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Bears 2020 college prospect preview: Big Ten

In the fourth part of our annual college football prospect preview series, we take a look at some of the top players in the Big Ten.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

NOTE: With the Big Ten kicking off action this weekend, we thought we’d bump this preview back up for you all!

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 fourth 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 conference that recently announced its intention for returning to play: Big Ten.

Cream of the crop

Jacob: Micah Parsons, ILB, Penn State (6-foot-3, 245 pounds)

The inside linebacker position typically isn’t one that gets selected within the top-five picks of a draft. If the draft plays out a certain way, though, Micah Parsons could be a player worthy taking that early.

If you name a trait that is important for a linebacker to have, odds are Parsons has it. He has a tremendous frame with great length and plenty of muscle mass, he has very good athleticism both in a straight line and as a sideline-to-sideline tackler moving around in space. He does a very good job of fighting with blockers at the line of scrimmage with his physical edge and tenacity, and he plays with active hands as a pass-rusher, too.

Parsons’ motor runs hot on a snap-by-snap basis. He is a flexible and slippery defender who can rip and dip past blockers, and his combination of effort and speed makes him a lethal backside tackler. His instincts in executing his run fits and dropping back into man coverage are still improving, but he has shown potential in those two areas. As of now, his status for the 2020 season is up in the air, but regardless of whether he plays or not, Parsons should be a lock for the upper half of the first round.

ECD: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State (6-foot-3, 225 pounds)

Not only is he Jacob’s top target for the Bears. The former 5-star recruit just might be the best overall football player in the Big Ten, and one of the top 5 prospects in the 2021 draft class. I don’t see him falling anywhere close to where the Bears should be drafting. Still, check out Jacob’s assessment below.

Top Bears target

Jacob: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State (6-foot-3, 225 pounds)

Like Erik mentioned, Justin Fields likely won’t end up falling to the Bears unless they fall apart after a 2-0 start to the regular season. However, he’s a top-tier quarterback prospect, and he could potentially fit as a trade-up option if the team were to get aggressive in finding their new franchise quarterback.

I don’t really like making player comparisons—but I’m going to make two of them in this article!—but I see a lot of Dak Prescott in Fields. The Buckeyes’ starter is a fundamentally-sound quarterback who has a quick and clean release, good footwork in and out of the pocket, a strong sense of anticipation behind his throws, above-average athletic ability, and the mental acuity to look past his first read.

Fields can still improve his ability to scan the field and go through progressions, and his arm strength is good, but he doesn’t have the elite velocity to put him over the top as the top quarterback in the 2021 class. However, his 2019 season was one of the best collegiate seasons in recent memory, and if he can even come close to duplicating that performance in 2020, then he should be a lock as a top-five prospect in next year’s draft.

ECD: Jack Sanborn, ILB, Wisconsin (6-foot-2, 238 pounds)

So far in the early 2020 season, the Bears haven’t seen particularly great play from their linebackers. Especially Danny Trevathan, who undoubtedly appears to be hitting the figurative wall in his ability to keep up in coverage. I expect the Bears’ inside linebackers to play better after a couple more games to regain some conditioning.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to look into the prospect of adding competition. Sanborn, to me, would fit the bill. I’d see this hypothetical pick as a “best player available” type scenario once Chicago is on the clock. Sanborn has been a fantastic linebacker while in coverage. PFF, for those who demand numbers, gave an 83.7 coverage grade while he recorded 3 picks and 3 additional pass breakups in 2019. He’s outstanding when filling in against the run, too. To pad more of his stats, he recorded 9.0 tackles for loss, on top of 5.5 sacks during his sophomore campaign.

The only issue scouts seem to have with Sanborn’s profile is his okay, not great, amount of explosiveness. I’m as big of a fan of explosiveness as the next guy. However, my counterpoint is he simply does everything so well, with great technique and a high level of intelligence. Could he stand to get bigger? Sure, but in complete honesty he compares favorably to a younger Danny Trevathan in his prime. He’s a perfect fit for what kind of defense the Bears are building.

I have a mid-first round grade for Sanborn. If he were to fall to Chicago, I would have no problems with this pick what-so-ever. Imagine him paired with Roquan Smith for the long-term picture...good luck playing against those two.

Hoping they slide

Jacob: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue (5-foot-9, 181 pounds)

I was really close to putting Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman here, and at the end of the day, it depends on whether or not the Bears extend Allen Robinson, because if they don’t, then Bateman would be able to step in right as a Day 1 starter at the X receiver who brings a very similar skillset to Robinson’s to the table. However, I’ll aim to be optimistic and assume Chicago brings the former Pro Bowler back and look for a complement alongside him.

Rondale Moore missed most of the 2019 season with a knee injury, and he doesn’t have top-notch physical measurements. His 2018 campaign as a true freshman, though, was so special that he’s still considered a first-round talent. He has incredible deep speed and accelerates very well off the snap, and his straight-line burst is just as dangerous as his lateral quickness. He does a great job of sinking his hips into his cuts and accelerating out of them, and he displays fantastic agility after the catch, as well as surprising toughness when breaking tackles. Moore is also more than just a raw athlete, as he sells route concepts well and has a high football IQ.

Moore was a consensus All-American in his first season with the Boilermakers and caught 114 passes for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. His lack of length and durability concerns could end up hurting his stock a little bit, but he can be a dangerous weapon for an NFL offense. Depending on where the Bears pick in the first round next year, he could be a very intriguing target for them.

