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Bears 2019 College Prospect Preview: Big Ten

The college season will offer some exciting football in its own right. However, it will also feature players who might soon be about to make the transition to playing on Sunday. Here’s who we like in the Big 10.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 Iowa at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With football starting up again, Windy City Gridiron is once more highlighting college players we think will be worth tracking heading into the 2020 draft. The three of us (Erik, Jacob, and Josh) are working our way through the conferences in order to look at potential targets for the Chicago Bears and some of the top overall prospects, as well.

We started with the SEC [Here]. Now we’re on to the Big Ten.

Just a reminder about draft position. The Bears have two 2nd-round picks, but then they have no picks until the 4th round (if they get a compensatory pick for Adrian Amos) or the 5th round (which they have on their own). They should end up with three picks after that (one from the Eagles, their own 6th, and their own 7th). Some fans are counting on a 5th-rounder from the Raiders, but it’s conditional. With the way Ryan Pace moves around, this probably translates as four or five selections between the second and sixth round.

Josh: Four of Pace’s selections have come from the Big Ten. James Daniels, Jordan Howard, Jeremy Langford, and Adrian Amos all came from the “home conference” of the Chicago Bears, so we know he’s willing to look through these players.

Jacob: As one of the premier collegiate conferences, the Big Ten produces high-quality players year in and year out. The Bears have the advantage of being geographically located adjacent to nearly every team, so expect their scouting staff to do their due diligence on the numerous top prospects the Big Ten will put into the draft. Pace has selected a Big Ten player in three of his five drafts as general manager of the Bears, so don’t be surprised if he takes at least one in 2020.

Erik: As Josh mentioned earlier, Ryan Pace has selected a few players from this conference in recent years. Where the SEC is home to the most athletic phenoms, the Big Ten is home to the most pro-style systems along with pro-ready players. Defense reigns supreme in this conference, but do not ignore the talent available on offense.

Cream of the Crop

Erik: Chase Young - EDGE, Ohio State (6-5, 265 lbs). You want to talk about speed and explosiveness coming off the edge? Chase Young displays that better than any other player to be had in the current pool of prospects. His stock rises even higher when considering the quality of competition he faces off against throughout the season.

He is a top-five player in this class because of his freakish ability to go edge-to-sideline in a blur. Once he turns the corner, you’re not getting away from him. Combined with his non-stop motor, and his lightning quick first step, Young has been one of the most disruptive players I’ve seen in quite a while. His understanding of rushing angles and ability to set a firm edge is what distinguishes him from the rest in his position.

My only real knock on him is being okay, not great, when playing against the run. He’ll merge into the line of scrimmage quickly; the moment he’s challenged to fight off his blocker, he hasn’t displayed the level of violence expected out of a top prospect at EDGE. This is not to suggest he’ll be a liability, far from it. He’s the real deal with an incredibly high ceiling for any team looking to boost their edges on defense.

Jacob: Tyler Biadasz - C, Wisconsin (6-3, 316 lbs). Biadasz likely would have been a first-round pick in this year’s draft, had he declared. However, he returns to a Wisconsin offensive line as the clear-cut best player in the unit after the departures of David Edwards, Michael Deiter, and Beau Benzschawel.

The 6-foot-3, 316-pound Biadasz is an intelligent and technically sound blocker along the interior. He plays with great pad level, blocks with his weight underneath him, and consistently places his hands inside the shoulder pads of defenders. He is a nimble blocker who has good lateral quickness in space and can accelerate well to the second level.

His intelligence shows up in spades when watching his tape, as he makes smart decisions in zone-blocking situations, picks up blitzes, and assists on double-team blocks well. Entering his redshirt junior year with the Badgers, Biadasz will have three seasons as a starter under his belt with one of the best offensive line schools in the nation.

