The sort-of Bears have already kind of recorded a victory, given the events in Indianapolis in Preseason Game #3. However, it’s not just professional football that is about to start in earnest. College football is looming, too. With that in mind, Windy City Gridiron is looking at the college conferences one by one to consider top players and potential targets for Chicago.
It’s important to remember that the Bears do not have a lot to work with. They will have have two 2nd-round picks and a fifth-rounder (their own), as well as two sixth-rounders. Kevin White’s injury removed the likelihood of a compensatory 4th-rounder, and it would take special conditions kicking in to either get a 5th-rounder back from the Raiders or to upgrade the Eagles’ 6th rounder to a 5th.
Josh: The ACC brought the Bears Trubisky, and it’s been a strong defensive conference in recent years. In fact, overall I think the conference is a good place to go looking for gems.
Jacob: With Clemson having reached the national championship in three of the past four years, the ACC is consistently represented in the most important game of the college football season. Outside of “Death Valley”, though, can be found some of the most talented prospects in the nation, year in and year out.
Erik: Recently, the ACC has vied with the SEC for the title of being the most talent-ladened conference in all of college football. You’ll also see some of the most revolutionary schematic concepts ever displayed on any gridiron. The ACC is at the forefront when it comes to introducing hybrid players into the NFL.
Cream of the Crop
Erik: Tee Higgins - WR, Clemson (6-4, 205 lbs). You could list a quarter of Clemson’s starters in this very spot. Where Trevor Lawrence is not eligible for the NFL Draft this year -- and boy is the NFL eager for that day to arrive -- Tee Higgins is one of the most ridiculous athletes you’ll see at the receiver position. He’s a throwback to the classic sprinting trees that teams used to feature frequently within their respective offenses.
First, let’s address the two downsides to Higgins’s game. 205 is incredibly light for a player of his height, then again, he’s also got plenty of frame to fill out over time. Also, he’s projected to clock in at around a 4.6 at the 40 yard dash, maybe a high 4.5. Well, Higgins isn’t someone who depends on winning a footrace to gain separation.
His route running is phenomenal, for starters. Despite being over 6’4”, he’s able to stay much smaller when going vertical. He has the rare short area quickness to break in and out of his routes like players closer to Anthony Miller’s size. Where he might top out at a 4.6 in terms of speed, his acceleration is elite, and will make DBs look lost in the sauce. And forget about winning a jump ball against him...he’s the most explosive receiver of his size since Julio Jones.
Truly, a freak of nature who’s going to make a quarterback VERY happy to see him in their team’s arsenal.
Jacob: Travis Etienne - RB, Clemson (5-10, 200 lbs). A running back as the best draft-eligible player in the conference? Does Jacob Infante not have any sense of positional value?
Well, yes, but Etienne is currently the top ACC talent on my board. He is a very good athlete who accelerates very quickly, but not after evaluating the play and showing patience behind the line of scrimmage. His breakaway speed, contact balance, and lateral agility make tackling him a daunting task for defenders. He can absorb hits as well as he can dish them out, and he possesses a compact frame that will stand well against tackling attempts from NFL defenders.
Etienne has been incredibly productive in his first two collegiate seasons, tallying a combined 37 rushing touchdowns and an average of 7.8 yards per carry since joining Clemson. The 2018 ACC Player of the Year is fairly unproven as a receiver out of the backfield, though, as he has just 17 receptions in his collegiate career thus far. In today’s NFL, being able to catch the ball is a near necessity for a running back, so that lack of tangible proof may hurt his stock a little bit.
If Etienne can prove his worth as a pass catcher, then I see no reason that he can’t be selected in the first round. He checks nearly all the boxes as a runner and will surely make some NFL team happy in the near future.
Josh: Alton Robinson - Edge, Syracuse (6-4, 260lbs). Robinson is already moving up the charts, and he plays a premium position, so there is a very good chance that he will be off the boards in the first round.
To start with the positives, he’s got a remarkably quick first step, and he has good bend. He also has the oft-touted ability to translate speed to power. His ability to turn a corner and get after a player with impact is remarkable, and it’s probably enough to have him go in the first round unless this season brings some surprises.
Only two things might hold him up. The first is his personal history, as he lost his first scholarship offer coming out of high school when he had an altercation with his ex-girlfriend that resulted in felony robbery charges (which were later dropped). Very few NFL teams are going to be scared away from an incident like that from before college, however. The second thing that could drop him a bit is that he has difficulty playing the run. While that could drop his status if it seemed like he was not capable of learning the job, the reality is that he just needs to develop that one aspect of his game a little more.
Top Bears targets
Erik: Isaiah Simmons - S/LB, Clemson (6-4, 230 lbs). Remember when I mentioned the ACC being filled with hybrid players set to be picked up by the NFL? Isaiah is the prototypical Safety/Linebacker hybrid defensive coordinators have been combing the scouting reports for. Some people even think he can get reps as an EDGE.
That’s kind of why his grade takes a little bit of a drop in comparison to other pure safety or linebacker prospects. You can ask scouts from two different teams where he would line up, and you’ll likely get two different answers. He could be a starting safety. He could be a starting inside linebacker. Or, he’s neither of those, and instead is a gadget player who possesses good-not-great coverage skills. His grade will depend on how each team evaluates his skillset.
Nevertheless, this is the definition of what a defensive weapon looks like. Instincts, range, size. Physically, he has it all. He hits like a sledgehammer, and plays with incredible discipline. The Bears may have an opening at Safety and Linebacker next year, depending how free agency shakes out with pending free agents like Danny Trevathan and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Even if both players return, I’m sure Pagano would love to have this player at his disposal in various packages.
