects: Andrew Thomas, Georgia; Jedrick Wills, Alabama; Tristan Wirfs, Iowa; Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
This year’s group of tackles features several prospects who could potentially be first-round picks, and these four stand out as the most likely to do so. The position is very high in demand in today’s pass-first league, and these blockers have the potential to step in right away and make an impact.
The top tackle on my board is Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, a three-year starter who declared for the draft as a junior. He has the size, athleticism and technique to be a reliable blindside protector for years to come. He’s a fluid mover in space who accelerates to the second level quickly and also has the body control to contain speedy edge rushers in pass protection. Thomas’ pad level and ability to reset his hands to maintain leverage often gives him an advantage against his opposition, regardless of their physical prowess. Though he could stand to develop a little bit more anchor strength, there are very few flaws in Thomas’ game, making him a likely top-10 selection in April.
Perhaps no offensive lineman burst onto the scene quite like Jedrick Wills, who started as a bit of an afterthought behind teammate Alex Leatherwood, whom I’ll get to later. However, with a fantastic breakout junior year, Wills finds himself firmly in first-round discussions. His pad level, hand usage and weight distribution is top-notch, and he complements that technique with a tenacious style of play and fantastic grip strength once he engages with defenders. He explodes out of his stance and shows off good body control on his kick slide in pass protection, and he excels at sealing off holes for his teammate as a run blocker. Wills is far from a stellar athlete, and his testing at the Combine likely won’t be incredible. If you’re looking for a tough-as-nails, technically-sound tackle, though, he’s your guy.
Tristan Wirfs first broke onto the scene in the form of a viral video—he hang-cleaned 450 pounds four times and made it look easy—and it wasn’t long after that draft circles began to take notice of the hulking Iowa right tackle. His strength in the weight room is apparent on tape, as he has a muscular frame and heavy hands that can dish out brutal punishment to the opposition and pound them into the dirt. His consistently low pad level allows him to generate full force when engaging with defenders.
Wirfs is also a nimble big man who has quick feet in pass protection and solid lateral agility overall. His hand placement could become more consistent, and he finds himself falling on the ground too often as a result of poor body control or too much aggressiveness. Overall, though, Wirfs has the makings of a top-notch starter at either tackle position.
Alex Leatherwood first caught my eye as a right guard at Alabama in 2018, but he was moved over to left tackle after the departure of Jonah Williams to the NFL. Unsurprisingly, Leatherwood was able to make a seamless transition to the new position. The move was aided greatly by his impressive athleticism, as he has very good lateral agility and can accelerate to the second level quickly. As a guard, he was utilized often through pull blocks and down blocks, and he showed eye-opening quickness in space. He does a great job of adjusting his hips to knock edge rushers off their arc and take them out of the play, even when he gets beat off the edge.
Leatherwood is a smart blocker who can pick up blitzes and execute combo blocks well in zone-blocking situations, and he plays with a high motor on every down. He could stand to add some more strength to his lower body, and his playing style relies much more on technique than brute force and tenacity. With some additional work in the weight room, he could develop into a top-notch starter almost anywhere along the offensive line.
Tier 2: Reliable starters
Prospects: Lucas Niang, TCU; Josh Jones, Houston; Trey Adams, Washington
The Bears don’t pick for the first time until the second round, which means that the four Tier 1 linemen likely won’t be available when it’s their turn to draft. However, they could opt for one of these players early on, as they would be relatively good value picks at that stage of the draft.
Lucas Niang is a massive but deceptively quick blocker who possesses top-notch physical attributes. For someone who is 6-foot-6 and weighs roughly 340 pounds, he has very good lateral agility and has an explosive burst out of his stance in pass protection. He can block on the move well and accelerates to the second level with quickness and good body control. He also has notable power in his frame, too, and can dish out solid jabs regardless of body positioning. Niang needs to work on his pad level and hand placement, so needless to say he’s far from the most polished prospect in this class. In terms of physical attributes and upside, though, the TCU standout deserve to be an early-round pick.