Biadasz will need to add a little bit more anchor strength, as he can struggle with defenders who can convert speed to power well. In nearly every other aspect of the center position, though, he is at least above average, if not better. The most impressive anecdote about him is that he was actually recruited as a defensive end coming out of high school. Not only did it take just a redshirt season for him to crack the starting lineup, but he has proven himself as arguably the best interior offensive lineman in college football.

He won’t be a target for the Bears, but any center-needy teams in the back end of the first round would be smart to take him.

Josh: Tristan Wirfs -OT, Iowa (6-5, 320lbs). Wirfs is already considered a Top 10 prospect by some, with Russell Brown of Cover1 going so far as to call him the best right tackle in college football. Wirfs is an athletic marvel, with power that is record-setting (he managed four reps of 450lbs, a record at Iowa), a vertical leap that is unfair (35 inches) and a pedigree (he’s an offensive lineman from Iowa) that is tough to challenge.

He is decidedly better as a run-blocker than a pass-blocker, and there are times when he does not know exactly what to do with his feet. However, this is more because he has not needed to pick up those skills than because he lacks the ability, and he shows every sign of being able to make the transition. For those who believe football is won in the trenches, Wirfs is the kind of player who makes you feel much better about your team’s chances to move the ball.

Top Bears targets

Erik: Tyler Johnson - WR, Minnesota (6-2, 205 lbs). Here is a player who has caused a lot of arguments among scouts when grading and projecting to the next level. I have seen people rank him as high as the 2nd round, and as low as the 5th. A cause for that is how sudden he burst onto the scene as a Junior in a crowded Big Ten conference.

I have placed a 2nd round grade on Tyler. He 1) creates big plays frequently and 2) is one of the smoothest route runners you’ll see this year. He generated 29 plays that exceeded 15 yards last season, a real testament to the suddenness he plays with while the ball is in his hands. He has a knack for reaching just the right elevation to contest for jump balls. In total, he recorded 1,169 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns on 78 receptions. That translates to almost 15 yards per reception, 14.99 to be exact.

Evidently, there are people who aren’t too impressed with his physical stature. Minnesota currently has Johnson listed at 205 lbs, which seems a little light for someone standing at 6’2”. As a result, he has been knocked off his routes when jammed hard and early. He is not the fastest receiver you’ll see clockwise, given his 40-yard dash is projected to be within the mid-to-high 4.5 range. The question for Johnson will be if he can regularly fight off physical coverages against larger, more aggressive corners that he will see regularly in the NFL.

If he adds some more bulk to his frame, along with continuing to perfect his route-running, I think he’ll be a stud. He’s a big play weapon that would be an outstanding fit for Matt Nagy’s offense as the Bears look to surround Mitchell Trubisky with more talent.

Jacob: Ben Bredeson - OG, Michigan (6-5, 320 lbs). The Bears currently lack a long-term replacement at guard for Kyle Long, who will be 31 in December and has missed 22 games in the past three seasons. If they choose to not bring him back when his contract expires this offseason, then Ben Bredeson could be an ideal target for them on Day 2.

Bredeson is a nasty, take-no-prisoners blocker who also plays with very good technique. His 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame gives him ideal length and bulk for the interior offensive line. He plays with active hands and excels at resetting his hands and getting the inside leverage. When engaging with defenders, he does a good job of blocking with his weight underneath him, and he has good recovery strength in his lower body. He constantly blocks with a high motor, showing the willingness to block to the whistle and pancake his defender into the ground. Bredeson was voted a team captain in 2018 as a junior and was a full-time starter for the past two years after winning the job a few games into his freshman year.

The biggest weakness in Bredeson’s game is his relatively lackluster athleticism, as he doesn’t have great lateral mobility or acceleration to the second level as a run blocker. Though he would benefit from some work in that department, that doesn’t totally discount him as a fit in a zone-blocking scheme like the Bears’. He is an intelligent blocker who constantly locks down his defenders and is able to create holes by sealing off players in his zone. I see him as a first-round investment, but Chicago would likely be able to secure him with one of their second-round picks.