ECD: Tanner Morgan, QB, Minnesota (6-foot-2, 215 pounds)

Many people will look at the lack of great talent coming out from Minnesota and ask why I’m rolling with this gunslinger. He’s just that, an actual gunslinger who has the spunk and mindset for success in the NFL. Justin Fields will dominate the discussions as to who’s the best QB in this conference, by a considerable mile.

However, when you look for a guy who’ll fly under the radar, Morgan is going to make some team incredibly happy once he’s seasoned and ready to play. It’s a plus that Minnesota runs some pro-style passing concepts within their offense.

His athleticism and evasiveness from within the pocket is underrated. He’ll manipulate the pocket, against elite competition mind you, and buy time for his receivers to get open downfield. Tanner’s arm is also underrated. He doesn’t have the Fat Man that Fields shows off regularly, instead, it’s a high powered rifle which fires bullets on a tight spiral and with plenty of velocity. Accuracy and timing are good, not great, when he’s looking to strike downfield.

There have been times where Morgan has been reckless with the football. Once again, this has happened against elite competition, which can be a red flag in evaluations. Generally I’m not a fan or an advocate of bridging quarterbacks. With that said, he would benefit from sitting his rookie season and learning how to be patient with the football against the best athletes in the world.

Plenty of people will overlook Tanner Morgan simply because of which program he’s coming from. If the Bears can get him on day two of the draft, and be patient with his development, don’t be surprised to see him become a highly successful quarterback.

Later round hopefuls

Jacob: Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR, Illinois (6-foot-2, 220 pounds)

Fans of the state college football team likely recognize Josh Imatorbhebhe’s name, but for those who don’t, you better get used to learning how to spell it, because he may very well be a rapid riser up draft boards when it’s all said and done.

I won’t bury the lede here: Imatorbhebhe has incredible leaping ability. Coming out of high school, he was measured at jumping as high as 47.1 inches: for reference, the NFL Combine record is currently 46 inches. While he has put on some weight in muscle since then, his tape indicates he should still top at least the 40-inch mark with ease. He has an explosive lower body, and that’s apparent in how he accelerates off the snap for a bigger wide receiver, too. He has pretty good long speed as a vertical threat, and he brings physicality both after the catch as a runner and as a run blocker.

Is Imatorbhebhe raw? Yes. His crispness and burst as a route runner could use some work, though he has shown the ability to attack weak leverage points in press coverage. He could also diversify his release against press a bit, as he will likely play along the boundary in the NFL. He will need to prove capable of taking on a higher volume of catches to solidify himself as a candidate of a jump of draft boards. However, as a lengthy and athletic prospect with a high ceiling, he should be getting much more attention in draft circles than he’s received to this point. If the Bears wait until Day 3 to draft a wide receiver, then Imatorbhebhe would be a fantastic choice.

ECD: Alaric Jackson, OT, Iowa (6-foot-6, 320 pounds)

Overall I have been impressed by the resurgence of the Bears’ O-line early on this season. As wise coaches have said several times across all levels, it pays to have a deep amount of depth in the front lines on offense. Alaric Jackson, one of several Iowa Hawkeye linemen to have the NFL’s attention, is a versatile beast.

Currently, Jackson is listed as a tackle for the Hawkeyes. I’d say his best position would be as a guard, as he hasn’t displayed the fluidity required to be an effective starter at tackle. When kicked inside, he can focus all his rage and size to its maximum level. Trust me, his power is devastating when he’s locked in with his man.

Iowa has been a factory, if not the factory for linemen hoping to get their names called during the draft. And, despite his technical issues, Alaric would give any team a giant canvas to develop him into an effective player. His grade ranges between days two and three for me, depending on whether he’s drafted as a guard or not.

Featured game

Jacob: Ohio State vs. Penn State (Oct. 31)

I view Ohio State and Penn State as the two best teams in the Big Ten this year. Whether or not the aforementioned Parsons is able to opt back into the season has yet to be determined, but each team has its own fair share of impressive prospects.

Ohio State, led by the twice-mentioned Fields at quarterback, features a dynamic offense with weapons like receiver Chris Olave, tight end Luke Farrell, the one-two running back punch of Master Teague and Trey Sermon, and a fantastic offensive line with two legitimate interior blockers in Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers and Thayer Munford. They also boast a defense with first-round cornerback Shaun Wade and other notable prospects like linebackers Baron Browning, Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, and cornerback Tyreke Johnson, a first-time starter with legitimate early-round tools.

Penn State isn’t without firepower on both sides of the ball, either. The headliner on offense is tight end Pat Freiermuth, who might just be the best player at his position in college football. Redshirt junior Sean Clifford holds down the fort at quarterback, while running back Journey Brown brings a dynamic blend of speed and determination to the table. The defense, with or without Parsons, features some legitimate NFL talent, such as edge rusher Shaka Toney, cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and edge rusher Jayson Oweh, a 6-foot-5, 257-pound freak of nature who has been timed as having a mind-blowing 4.33 40-yard dash time—and that wasn’t a typo.

ECD: Wisconsin vs. Minnesota (Nov. 14)

Jacob is rolling with the clash of the titans on October 31st as his game to watch. I’m focused on the clash of two emerging programs within the Big Ten conference. The Golden Gophers of Minnesota have started developing impressive prospects on offense lately, with this year’s squad being led by one Tanner Morgan at quarterback. The Wisconsin Badgers, meanwhile, feature such a good cornucopia of players on defense.

It’s hard for most people to pick a game that isn’t as hyped as some of the titular matchups to scout for new talent. This game, on the other hand, should provide plenty of entertainment and scouting opportunities for those who simply love themselves a good football game.