Speaking of physical attributes, Josh Jones is another high-ceiling prospect with the tools to be a long-term building block on an offensive line. The 6-foot-7, 310-pounder is a four-year starter at the collegiate level and has served as an anchor for Houston’s offense throughout his tenure there. He has incredible height and long arms that scouts around the league will fall in love with, if they haven’t already.
Jones has fantastic lateral agility, can change direction very well laterally and has good overall quickness in space. He takes good angles to defenders on the move and can seal off running lanes for his teammates, and he blocks with a high motor on a consistent basis. He will need some work in the weight room, as his anchor strength isn’t fantastic and he struggles to get his weight underneath him against explosive defenders. His hand usage could also use some improvement, too. Despite some technical warts in his game, Jones is a high-ceiling prospect with the attributes to potentially become a star.
If all went well for Trey Adams, he would likely be a first-round pick in the 2018 draft, finishing up the second year of his professional career right now. A torn ACL and a major back injury later, though, and Adams finds himself somewhat of a forgotten man in a loaded 2020 offensive line class. A monster of a man at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds, the redshirt senior has great length and complements that with an understanding of appropriate hand usage, timing his strikes well and using his hands to maintain leverage on his defenders. He has the raw strength to move the opposition with ease once he engages with them, and he is also an underrated athlete with solid acceleration to the second level.
Adams’ injury history will obviously be of some concern to teams. As one would expect for a man his size, he also struggles with pad level and sinking his hips into contact. However, he has been a highly-touted draft prospect for three years now, and for good reason. He could find himself selected at some point on Day 2.
Tier 3: Developmental linemen
Prospects: Prince Tega Wanogho, Auburn; Austin Jackson, USC; Matt Peart, UConn
These linemen are players I see a lot of potential in, which means they will get drafted far earlier than they should thanks in part to their physical attributes and upside. It may take some time for these prospects to reach their full potential, but if or when they do, the sky is the limit.
Prince Tega Wanogho first appeared on draft radars last season but chose to stay in school for another year. The 6-foot-7, 306-pounder is a very good athlete for his size who has fantastic lateral agility and great acceleration in the open field. He has great length to play tackle at the next level and has a frame that carries a lot of room to bulk up. He has experience playing at both left and right tackle, starting full-time for two seasons while also starting a couple of games in 2017. His pad level has shown some improvement since he first entered the starting lineup, showing his ability to iron out some wrinkles in his game.
Wanogho can still be a bit too high when he engages, and he doesn’t have much strength in his frame yet. He doesn’t pack much of a punch when engaging with defenders, and he doesn’t have the weight underneath him to neutralize explosive pass-rushers. Still, for a player who entered college as a highly-touted defensive lineman, he has made considerable strides in such a short amount of time. His physical upside and proven ability to get better every year will surely see him get drafted higher than his grade on my board.
Austin Jackson came onto the draft scene midway through the 2019 season, and he appears to be as boom-or-bust of a prospect as there is in this group. He, like many linemen already mentioned in this article, is a lengthy lineman with impressive footwork in pass protection who shuffles naturally coming out of his kickslide. Jackson plays with heavy and active hands, and he has shown that he can execute powerful punches and display good grip strength. The former five-star high school recruit has flashed promise in terms of his ability to sink his hips and get his weight underneath him.
At the same time, though, Jackson doesn't play with much of a nasty edge, nor does he have great body control. His weight distribution needs work, as he occasionally lunges too far after his strikes and exposes himself to being knocked off balance. His hip flexibility and set points need some polishing, too, and he can still do a better job of placing his hands inside the shoulder pads of defenders. He will need some developing, but Jackson has the potential to be an early draft pick and develop into a long-term starter.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a lengthy and athletic blocker with technical issues. That description I’ve used for several players in this class also applies to UConn’s Matt Peart, who has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal program. A 6-foot-7, 303-pound tackle with long arms and a lanky frame, Peart does a good job of blending finesse and athletic ability with a tenacious blocking style. He has shown that he can win with inside hand leverage, as well as seal the edge as a run blocker, and he has the mobility to block on the move and keep up with edge rushers with his lateral quickness. The four-year collegiate starter also has experience as both a tackle and a guard and can realistically play at four out of the five offensive line positions.