Josh: Yeter Gross-Matos - OLB, Penn State (6-4, 265lbs). This already feels like he might be out of range, because Gross-Matos is picking up buzz. As recently as June, I was able to find boards placing him in the 30s range, which suggested that the Bears could make a move and get him. However, now I see him climbing up to being a solid round one target.

Why the move? Because he stands out on tape and finishes. He has impressive speed for his size, but there are plenty of big and ast guys in college who rely on being big and fast without actually getting anywhere when it’s all said and done. That’s not Gross-Matos. Instead, he pursues and takes players down. That’s a big part of why he finished 2018 with 20 tackles for a loss and 8 sacks, but it might also be enough to move him out of the range of where the Bears can snag him.

Hoping They Slide

Erik: Tristan Wirfs - OT, Iowa (6-5, 320 lbs). I do agree with the suggestion Wirfs is the best right tackle expected to be available in the 2020 class. Josh, as we can see, is a big fan of this player. So am I, yet I do not see him as a top ten prospect.

Players who are seen as right tackles are generally valued less than players whose’ skillsets translate to left tackle. This is due to the emphasis of having dependable protection for your QB’s blindside, and the vast majority of said QBs being right-armed in the league. Because of his limitation to playing on the right side as a tackle, or perhaps even sliding inside as a guard, I see his value being no higher than the mid first round.

Still, Wirfs is a legit monster at his position.

His nastiness is what stands out the most for me. He will lock onto you, bounce you to the sidelines, then throw you out of the club. Like most Iowa Hawkeye linemen, his technique and fundamentals are already as good if not better than some veterans in the NFL. For a man that is of his size, he’s pretty damn quick. He can pull while climbing the ladder in lead blocking for his backs.

Wirfs truly struggles when facing off against speed specialists. He doesn’t kick out particularly fast while gaining depth to set up adequate pass protection. His footwork is decent, yet not elite, and he can be thrown off balance with a good spin move. He has more than enough upside to warrant consideration in the first round, though. Wirfs could be a potential steal that Harry Heistand would work wonders with.

Josh: Lavert Hill - CB, Michigan (5-11, 181lbs). First, I do not believe the reported weight of Hill. He might be north of 180lbs with his gear on, but that’s a stretch. Hill excels at coverage, and he can do a very good job of staying in step with receivers. The best way of explaining his style of play is that he limits a receiver’s opportunity to make himself available. Sometimes he does it with his hands, sometimes he does it with his positioning, and sometimes he just fights for the ball.

On the downside, while Hill is considered by many to be a top corner, he is undersized and he shies away from contact. His size makes him better suited to playing nickel, but his lack of physicality makes him less than idea in that sort of high-traffic area. Honestly, this is why I think he might be available to the Bears, who need a nickel and who can train into a young player an intelligent way to engage in the middle.

Jacob: A.J. Epenesa - EDGE, Iowa (6-6, 280 lbs).There is little to no chance A.J. Epenesa falls out of the first round, but one can dream, right?

Epenesa is a lengthy, productive, and powerful pass rusher with a high upside at the next level. He rushes with incredibly violent hands, each punch, stab, and swipe carrying an impressive amount of power. Strength has always been a big role in his athletic background, as he broke the Illinois state record for discus throwing in high school.

Though his hands are dangerous mostly due to their strength, he also uses them with solid quickness, countering offensive linemen relatively well. Epenesa’s get-off speed is intriguing for a 280-pound rusher, and his closing speed as a tackler in space is also pretty good. He broke out as a true sophomore last season with 10.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for a loss, and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t at least match those numbers in 2019.

Where Epenesa struggles is in his flexibility. His ankles have solid flexibility when he turns the corner, but his larger frame makes it tougher for him to dip his hips. He carries a lot of power in his frame, but he does struggle a bit with converting speed to power when he accelerates off the snap. His lateral agility in space is also questionable at best.

Epenesa would be a better fit as a 4-3, hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, but he offers versatility in a 3-4 scheme as an edge rusher who can also slide inside as a 5-tech end. If a player of his skill level were to somehow fall to the Bears in the second round, they would be wise to pick him up.

