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.
To finish 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 from colleges outside of the Power 5 conferences.
Cream of the crop
Jacob: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State (6-foot-4, 227 pounds)
You don’t have to have paid much attention to the 2021 draft class to know about Trey Lance and the upside he brings to the table.
The concerns with Lance are apparent: he’s a one-year starter at an FCS school. He did recently get a showcase game to prove himself to NFL teams, as the Missouri Valley Football Conference has delayed their football season until the spring, but as I recently touched upon, that game left plenty of concerns still on the table. His decision-making and pocket presence seemed questionable, and given that he struggled in those areas in 2019, a lack of progress in that regard could be concerning.
However, there’s also plenty of potential that pops off the screen when watching Lance. He is a big-bodied, athletic and powerful quarterback who can make defenders miss in the open field and even run them over if necessary. He has a strong arm and can throw the ball with significant distance and velocity. His ability to lead a receiver open and throw with anticipation has shown up plenty of times on film, too. If he does declare for the draft after just one year as a starter, that one year was certainly a great one: he had nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards and scored 42 total touchdowns to no interceptions, and he led North Dakota State to an undefeated championship season.
Lance is admittedly a step behind the likes of Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields in terms of polish and likeliness to excel right away, but the redshirt sophomore’s upside is arguably on par with the other two quarterbacks. If Lance enters the 2021 draft, you can bet that the Bears will do their homework on him.
ECD: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State (6-foot-4, 227 pounds)
This is the one “must have” player from any Non-P5 conference. As you’ll see below, he’s also my top Bears target provided the enormous potential he possesses as an NFL QB.
Top Bears targets
Jacob: Dillon Radunz, OT, North Dakota State (6-foot-6, 299 pounds)
In all reality, Trey Lance will likely be the Bears’ top target outside of the Power 5, but for the sake of mixing things up a bit, I’ll throw in another intriguing small-school prospect who just so happens to be Lance’s blindside protector.
A lengthy offensive tackle with a frame with room to grow, Dillon Radunz has plenty of intriguing qualities that teams look for at the next level. He has solid lateral quickness and drops back in pass protection with pretty good footwork, and his long arms gives him plenty of range as a blocker. He has a powerful frame and is able to control defenders at the point of attack, as well as counteract a powerful rusher with his nice recovery strength and the timing and placement of his strikes. Had his conference played in 2020, he would have been a three-year full-time starter for the Bison who was a consensus first-team FCS All-American last year.
Radunz will definitely help to improve his pad level, and while he is a strong blocker, he will likely have to bulk up and work on getting his weight underneath to withstand the physicality of the NFL game. His balance when blocking from an angle on outside-zone runs and when accelerating to the second level will also need some work. Though still somewhat of a work in progress, Radunz has the tools to start at either tackle spot in the NFL and will likely be selected somewhere within the first two rounds.
ECD: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State (6-foot-4, 227 pounds)
I will always be on record as saying the decision to trade up for Mitchell Trubisky was the right idea. As time passed by, it just turned into being the wrong player selected. I still think it is worth the haul to guarantee your pick of a QB.
Depending on how scouts feel about Trey Lance’s small-ish sample size, he’s worth considering a King’s ransom to land the right to draft him. No price is too rich for a franchise QB.
Physically, Lance has everything you need in a QB. Size, athleticism, and a cannon for an arm. I’d argue his arm strength is noticeably stronger than Carson Wentz’s, another QB from South Dakota who was picked 2nd overall. Lance also rarely turned the ball over. His only interception came this season, in the one game played due to COVID. Otherwise, through 17 games, he’s thrown one pick. One. That’s insane.
Now, he’s shown great accuracy and touch in his career with the Bison. The issue, for me, is….his sample size. Trubisky started 13 games at UNC. Where Lance technically played more games, he also is raw in his development. His one game in 2020 was up-and-down, some throws were on the money, others were way off. He, like many QBs in drafts to come, will need some serious polishing once they’re drafted and on an NFL team.
