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Bears 2019 College Prospect Preview: SEC

With the college football season set to begin, we will be taking a look at a couple of players in each conference that the Bears should keep an eye on. In this edition, we look at some of the best in the SEC.

NCAA Football: Alabama A Day Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

As has become traditional here at Windy City Gridiron, we want to bring you a look at college players we believe might make good Bears in the near future. For this season, the crew consists of Erik, Jacob, and Josh. We’re teaming up to provide some insight into potential targets for the Chicago Bears, along with the top prospects overall for each college conference.

First, some basics. Unless Ryan Pace makes a move (and you know he probably wants to), Chicago will not be drafting in the first round. However, the Bears will have an opportunity to find some talent. They currently have a pair of second-rounders (theirs and the Raiders’), their own fifth-rounder, two sixth-rounders (theirs and the Eagles’--unless it’s upgraded), and their own seventh-rounder. They might end up with a fourth-round compensatory pick, too. It’s unlikely they’ll be getting that conditional pick back from Gruden any time soon, though. That’s six picks for certain and maybe another one.

That means that Chicago doesn’t have a lot of firepower, but there’s the potential to address some needs. To kick things off, we are starting with the SEC, where national runner-up Alabama and several other teams are loaded with potential prospects. We will then make our way through the other major conferences before looking at the Non-P5 schools and independents. Here are our collective thoughts when previewing the 2020 draft prospects.

Josh: I’m really hoping Pace lets the board come to him and simply takes the two most-talented players to fall into the second round. I have the Bears as needing new blood at edge rusher, cornerback, offensive tackle, tight end, and (flinches) possibly quarterback. That’s a lot of openings for a team with so little draft firepower. I am therefore looking at everyone.

Jacob: The 2020 draft will be a very important one for Ryan Pace to nail for the Bears’ future. With several positions standing out as potential holes due to expiring contracts or potential cap casualties, Chicago will be able to go in a variety of different directions with their selections. They have two second-round picks next year (thanks, Jon Gruden), but I fully expect them to trade back with at least one of them, knowing how much Pace values mid-round draft slots.

Erik: I do not expect Ryan Pace to deviate from his “best player available” approach anytime soon. Especially not the 2020 draft, where he currently owns two picks in the 2nd round and has already built a strong core of players. For me, I currently foresee defensive backs (safety and corner) and tight end as primary needs on their roster. I will not be surprised to see Pace move up once again to get “his guy,” though. This next draft class is, arguably, the most talent enriched group we have seen in a decade.

Last year saw Kyler Murray’s quick ascent as a previously unknown player to Heisman Trophy winner, and there are surely plenty of surprises ahead. However, these are players we suggest to keep an eye on heading into the 2019 season.

Cream of the Crop

Erik: Tua Tagovailoa - Quarterback, Alabama (6-1, 218lbs). No, I am not advocating for a new quarterback in Chicago. With that addressed, all eyes of the football world will be on the young signal caller for Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. The 2019 NCAA National Championship Game did not go well for Tua. Ironically, that happened a year after he had his breakout party during the previous national championship game. He is still one of, if not the top prospect for the 2020 NFL Draft.

The lefty has a wicked cannon for an arm with pinpoint accuracy. His mechanics are generally sound in comparison to his peers, he drives off his front foot and the ball takes off smartly as it flies in a tight spiral. When combined with his athleticism, pocket awareness, and high football IQ; he is the complete QB prospect scouts dream of in the NFL. Only Trevor Lawrence is an equal to Tua, and Clemson’s phenom is not draft eligible until 2021 at the earliest.

People will look at the 6’1” 218 lb quarterback and tell me he’s too “short” for the NFL. I’ll promptly point to Drew Brees and Russell Wilson as reasons why height doesn’t really matter. The game has evolved to the extent quarterbacks are required to be dual threat players, Tagovailoa is such a player.

However, as we witnessed in the SEC Championship Game and the National Championship Game last year, he can crack if an absurd amount of pressure hits home. Georgia and Clemson happen to have two of the best coached defenses outside of Alabama. If you consider that on top of less-than-inspirational performances by Bama’s offensive coordinator, it’s understandable why Tua didn’t have his best games.

Unless he has a terrible 2019 season, or if he decides to wait until 2021, I expect Tua’s name to be the first off the board when the NFL Draft begins in Las Vegas next year.

Jacob: Jerry Jeudy - WR, Alabama (6-1, 192lbs). My top two draft prospects for the 2020 class so far both hail from the SEC, and it was challenging for me to determine which player I wanted to discuss. Grant Delpit is a do-it-all safety who checks every single box for a top-tier defensive back prospect. The 6-foot-3 LSU product is intelligent, fluid, big, physical, and fast: a true blue-chip safety. However, I want to talk about a player who could end up being the best collegiate wide receiver I’ve ever watched.