Later Round Hopefuls

Erik: Shea Patterson - QB, Michigan (6-2, 203lbs). It is time for the Bears to start picking young quarterbacks for depth and development behind Mitchell Trubisky. We’ve seen what Tyler Bray is at this point in his career, and the same goes for Chase Daniel in that regard. They’re both okay in their respective roles, but an upgrade would be welcomed purely in terms of talent.

Patterson is a highly mobile quarterback with a decent arm who throws better on the move as opposed to staying in the pocket. He’s not nearly as accurate or comfortable when asked to throw from within the pocket, and if his escape avenues are sealed off, he will make bad decisions. Luck hasn’t been on his side with injuries, either.

He’s a project at quarterback, but his time in Jim Harbaugh’s pro-style offense along with a high level of athleticism makes him a good fit in Matt Nagy’s scheme.

Jacob: Khaleke Hudson - SS/LB, Michigan (6-0, 220 lbs). The Bears’ long-term safety situation is murky, with both Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Deon Bush on track to hit the open market after the 2019 season. Though selecting a new starter would be wiser in the early rounds if both safeties somehow leave, bringing in a Day 3 talent like Khaleke Hudson to compete with one of them next year would be wise.

Serving in the VIPER role that Jabrill Peppers filled before him, Hudson is a versatile defender with experience as a linebacker, a two-high safety, a nickelback, and an edge rusher. His frame and athleticism makes him a versatile player that any defensive coordinator would enjoy working with in sub packages. He is a dangerous blitzer off the edge who isn’t afraid to engage with blocks and has good closing speed in space.

Hudson is physical in man coverage and specializes in jamming receivers at the top of the route. He is also instinctive as a run defender and is fairly quick to diagnose and assess the play.

Athletically, Hudson is average at best. He has pedestrian acceleration coming out of his breaks, and he offers little upside as a rangy safety. He could also take better angles to ball carriers in space. For a late-round prospect, though, the Michigan standout offers potential as a special teams ace and a chess piece on defense. The Bears would be wise to give him a look on Day 3.

Featured Game

Erik: Iowa vs. Penn State (10/12). This is smash mouth football at it’s finest. We’ll see the best coached offensive line in collegiate football square off against one of the toughest and most talent ladened front sevens in existence. Also, this is a matchup of pro-style offenses trading blows with balanced gameplans on the ground and in the air.

The top matchup to watch will be Tristan Wirfs vs. Yeter Gross-Matos on the line of scrimmage. These two big, nasty guys are set to go full speed and impress the pro scouts who are lucky enough to be in attendance. Plenty of other fun potential NFL-caliber matchups will be on display in all levels of the game.

Jacob: Ohio State vs. Michigan (Nov. 30)

Because no college football rivalry is bigger than Ohio State-Michigan.

Michigan’s offense is loaded with weapons for Shea Patterson to throw to. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, and Nico Collins lead a terrific group of junior receivers who could realistically be a top-3 group of wide outs in the nation. Ben Bredeson anchors an offensive line that features four returning starters from last year. Though the Wolverines lost numerous talents on defense, their unit still features NFL prospects like cornerback Lavert Hill and linebacker Khaleke Hudson, as well as a handful of sleepers like safety Josh Metellus and linebacker Joshua Uche.

Ohio State lost Dwayne Haskins and several of his weapons to the NFL, but in the Heisman finalist’s place comes electric Georgia transfer Justin Fields. He leads an offense that features receiver K.J. Hill and running back J.K. Dobbins, who has fantastic physical tools and offers value as a receiver out of the backfield. On defense, the Buckeyes trot out Chase Young off the edge, a player many see as the best defensive player in the 2020 class. They also features such as defensive lineman Robert Landers, linebacker Tuf Borland, and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, the latter of whom being an intriguing size-speed prospect who can become a top-tier starter if developed correctly.