The college football season is officially underway, and with it comes the return of our annual college prospect preview.
Much will change between now and the end of the regular season, but there are a handful of college players who have shown that they can be legitimate NFL talents in the near future.
In the fifth part of this year’s series, Jacob Infante and Erik Christopher Duerrwaechter will break down some of the top NFL Draft prospects that the Bears should keep an eye on in the Pac-12: a conference that hasn’t announced its schedule for the year, but will be worth watching when it comes back later this fall.
Cream of the crop
Jacob: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon (6-foot-6, 325 pounds)
It may not be hyperbole to say that Penei Sewell could be the best offensive tackle prospect in the past decade.
The Outland Trophy winner for the best offensive lineman in college football as a sophomore, Sewell has phenomenal size, strength, hand placement, pad level, instincts and temperament when he locks up with a defender. It’s very hard to find a legitimate weakness in his game, and if Trevor Lawrence wasn’t practically guaranteed to be the No. 1 overall pick, the Oregon tackle would be a strong option to be the top pick in the 2021 draft.
My top overall prospect as of this writing, Sewell is the prototypical offensive lineman and has All-Pro potential at the NFL level. It would be shocking if he fell outside of the top three picks.
ECD: Jay Tufele, DT, USC (6-foot-3, 305 pounds)
Penei Sewell is in the discussion as the best overall offensive lineman to be had in the 2021 draft class. On the other side of the trenches, Jay Tufele is in the discussion as the best interior defensive lineman to be had. Frankly, I see a slightly higher ceiling for Tufele in comparison to Sewell, who’s a damn good player in his own right.
What makes Tufele so dangerous as a lineman is his ability to dominate from any technique along the D-line. He can win his battles with power, speed, and/or explosiveness coming across the line of scrimmage. He’s got the frame to add weight, if preferred by the team fortunate enough to draft him. He possesses a large tool box of moves to shed blocks with.
I think people are going to be obsessed with his good-not-great 40 time. And I’m going to look back upon them, then ask, “why does that matter to you?” It’s all about the quickness coming off the snap, and Tufele is lightning-quick. Both Sewell and Tufele are in the discussion as Top Ten players overall in this draft class. Tufele, for what he’s worth, will make for one beast of a player to add within any defense you can imagine.
Top Bears targets
Jacob: Abraham Lucas, OT, Washington State (6-foot-7, 324 pounds)
It’s a pass-first league, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an offensive tackle prospect who had more reps in pass protection last year than Abraham Lucas.
A departure from Mike Leach’s Air Raid system will give Lucas more of an opportunity to improve as a run blocker, but his experience in pass protection is apparent in how he plays the game. He’s an incredibly big prospect with tremendous length and a bulky frame that packs plenty of raw anchor strength and a powerful jab upon contact. He is able to stay low better than most tackles as tall as he is, and he has pretty solid lateral quickness in his kick slide.
A lack of polish in the run game, inconsistent technique and rolling his hips into contact will likely prevent him from being a first-round pick, but as a Day 2 pick, he brings a high ceiling and the potential to be a solid starter in the NFL. If the Bears want to find an offensive tackle in this year’s class but aren’t impressed with the underwhelming post-Sewell, first-round crop this class has to offer, then Lucas could be an intriguing option for them.
ECD: Walker Little, OT, Stanford (6-foot-7, 309 pounds)
Little was considered one of the very best recruits in the country when he committed to Stanford in 2017. After some time has passed, he hasn’t lived up to his reputation coming into the next level. However, Little is definitely a quality tackle to be had in what so many people are considering the best class of offensive linemen in years.
The nastiness and mobility Little brings to the table are his biggest attributes. His skillset is balanced, so much so that he can line up as a plug-and-play option at either left or right tackle. He possesses a high IQ, where he can identify stunts and games quickly, then make the correct block.
His inconsistency with pass blocking against top edge prospects is a concern when evaluating his game. In comparison to his grading coming out of high school, he has been seen as a disappointment. It was expected of him to be a dominant player that would excel against the best linemen the country has to offer. Instead, his hand placement and so-so ability to drop his anchor has people scratching their heads when trying to assign a definitive grade.
Still, he’d make a fine addition for the Bears to draft for Juan Castillo to mentor. His footwork, athleticism, and attitude fit perfectly with what Chicago is establishing up front.
