EDITOR: Wth SEC football kicking off today we wanted to rerack this one. Enjoy the football everyone!
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.
Cream of the crop
Jacob: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama (6-foot-2, 202 pounds)
Second-generation players have had a history of excelling in the NFL. Patrick Surtain II, the son of three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Surtain, could be the next man to fit that bill.
The younger Surtain has fantastic physical traits for the cornerback position, possessing ideal length and a strong frame that would make him a good fit as a press cornerback on the boundary. He’s aggressive when attacking the ball and is a reliable and strong tackler, but he’s not just your typical tall cornerback, as he has also succeeded out of the slot, as an off-man corner, and as a field-side corner. He brings above-average hip fluidity, changes direction seamlessly and has great acceleration bursting out of his breaks.
Surtain is an intelligent defender who is able to identify route concepts and anticipate a receiver’s movements efficiently. He maintains ideal patience when reading the quarterback’s eyes and can time his jumps on the ball well. His deep speed is good, but not great, and he can work on the placement of his jabs at the line of scrimmage, but he has a well-rounded enough skill-set that he can consistently shut down receivers at a high level. He likely won’t be a target for the Bears, seeing as though they have Kyle Fuller and Jaylon Johnson, but whichever team drafts him—predictably in the top 10—could be getting a top-tier cornerback prospect.
ECD: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU (6-foot-1, 208 pounds)
The sheer amount of electricity that Ja’Marr Chase brings to the field at receiver has made scouts salivate even before he set records in 2019. The crispness of his routes, the acceleration in and out of his cuts, and natural ability to make acrobatic catches has drawn comparisons to Odell Beckham Jr. All of these positives, while having an even keeled and outstanding attitude as a team-first player.
For the first time in recent memory when grading players, I cannot list any real faults to his game. Perhaps he’ll have an occasional drop, like all receivers do. Maybe if he were an inch or two taller...although that’s just redundant nitpicking. His footwork while blocking can be better...just like any receiver coming into the league.
Chase is, by far and large, the single best receiver to have declared for the draft in many years. He will be picked early, if not within the first three picks of the 2021 draft. He’s that good of a football player.
Top Bears target
Jacob: Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama (6-foot-6, 310 pounds)
The Bears struggled with their offensive line play in 2019, and if their unit puts forth a similar effort this coming year, they could be in the market for an offensive lineman early on in next year’s draft.
Alex Leatherwood arguably could have been selected in the first two rounds of the 2020 draft, but he decided to stay in school for another year. A soon-to-be three-year starter with experience as a tackle and a guard, Leatherwood is a very good athlete for an offensive lineman. He has above-average lateral quickness in pass protection and has the speed to accelerate to the second level or clear out a zone on the move.
He will need to add a little bit more bulk to his frame and work on his hand placement, but he blocks with a high motor and has shown dominance when he gets proper leverage inside the shoulder pads of his opponents, so with some fine-tuning, he could be a long-term building block for an NFL offensive line. The Bears will likely have needs at both right tackle and right guard next offseason, so Leatherwood’s versatility would make him a plug-and-play starter no matter what.
ECD: Kyle Trask, QB, Florida (6-foot-5, 239 pounds)
“Oh no, not another QB from Florida!” Except he’s not the same ol’ kind of QB that gets drafted from Florida. Not by a longshot.
It has truly been a storybook career as a Florida Gator for Kyle Trask. He hadn’t started a game since his freshman year in high school. Instead, he entered the scene while taking over for an injured Felipe Franks, and simply shocked the entire collegiate football world. Now, he is the unquestioned starter for Florida and best returning QB in the SEC.
In terms of positives, his biggest is his possession of what I call the “it” factor. He has “it” when it comes to making key decisions and huge plays to march the offense down the field. Even against stiff competition, Trask showed an impressive ability to uncork beautiful throws downfield or tuck the ball away for a big first down. His decision-making, for an inexperienced QB like himself, was far better than most “seasoned” players who hope to make it to the NFL.
Now, he has a long list of areas he needs to improve on. First, and foremost, his throwing mechanics are awkward. Not nearly as bad as Tim Tebow’s, but enough to warrant concern. Then again, most QBs in this draft class are raw in the same area. He’s not to be confused with his counterparts in terms of athleticism, either. He can truck along for decent gains here and there, but against the NFL those chances will be somewhat limited.
Why am I advocating for the Bears to pick yet another “work-in-progress” at QB to build around? It’s because Kyle Trask has the talent and potential to be a sure-fire starter in the NFL. He even has the upside to see a similar rise to what we witnessed with Joe Burrow in 2019. As of now I have a 2nd round grade on Trask. That, I feel, is a more realistic and reasonable opportunity for the Bears to improve their QB room as opposed to selling out for the number one overall pick.
Maintain a rock-solid corps of players around the QB position. Then draft a player like Kyle Trask, and let him grow. That’s how I’d solve this problem for Chicago.
Hoping they slide
Jacob: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama (5-foot-10, 183 pounds)
Matt Nagy had an elite speedster at his disposal in Tyreek Hill when he was the offensive coordinator for the Chiefs. While he doesn’t have that game-changing weapon yet, drafting Jaylen Waddle would hypothetically give him that guy with the Bears.