Jerry Jeudy is, to be blunt, phenomenal. The rising junior caught 68 passes for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2018 as a true sophomore, tallying a whopping 19.3 yards per catch. He did so despite fighting for touches with three players picked in the 2019 draft, a potential first-round wide out in Henry Ruggs III, another stud in Devonta Smith, and a possible 2021 first-rounder in Jaylen Waddle. On one of the most stacked teams in the nation, Jeudy stands out as the most talented.

Jeudy is without a doubt the best route runner I have ever watched at the collegiate level. His physical abilities, combined with his intelligence and understanding of the art of route running, make him nearly impossible to cover. His dominance starts right after the snap, when he either bursts up the field with fantastic acceleration or explodes out of a hesitation in press-man coverage to fly past his man. He understands the concept of leverage very well, and he is able to diagnose the alignment of his defender and exploit that to create separation. At the top of the route, Jeudy has incredible direction-changing ability, he can flip his hips smoothly, and he can sink into cuts with impeccable sharpness. His stems are fantastic, as he makes it incredibly challenging for defensive backs to determine where his routes are going to go.

An All-American as a sophomore, Jeudy is also a nightmare after the catch who has fantastic body control, lateral agility, and contact balance. He is best suited for the Z receiver position, where his athleticism will flourish with a little bit more separation from his defender. The Bears don’t need any more receivers, and there is no chance that Jeudy will be available for them, even if they trade up into the back end of the first round. It may seem crazy to select a receiver in the top 3 of the draft, but I wholeheartedly believe that Jeudy is worth that selection.

Josh: Albert Okwuegbunam - TE, Missouri (6-5, 260 lbs). I think Okweugbunam is on a course to be the best tight end in the 2020 draft, and that means that he will likely be gone before the Bears have a chance at him. He is powerful, fluid, and moves like a man unafraid of contact. Read Erik’s fantastic write-up of him below for more detail.

Top Bears Targets

Erik: C.J. Henderson - CB, Florida Gators (6-1, 202 lbs). It’s way too early to project needs accurately. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to stockpile on talented DBs, particularly since Chuck Pagano loves to utilize dime and nickel packages in his defense. Plus, there is the remote chance that Prince Amukamara becomes a cap casualty.

C.J. brings a complete game to the Corner position; moreover, his size and mirroring skills are matched with physicality and aggression to make tough plays in the secondary. He tackles with authority and isn’t afraid of doing the dirty work in cleaning up runs to the boundary. On top of everything, he has excellent control and balance with his body, enabling him to go up and contest with dynamic receivers that are found frequently within the SEC.

What docks him from being the very top DB in this draft class -- I currently have Trevon Diggs as that guy -- is Henderson doesn’t shed blocks as well as he’s capable of. He could also improve his hand placement when pressing receivers off the line of scrimmage. Both of those concerns are coachable, and Florida has regularly produced fine DBs in recent years.

The 2020 draft is projected to be deep at DB, with Henderson as one of the top prospects to be had. I think he would fit perfectly within Pagano’s defense. Given such a strong class of prospects overall, it’s not out of the question Henderson falls within range of the Bears’ grasp. If a run on DBs happens early, he’s good enough to justify a trade to move up in the draft. That is, if it turns out he’s Pace’s guy during this next year’s draft.

Jacob: Alex Leatherwood - OG, Alabama (6-6, 310lbs). The Bears could go in a lot of different directions with their two second-round picks next year, but a potential position of need could end up being offensive guard, where Kyle Long, who will be 31 in December, could be nearing the end of his time with the team. They have a club option on the former Pro Bowler at the end of the 2019 season, and keeping him around would give them a $9.6 million cap hit. If Chicago chooses to look for a replacement, then Alex Leatherwood would be a fantastic fit for the job.

Chicago’s zone-blocking scheme emphasizes a lot of movement for its offensive linemen, so picking a blocker who is light on his feet is essentially a requirement. James Daniels certainly fit the bill in 2018, and Leatherwood would do the same in 2020. Alabama has utilized him often on pull blocks and down blocks, and he has showcased very good fluidity and good acceleration coming to the second level. He has the lateral agility to keep up with edge rushers on stunts, as well as more explosive interior rushers.

Leatherwood blocks with very good pad level and consistently blocks with his weight underneath him. His hand placement could be improved, but he has flashed some promise in that area in college. He blocks with a high motor and never gives up on plays, even when he loses at the initial point of contact at the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide standout is also an intelligent blocker who can carry out assignments well in zone situations. Plus, he already plays as a right guard for Alabama, so a position change would not be necessary.