Hoping they slide
Jacob: Kuony Deng, ILB, California (6-foot-6, 249 pounds)
A former college basketball player at the Virginia Military Institute before transferring to California for the 2019 season, Deng has insane length for an off-ball linebacker. He has incredibly long arms and has the size to provide a high-upside option against tight ends in man coverage. He has very good straight-line speed and has shown the agility and fluidity to move around in space and execute tackles from just about anywhere on the field. Deng has shown patience in letting plays develop, and he offers some value as a blitzing option up the A gap due to his quickness and active hands. He exploded production-wise with 121 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks and eight pass deflections last year.
Deng is listed at 249 pounds but looked skinnier than that last year on tape. He started off his collegiate career at 190 pounds and has continually worked on bulking up, but his play strength at the line of scrimmage and against more powerful backs still needs work. He can also improve a little bit in executing his run fits. While somewhat under the radar at the moment, Deng has the tools to be a starter in the NFL with some development. The Bears can afford to take a shot on a developmental replacement for Danny Trevathan, but they should definitely look into an insurance option in this year’s draft. Deng would be a great option in Round 3 if he were to fall to them.
ECD: Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford (6-foot-1, 195 pounds)
You can never have enough talented DBs on defense. For Adebo, he has the capability to develop into a shutdown corner at the next level. That also depends on how well he plays after deciding to return to Stanford for the 2020 season.
His length, and strength, make him a great option for teams looking to draft a DB with the ability to play press-man concepts in their secondary. I have seen comparisons to Richard Sherman in how Adebo can end a receiver’s route once the ball is snapped. Where I do not see that comparison myself, Adebo has developed a knack of timing up plays on the ball just right.
When you look at his frame, he could use at least one full season in the weight room to fill out what can be a stocky player on the boundary. He’s a willing and capable tackler as well, I would just like to see some more “pop” in his contact on the ballcarrier. Unfortunately, he’s also pegged as an “outside only” kind of corner. He hasn’t shown the short-area quickness needed to be effective from within the slot.
Paulson possesses great instincts for a corner to last in the NFL. He’s also a physical work-in-progress when developing themselves for playing in the pros. I wouldn’t give him the same grade I had on Jaylon Johnson — he had a solid 1st round grade from me — but he’s a sure bet to be considered at the 3rd round or later.
Later round hopefuls
Jacob: Max Borghi, RB, Washington State (5-foot-10, 196 pounds)
While the Bears have David Montgomery under contract on a rookie deal for two more years after the 2020 season and have Tarik Cohen now locked up through 2023, it wouldn’t hurt to add some addition depth at running back, especially if Cordarrelle Patterson leaves in free agency after this year.
If you’re looking for a back with pass-catching value, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player with more of it than Max Borghi. The Washington State back has had 139 catches through his first two collegiate seasons, including 86 catches for 597 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. He has very good route-running skills for his position and is a smooth hands catcher both out of the backfield and lined out wide. While his rushing production is just okay heading into 2020, he offers plenty of value as a runner. Borghi has good contact balance for his size and fights hard for every single yard he gets. He has shown good vision once he gets past the second level, and he is a shifty runner who can evade defenders efficiently.
Borghi’s vision in between the tackles isn’t incredibly sharp on a down-by-down basis, and he’s shiftier and quicker than he is fast. That skill-set may prevent him from being a bellcow back in the NFL, but he offers plenty of value as a third-down back at the next level. Imagine how much fun Matt Nagy could have with utilizing a player like Borghi with Cohen in split-back sets.
ECD: Tyler Vaughns, WR, USC (6-foot-2, 190 pounds)
Vaughns, along with Amon-Ra St. Brown, are a pair of formidable receivers looking to hear their names called during the 2021 draft. St. Brown has the higher ceiling, and I expect him to be picked between the late first to early second round. Vaughns, where he’s not as polished or electrifying, has proven to be a good physical compliment.
During his time at USC, Vaughns has worked to master his craft of contesting for jump balls that are being lobbed to an area instead of being on-target. At times, he didn’t have the best hands, and the rock would bounce off his hands instead of being secured during the play.
At the same time, his vertical is ridiculous, he launches himself skyward with a pair of boosters installed on each leg. He’s overshadowed by St. Brown, but a capable receiver who’s route running and knack for keeping separation are plenty good to be successful. It will take a great deal of patience and trust to develop him into the weapon he’s capable of evolving into.