Alabama had two of the fastest wide receivers in college football last year in Waddle and first-round pick Henry Ruggs III, and while losing Ruggs to the NFL will hurt, the Crimson Tide still have a dynamic threat on their offense. Waddle accelerates incredibly well off the snap and can hit a tremendously high top speed, giving him elite upside as a deep threat. He has fantastic short-area quickness and can change direction easily, and that seamless movement is evident in his elusiveness after the catch.
Waddle isn’t just a speedy receiver, though, as he has impressive crispness as a route runner and drops his hips consistently into sharp breaks. He has great ball skills and is able to adjust to the ball in the air with ease. The big two weaknesses in his profile as a draft prospect are his lack of size and physicality, as well as his lack of elite production in a stacked Alabama offense. However, his supreme athletic talent makes him an easy first-round choice for any team needing a wide receiver. The Bears are certainly one of those teams, and if they miss out on any of the three top quarterbacks in the 2021 class, then Waddle would be a fantastic target.
ECD: Deonte Brown, OG, Alabama (6-foot-4, 338 pounds)
Here’s a guy that is a complete wildcard when evaluating his stock. On one hand, he’s the most powerful and talented interior linemen in this current class. On the other hand, he’s already shown a bad habit of getting in trouble with poor decision-making off the field.
When he plays, he dominates. Not only is he big, he fully understands how to use his size to it’s fullest potential. He’s a 6-foot-4 guard who plays with the pad level and anchor of a 6-foot-1 athlete. Brown’s nastiness rivals that of current Colts stud Quenton Nelson, he’ll latch-on and forklift defensive linemen until the whistle blows. Despite his size, his short-area acceleration and close-quarters combat skills are on full display in pass protection. One good punch from Brown will knock most defenders off their base.
About his bad habit….this alone is why I think he’ll fall in the draft. Early on at Alabama he reportedly struggled with maintaining his weight to Nick Saban’s preferences. His issues reached a point where following his 4-game suspension that started in 2018, Saban was prepared to move on with Evan Neal as his new starter in Brown’s former spot. Eventually, Deonte Brown re-gained Nick Saban’s trust, which is almost unheard of considering Saban’s track record.
Brown’s talent makes a case for him being a late first round pick. I think he can, and should be had between the second and third round.
Later round hopefuls
Jacob: Damon Hazelton Jr., WR, Missouri (6-foot-2, 215 pounds)
While I would prefer the Bears target a wide receiver early on in the draft, they could still likely find a solid talent in Damon Hazelton Jr. later on.
A big-bodied weapon who recently transferred from Virginia Tech to Missouri (M-I-Z), Hazelton has tallied 16 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He has impressive ball skills and can make tremendous adjustments to the ball in the air, boxing out defensive backs and turning his body to necessarily square up to the ball and make tough grabs. He has strong hands and catches the ball away from his frame, and given his extensive catch radius, those types of catches can be out of his opponents’ reach.
Hazelton is also a surprisingly gifted route runner for someone his size. He makes crisp cuts and accelerates well coming out of his breaks, and he does a very good job of selling route concepts and utilizing the double move. He doesn’t have top-end speed, and his overall athletic profile is pretty average, at best. He’s actually a two-time transfer, having spent 2016 at Ball State before transferring to Virginia Tech and sitting out the 2017 season before playing in 2018 and 2019. While a gifted player, his production at the collegiate level has been okay outside of his touchdown totals, having not topped 51 catches in a single season and dropping from 802 yards in 2018 to just 527 yards in 2019 after dealing with a lingering hamstring injury throughout the year.
His resume is a little bit worrisome, but Hazelton’s skill-set is that of a starting NFL wide receiver. Given the depth of the 2021 wide receiver class, he has flown under the radar to an extent, but he has a pretty high ceiling that could see him outplay his eventual draft slot.
ECD: Rakeem Boyd, RB, Arkansas (6-foot-0, 213 pounds)
The running-back position for Chicago is currently foggy when projecting the future. It didn’t help matters what-so-ever when David Montgomery suffered a groin injury during training camp in 2020. Considering Tarik Cohen could be a free agent, Cordarrelle Patterson’s transition just now being finalized, and David Montgomery’s health being a question mark, there isn’t a clear picture when thinking long-term.
Enter Rakeem Boyd, a big do-it-all back that should be available between the 4th and 6th rounds.
For 2019, on 184 carries he toted the rock for 1,183 yards and 8 touchdowns. That translates to a whopping 5.9, almost 6 yards per carry. He doesn’t quite have the juice that’ll amaze scouts in his film, instead he’s a reliable hammer that can contribute in the receiving game as well. New coach Sam Pittman has already expressed grand plans to feature more of Boyd this season. His stock could increase dramatically, yet given the value of his position group, he’ll still be available well past the first few rounds.
Jacob: Alabama vs. Georgia (Oct. 17)
I feel as though the SEC isn’t nearly as strong as it was last year, but there should still be plenty of fantastic matchups this year, particularly Alabama vs. Georgia. Can quarterback Mac Jones elevate his game amongst a dynamic Crimson Tide offense? Will J.T. Daniels take advantage of Jamie Newman’s opt out and create his own case of being an early-round pick? Many storylines will be in play in a matchup with what could be the two best teams in the conference.
ECD: Florida vs. LSU (Oct. 17)
It’s time to bear witness to the latest clash of two big boys in this rivalry within the SEC. Plenty of prospects between offense, defense, and special teams will be on display as the defending champs travel to The Swamp and face the storybook sensation of Kyle Trask. This is about as close to watching an NFL-level game in the collegiate ranks as we will see this season.