As was the case for Daniels coming out of Iowa, Leatherwood needs to add a bit more strength to his frame and would benefit from some time in the weight room. However, the 6-foot-6, 311-pounder has Day 1 starting upside and would fit in very well with the Bears’ offensive line.

Josh: K’Lavon Chaisson - OLB, LSU (6-4, 240lbs). Chaisson lost a year to an ACL injury, and he doesn’t need to come out this year. It’s likely that if he doesn’t feel he will go in the first round, he will stay and LSU and build another year of tape and stats in order to (rightfully) move up the draft boards. However, I cannot help but like his skill set. He’s fast and fluid. He can actually line up over receivers and manage coverage duties, but he also has a distinct ability to get to the passer when he’s set loose.

The other thing I like about Chaisson is that he does not rely on a single move to shed blockers. He can find the opportunities based on what the offensive line gives him. I’ve seen him use power, speed, and technique at different times in order to pressure the quarterback. Given the premium put on edge rushers, he will probably be gone before the Bears can take him.

Hoping They Slide

Erik: Albert Okwuegbunam - TE, Missouri (6-5, 260 lbs). That last name is more impressive than even my own….oh, and he’s an incredible athlete. He is one of the few bright spots on a Missouri team that’s struggled to gain any footing in the SEC. This guy is a match-up nightmare for any modern secondary in both the collegiate and professional level.

Albert is a big play weapon who creates separation by his combination of size and speed to box out would-be defenders. His 40 time is rumored to be as high as within the low 4.5 range. Those hands of his are some of the most powerful magnets in existence, he’ll catch anything and everything within his large radius. And he brutalizes anyone who would dare contest for the ball with him.

His blocking could use some work, as he sometimes throws himself off leverage when overextending while downblocking. Then again, Missouri hasn’t utilized Okwuegbunam as a blocker nearly as often as a jumbo receiver. His route running could use some slight refinement and be a touch more crisp. He doesn’t come across as someone with a bad attitude, yet it has been mentioned that he can be somewhat of a challenge for coaches to handle from time to time. It’s his concentration that needs the most work; he has occasionally dropped easy completions when he loses focus during the play.

He is also coming off a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the final 4 games of last season. Otherwise, he has been relatively healthy. When Albert is fully motivated he is the best tight end in college football. That, also, could be the reason why he (hopefully) slides out of the first round. Whoever spends a pick on him will be making a gamble, as he’s his own worst enemy when it comes to success. For the Bears; however, he’d be a potentially tremendous weapon IF he falls into their lap.

Josh: Kristian Fulton - CB, LSU (6-0, 192lbs). Fulton is an interesting prospect to me. He is a fantastic coverage corner, and his ability to mirror receivers is fantastic. In all honesty, he will probably be gone well before Day 2. However, there are two reasons to think he might still be available. The first is that while he’s physical in coverage, he’s not the world’s most accomplished tackler. He is way better at keeping a connection from happening than at doing something once the connection is made.

The second flag for some teams might be that he was suspended a year for a failed drug test. Actually, he was originally suspended two years for tampering with a test, because he was afraid they were testing for THC (they were actually testing for PEDs). I don’t mind a 20-year-old whose worst decision is using a recreational drug, and so long as he has gotten smarter about his choices, he could be a steal.

Jacob: Dylan Moses - ILB, Alabama (6-3, 233lbs). Is it cheating if I just choose Alabama players for every single one of my entries?

Danny Trevathan will be a free agent at the end of the 2019 season, and his previous three seasons with the Bears indicate that he could be relatively pricey this offseason. Joel Iyiegbuniwe has yet to prove himself capable as a reliable defender, while Nick Kwiatkoski’s contract also expires after this year. That said, if Dylan Moses is somehow available when the Bears pick in the second round, then he would be a slam-dunk pick by Ryan Pace.

The 6-foot-3, 233-pound Moses is a reliable tackler who has fantastic range as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. He has great closing speed, takes great angles to the ball carrier, and has the raw athleticism to beat running backs to the edge on runs outside of the tackles. He is very quick to diagnose plays, and his athleticism allows him to act upon his quick reads and make the stop more often than not. Moses plays with a high motor and consistently fights to get towards the ball. He has good strength in his frame and can plug up holes in the run game pretty well. His length also makes him a high-upside developmental piece in coverage.

Though Moses doesn’t have incredibly fluid hips or block-shedding ability, he has the instincts, speed, and tackling consistency to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL. Having him and Roquan Smith at the second level would give the Bears’ defense that much more upside.

Later Round Hopefuls

Erik: Darrell Taylor - OLB, Tennessee (6-4, 247lbs). You can never have too many quality pass rushers in the NFL. With Taylor, he is someone that could shoot up the draft boards if he has another quality season like he did in 2018. This is a player who doesn’t look for low-hanging fruit, he’s actively seeking to make the biggest play possible. To say he has a great motor would be an understatement. Taylor possesses a decent amount of moves to shed blocks, although he doesn’t strike with much force.