Josh: James Smith-Williams - Edge. North Carolina State (6-3, 270lbs). The third-ranking candidate on Bruce Feldman’s “Freak Liist,” Smith-Williams is a large, powerful player who offers an exceptional bullrush. He can use his power and relative speed to disrupt an offensive line in the run game, but he needs to work on using leverage.
It’s in the pass rush that Smith-Williams really struggles, in my opinion. He does not use leverage, relying instead on his power. Frankly, he usually gets away with it. Right now, he’s sitting low on a number of boards. I’ve seen him ranked outside of the Top 100, and maybe that sticks. Still, he’s an edge rusher who is likely to put up huge numbers at the combine, and everything he struggles with can be taught.
I know Chicago fans are wary of another “project” at Edge, but Smith-Williams is a very different sort of project than Leonard Floyd, and in his case he would be a second-round pick making the most of thinned-out picks, not a Top 10 who struggles to excel.
Hoping They Slide
Erik: Bryce Hall - CB, Virginia (6-1, 200lbs). Where Simmons is one of the best football players in the ACC, Hall is arguably the best pure corner to be had from this conference. His man-to-man coverage skills are superb, mirroring receivers with fluid hips and quick footwork. He looks even bigger on film than what is currently listed for his size. He might be the most aggressive corner in this year’s class, and he racked up 22 pass breakups in 2018. My favorite aspects of his game are the levels of confidence and character he plays with. He’ll never back down from any contested ball.
What’ll get Hall in trouble is his habit of taking the bait on a double move or a well executed play-fake. Aggression is a double-edged sword; sometimes it pays off for the player, sometimes it comes back to haunt said player. Also, he seems to think more than react when defending against the run. His tackling could use some more “pop,” and he’s guilty of ankle biting. Virginia doesn’t run a lot of press coverage, instead, corners are coached to play a soft zone with plenty of cushioning. I have a mid-to-late first round grade on him as of this moment.
Josh: Trajan Bandy - CB, Miami (5-9, 190lbs). Bandy is explosive, and he has a pretty rare ability to recognize routes. As a result, he can attach himself to a receiver’s hip at times. His ability to shadow a player is remarkable, and his athleticism lets him adjust when he guesses wrong or gets outfoxed. The biggest problem he has is with his size.
There might be a jump ball situation where Bandy doesn’t get beaten, but those would be the minority of such plays. He lacks the length to break up plays the way you’d want in a #2 corner, and he lacks the overall potential of a #1. The good news for Bandy--and the Bears--is that he might be an almost-perfect nickel player, and that he has the tools to develop over time.
Late Round Hopefuls
Erik: Marvin Wilson - Nose, Florida State (6-5, 317lbs). Ryan Pace has already drafted a stud at this position from the very same program in Eddie Goldman. I do not see Wilson being as talented as Goldman, but he’s still gifted as a two-gap player with some solid pass rushing skills. FSU has, after all, produced quite a large number of NFL caliber D-Lineman throughout the history of the program.
Wilson has spent most of his time lined up as a true nose (zero) or shade (one) on the line. Occasionally, I have seen him line up at the 2-tech, and he does have enough athleticism to play as a 5-tech end. He squares up against the run quite well, using what looks like a unique “snatch” technique to move linemen off their base. His motor is pretty good, consistently sniffing out the run and finding lanes to rush the quarterback.
However, he does need to work on his pad level, as he comes off the line of scrimmage way too high when engaging his man. Hand placement gets a bit wild at times as well, to go along with an inconsistent movement of his feet. For comparison’s sake, Goldman had a much better feel for pad level and footwork prior to being drafted in 2015.
He’s a project, but Jay Rodgers has done an incredible job of developing players since his arrival in Chicago. Plus, Wilson would be a fine player to add into the rotation, especially since they haven’t carried a true nose besides Goldman in recent years.
Josh: Tremayne Anchrum - OT, Clemson (6’2”, 290lbs). So, the only reason this isn’t a reach for need is because I see Anchrum as a good way for the Bears to contemplate spending one of their 6th-round picks.
Anchrum is a player whose profile will be filled with caveats. He has functional strength but lacks good pad level. He has decent mirroring ability but is stockier than desired at the pros. The reality is that Anchrum is about a 30/70 player. I think that there is a 70% chance that he will never be a starter in the NFL, because he needs to make too many adjustments. He absolutely needs to work on his positioning, and he definitely needs to learn how to compensate for his relatively short reach by using his leverage better.
However, there is a 30% chance he’ll turn into one of those guys who can play up and down a line and can plug into anything but the center position when needed. He could be a draft for depth, and if the Bears get nothing more than solid depth for the O-Line out of a 6th-round pick, then that’s a win. I doubt he’ll be a steal like Charles Leno, but he could be a guy we’re happy to have on the roster when a starter gets injured.
Josh: Clemson @ Syracuse (9/14). Clemson is always a fun team to watch, and Syracuse is no stranger to being able to pull an upset. This game will showcase a number of interesting matchups, including a wide range of quality players on both sides of the ball.
Erik: Florida State @ Clemson (10/12). Florida State is looking to rebound from a dreadful season in 2018. There are a ton of big match-ups to look for in the trenches along with the secondary, as FSU’s talented defense goes against Dabo Swinney’s offense quarterbacked by Trevor Lawrence. Oh, and Clemson’s D-Line is flat out nasty.