Peart has a very skinny frame that needs some weight added to it, and he likely won’t be able to get away with some of the strength-related flaws in his game in the NFL as it currently stands. His pad level also needs some polishing. With an offseason or two in an NFL weight training program, though, he could become a rock-solid, versatile blocker.
Tier 4: Late-round fliers
Prospects: Jack Driscoll, Auburn; Hakeem Adeniji, Kansas; Alex Taylor, South Carolina State; Ben Bartch, St. John’s (MN)
Nine offensive tackles were selected in the final two rounds of the 2019 draft, so the concept of drafting a late-round lineman to try and develop a raw blocker into an eventual starter is not a novel concept. Though the Bears have failed with the likes of Jordan Morgan and Tayo Fabuluje in recent drafts, they could try to finally achieve success with that method this year.
Breaking the trend of high-upside, raw prospects is Auburn’s Jack Driscoll, who has more polish than a handful of blockers ranked higher than he is on my board. He has a lot of raw strength in his frame and can physically overwhelm defenders with tight grip strength and a powerful punch at the initial point of contact. He excels at sealing off lanes as a run blocker, and he approaches each snap with a mauler mentality and works hard on every play. He was a dominant blocker for UMass during his first two collegiate seasons, but he managed to make a seamless transition to the SEC in 2018 and still play at a high level.
Driscoll is far from the most athletic lineman, as he is relatively mediocre in terms of lateral quickness and ability to climb to the second level. His body control can sometimes be out of whack, too. He also has occasional struggles with pad level that will need fixing. He won’t be the prettiest pick in the draft, but he can become a quality starter at the next level as a Day 3 pick, and that’s not too shabby.
I talked about Hakeem Adeniji in my first seven-round Bears mock draft of the year already, so I won’t repeat myself too much. Simply put, he is fluid athlete with impressive lateral quickness and good acceleration in space. He has also shown promise in terms of his pad level and hand placement, and he also has starting experience at both tackle spots at the collegiate level, as well as left guard. His play strength needs significant improvement, though, so he would be best suited using his rookie year as a redshirt season of sorts. Adeniji has a lot of potential, though, and he can eventually develop into a starter with some seasoning.
It wouldn’t be a Ryan Pace draft without a small-school prospect, so these next two prospects fit that bill. Alex Taylor has absolutely insane length—he’s 6-foot-9 and 310 pounds. He first joined South Carolina State as a basketball player after transferring from Appalachian State, and though he eventually transitioned to football, his basketball background is apparent on tape. He’s a very fluid mover for his size who can move laterally efficiently and adjust his hips to take the best possible angles to shut down defenders. Taylor also has football in his blood, as his father, uncle and cousin have all played at either the collegiate or professional level.
Taylor’s pad level needs a lot of work, which is expected for someone as tall as he is. He doesn’t sink his hips into his blocks and will need to add some lower-body strength to adjust to the professional game. Though he’ll likely need a redshirt rookie year, his physical attributes will be too much for NFL teams to overlook him in later rounds.
Ben Bartch has only been an offensive lineman at Division III St. John’s for two years, but his dominance against his competition and surprising polish for his inexperience has him all over draft radars. Starting off at 250 pounds as a tight end, he gained over 50 pounds and made the move to left tackle, and he has starred there ever since. He packs a powerful punch upon contact and has strong grip strength, as well as solid bulk in his lower body. His pad level is impressive, considering his inexperience, and he plays with a high motor.
Though he was a tight end before switching positions, Bartch doesn’t appear to have eye-opening athleticism. His lateral agility is average at best, and his footwork in pass protection is still pretty raw. He also needs to get better at his hand placement, as while he can still physically overwhelm Division III defenders with pure strength when he places both hands on their shoulders, he’ll need to do better at getting inside leverage in the pros. With a strong showing at the Senior Bowl in January, Bartch could boost his stock and find himself solidified as a value pick on Day 3.