Is he a day one starter? Possibly, and really, you pick him in the top 5 only if he is a day one starter. If he were to fall in the draft, then you could afford to stash him behind a solid veteran until he’s truly ready. I think the Bears will need to trade up quite high if they want him. They’re also desperate to fix this QB dilemma. Have the conviction and pull the trigger. Trey could be Lancing defenses for years to come.
Hoping they slide
Jacob: T.J. Carter, CB, Memphis (5-foot-11, 190 pounds)
Memphis is typically known for producing talented offensive weapons, but they have a standout defensive back entering the draft this time around.
T.J. Carter has been a cornerstone of the Tigers’ defense for four years, having been a starter in their secondary ever since he stepped foot on campus. He had 30 pass deflections and six interceptions in his first three seasons, and that production isn't surprising when you watch how he plays the game. He is an intelligent cornerback who plays with above-average route recognition and does a good job of reading the quarterback’s eyes and timing his jumps on his receivers’ routes when targeted. Carter is a solid athlete who brings good overall fluidity and long speed defending the vertical route. He does a good job of not allowing receivers to attack leverage points based off of his alignment, and he also brings textbook technique and physicality as a tackler.
While Carter has a lot of tools that project him as a starter in the NFL, one would have to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Though he is by no means a poor athlete, his burst coming out of his breaks can improve a bit and occasionally prevents him from making a play off of the reads he makes. He can be a bit too cushiony in off-man coverage, and given his average-sized frame, he will likely end up having to play plenty of it in the NFL, so being more physical through a receiver’s stem and improving his ability to change direction on a dime would go a long way. Carter’s tape looks like that of a solid mid-to-late Day 2 pick, but if he falls to Day 3, then the Bears could consider adding some more depth to their secondary.
Later round hopefuls
Jacob: DeAngelo Malone, EDGE, Western Kentucky (6-foot-4, 230 pounds)
If you put up 11 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss in a single season, chances are you’ll find yourself on the NFL radar, and that’s exactly what DeAngelo Malone did in 2019.
Malone is a very athletic defender who accelerates off the snap with impressive speed and is able to reach a different gear when closing in on a ball-carrier. He is quick to change direction laterally, which makes him a dangerous weapon as a stunting rusher and as a defender in pursuit. He plays with a high motor on a down-by-down basis, and he brings plenty of flexibility in his lower body on the speed rush. The C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, Malone isn’t the most refined pass-rusher in the nation, but his pure combination of speed and hustle makes him a tough player to stop.
As looking at his listed size can imply, Malone is an undersized edge rusher who brings average length and below-average bulk to the position. He struggles with setting the edge as a run defender and eating gaps while holding up blocks at the point of attack. His arsenal as a pass-rusher is pretty one-dimensional at this point, so he will have to work on developing some counter moves and relying on more than just a speed rusher to the outside. There’s a chance Malone could move to an hybrid off-ball linebacker role with some value as a delayed blitzer, but regardless of where he plays in the NFL, he should be a valuable special teamer and a solid rotational pass-rusher. If the Bears don’t bring back Barkevious Mingo after his one-year deal expires, then Malone could be a Day 3 option worth looking at.
Jacob: Memphis vs. UCF (Oct. 17)
This game likely would’ve been hyped a lot more had both of these teams not been upset last week, but Memphis and UCF are still two of the premier Group of 5 teams in the nation.
UCF is led by quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who is only a true sophomore but has topped at least 330 passing yards in all three of their games as of this writing. They have a dynamic and versatile running back in Otis Anderson, and safety Richie Grant brings athleticism and production to their defense who has been a first-team All-AAC member for each of the past two seasons.
The star of Memphis’ offense is running back Kenneth Gainwell, who is an elusive and speedy back with plenty of ability as a pass-catcher. In a running back class without a consensus top back, he could find himself selected highly when Draft Day comes around. The aforementioned Carter brings plenty of value in the secondary and has starting potential at the next level, and the aerial tandem of quarterback Brady White and wide receiver Damonte Coxie has proven to be deadly: Coxie topped 1,000 yards in both 2018 and 2019 with White throwing him the ball.
Note: I wrote this article before I had the chance to break down BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. I’ll stick with my selections for now, but I’ll have some information on Wilson very, very soon. - Jacob Infante