As it stands, I see Taylor as a 4th round pick. He does need to get more physical when setting the edge. Too many times would he attempt to run around his blocker instead of running through them. He’s flashed the physicality from time-to-time; he just needs to do it more. If you don’t get physical at the LOS in the NFL, you’re not going to earn a starting role. He has decent size, but he could help himself by adding another 10 pounds of muscle.

He registered 8 sacks and 3 forced fumbles last season, and if he can drastically improve as a run defender, I can see him going much earlier than expected.

Jacob: Cale Garrett - ILB, Missouri (6-2, 230lbs). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one player on Missouri, as fellow WCG colleague Jake Meister and I serve as the resident Tiger fanatics on staff [oh, great, there’s two of you - Erik]. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam is my highest-rated Tiger on my board, but he will likely be selected in the first round. Instead, I chose an All-SEC linebacker with the toughness and grit that Chicago fans love in their athletes.

Cale Garrett enters the season on the watch list for the Butkus Award, which is given to the best linebacker in college football at the end of the year. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior has totaled 205 tackles and 16 tackles for a loss in his past two seasons and has had a clean bill of health in his career. He is a reliable tackler who plays with good pad level and carries a lot of strength in his frame. He takes very good angles to the ball carrier, he is quick to diagnose plays, and he is able to act upon his reads pretty quickly.

I really like the motor with which Garrett plays his game. He’s never the fastest guy on the field, and he doesn’t have much fluidity when he’s changing directions in space. However, he makes up for his pedestrian athleticism by playing at full speed on every down, and that hustle allows him to make tackles from sideline to sideline.

I personally will be watching a lot of Missouri football this fall, but Garrett will be one of the players I keep an eye on the most. Though I wouldn’t see him as a replacement for Danny Trevathan in the starting lineup, I could see him playing a Nick Kwiatkoski-line role for an NFL team in the near future.

Josh: Jon Greenard - OLB, Florida (6-4, 263). I’m not sure where to put Greenard, who just transferred to Florida after playing for Louisville. I do know that he has the physical tools to be an NFL player, assuming that he can come back from an injury that basically took away his senior year of play (he had already red-shirted his first year).

If Greenard can string together some strong play in 2019 for his second team, he might be able to impress scouts and (given the premium put on pass-rushers) end up making a place for himself early. Or, spending a single season playing Buck in the Gator defense, plus having some injury concerns, could be enough to make NFL teams worry he’s not a fit for their systems. One way or another, I want to keep an eye on him.

Featured Game

Erik: Florida vs. LSU (Oct. 12)

Yes, I am a Gators fan myself. With that in mind, here’s a game that’ll highlight a lot of our top prospects to watch. It’ll also be the part of the season where there’s more at stake, i.e. ranking and positioning for the NCAA playoffs. This rivalry has always produced tense moments and amazing plays that football fans remember for years.

The top headliners in this game will be C.J. Henderson and Grant Delpit roaming their respective secondaries. Plenty of talent will be displayed in other positions, like David Reese and Van Jefferson for the Gators; along with K’Lavon Chaisson and Michael Divinity Jr. for LSU. It will also be a great glimpse for talent in the 2021 draft.

This game should be another down-to-the-wire classic, provided all the key players are healthy at this point in the season. Joe Burrow will challenge C.J. Henderson and the Gators’ defense vertically down the field, while Felipe Franks leads a multifaceted offense against Grant Delpit and a stacked Tigers front seven. Both of these DBs will need to make big plays against the run and pass, in an environment which will surely have plenty of NFL scouts in attendance.

Jacob: Alabama vs. LSU (Nov. 9)

Truth be told, any Alabama football game is a must-watch for fans of both college football and the draft alike. However, their most talented opponent they face in the regular season is LSU, so this matchup will end up being one of the biggest matchups of the season.

Tua Tagovailoa leads an Alabama offense stacked to the brim with offensive weapons, including Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Najee Harris. Their high-octane offense will square off against LSU’s defense, which features studs at all levels of the field. Rashard Lawrence, K’Lavon Chaisson, Kristian Fulton, and Grant Delpit are among those I will have a sharp eye on.

The big question is if LSU’s offense will have enough firepower to fight against an Alabama defense that returns the likes of Raekwon Davis, Terrell Lewis, Anfernee Jennings, Dylan Moses, Trevon Diggs, Shyheim Carter, and Xavier McKinney. Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow returns to an offense that loses 1,000-yard rusher Nick Brossette, but still features 6-foot-2 receiver Justin Jefferson and could see Clyde Edwards-Helaire emerge as the new starting running back.