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2022 NFL Draft: Sleeper Senior Bowl prospects Bears should target

Which sleepers should the Bears keep an eye out for in this year’s draft?

Syndication: Reno Gazette Journal JASON BEAN via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Invitations to the 2022 Senior Bowl have started being sent out and accepted, with over 50 players having been named to the roster as of this writing. Dozens more will be announced between now and February.

The Bears have kept a close eye on the Senior Bowl for potential draft picks over the years. Just this past year, they selected Khalil Herbert and Thomas Graham Jr.: two players who appeared down in Mobile, Alabama. Since Ryan Pace became the team’s general manager in 2015, they have drafted at least one Senior Bowl player in all but one of their seven drafts, with the likes of Adrian Amos, Nick Kwiatkoski and Cody Whitehair having taken part in college football’s premier all-star game.

Though eyes will be on some of the top prospects this year — Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd and Kentucky offensive lineman Darian Kinnard among them — one of the most fun parts about the Senior Bowl is seeing how sleeper prospects fare against top competition.

Whether it be a small-school prospect or a player from a powerhouse school who fell under the radar, many players have had the chance to boost their stock with a strong outing in Mobile.

These prospects stand out as under-the-radar players the Bears would be wise to target.

Northern Iowa OT Trevor Penning & Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann

I’ll start this off by cheating a little bit, since both of these prospects are widely seen as Day 2, borderline first-round players. However, as small-school players who might not be widely known outside of dedicated draft circles, it makes sense to touch briefly on them.

Just one year after producing Spencer Brown, Northern Iowa has another physical specimen at offensive tackle in Trevor Penning. A three-year starter for the Panthers, Penning is a 6-foot-7 behemoth who brings a hulking presence to the left tackle position. He has tremendous grip strength and good hand placement, and he does a very good job of generating power in his lower half, using his nasty demeanor to pummel the opposition. Though not a bad athlete, he’s a bit stiff in the hips and doesn’t have fantastic balance when locked up with defenders, but Penning has future mauler at tackle written all over him.

Bernhard Raimann first got on my radar this year after watching him dominate against my Missouri Tigers back in September, and he has looked legit after since. A 6-foot-7 blocker with limb length for days, he blends impressively proportioned raw power with very good athletic ability. He moved to offensive tackle from tight end in 2020, and his lateral mobility and acceleration to the second level reflect that background. He’s more of a waist-bender at this stage who can’t get very low in his pads, and his weight distribution can improve, but Raimann’s ceiling at the next level is sky high.

Southern Utah OT Braxton Jones

With two strong outings against Arizona State and San Jose State to kick off the 2021 season, Braxton Jones was able to prove he can dominate against an uptick in competition.

Jones has a refined usage of his hands for a small-school tackle, showcasing good power and placement behind his initial strikes and a willingness and ability to reset if need be. The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder works hard to churn his legs and generate movement from his lower half in the ground game. His athleticism is also an encouraging aspect of his game, as he accelerates well off the snap and has the lateral mobility needed to redirect in pass protection.

Jones can struggle with pad level consistency and picking up exotic pass-rushing looks at times, but his physical attributes and polished use of his hands indicate he could be a target NFL teams could consider as early as Round 3. Should he fall, though, the Bears would be wise to target him.

Nevada TE Cole Turner

Nevada’s offense has gotten some national love with quarterback Carson Strong and wide receiver Romeo Doubs projecting as early-round draft picks, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock if tight end Cole Turner becomes the best NFL player on that offense.

A big body at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Turner has an extensive catch radius with his long arms and nice leaping ability. He converted from wide receiver and was also a basketball player in high school, and those backgrounds show up in how he plays the game. He does a fantastic job of squaring up to the ball and boxing out defenders at the catch point to come down with difficult grabs. His body control in the air and his fluidity across the middle of the field give him value as both a red-zone threat and a seam weapon. In terms of acceleration, he is also one of the more explosive tight ends off the ball in the 2022 class.

Turner is more of a rounded route-runner than one who can consistently win with crisp movements, and he’s a bit thin in his lower half. That said, his pass-catching upside could make him a pick anywhere from Rounds 3 to 5, and it could make him strong complement to Cole Kmet at the tight end position should the Bears select him.

Memphis WR Calvin Austin III

Scout the player, not the helmet. The Bears got burned by a Memphis receiver before, but that doesn’t mean Calvin Austin III isn’t an enticing prospect this year.

After breaking onto the scene with 63 catches, 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020, Austin has quickly solidified himself as arguably the best receiver in the American Athletic Conference by putting together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He has 10 touchdowns from scrimmage this year, with one being a rushing touchdown and another coming as a punt returner. He is an uber-dynamic athlete with eye-opening speed in the open field and dangerous burst off the snap. His lateral quickness and vision past the second level with the ball in his hands allow him to make big plays consistently after the catch.

Austin is another small receiver at 5-foot-9 and a punitive 162 pounds, and he lacks value in tight windows and can struggle against physical coverage. With skinny receivers like Marquise Brown and Tutu Atwell being early-round picks in recent years, though, teams have proven that they often value speed over size. Should the Bears want to add some speed to their offense, Austin could be a nice target early on Day 3.

Fayetteville State CB Joshua Williams

If you like the prospect of taking toolsy cornerbacks with a high physical ceiling on Day 3, Joshua Williams might be your guy in the 2022 draft.

Williams broke out with 2 interceptions and 11 pass deflections in 2019, and though Fayetteville State didn’t play in 2020, he has found his footing with 3 interceptions and 9 pass deflections through his first 8 games this season. The 6-foot-3, 197-pounder is a lanky defender with very long arms for a cornerback, which makes it easier for him to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, along with his consistency in squaring his pads. He is quick in his backpedal and has the long speed needed to defend vertical route concepts, and he plays with a ball-hawking edge at the catch point.

As is the case with many taller cornerbacks, it can be tougher for Williams to change direction and sink his hips coming into his breaks. There’s also the obvious caliber of play concerns that will need to be answered at the Senior Bowl. That said, his length, speed and physicality are all very intriguing, and if the Bears want a backup for Jaylon Johnson on the boundary, Williams could be an option later on Day 3.

Chattanooga OG Cole Strange

A four-year starter who doesn’t wear gloves and has an old-school lineman facemask, Cole Strange is the embodiment of a football guy in the trenches.

Strange’s nasty edge stands out when watching him on tape. He is a tough-nosed interior blocker with plenty of power in his hands and the natural strength in his anchor needed to dominate FCS competition physically. His grip strength allows him to seal off defenders effectively in the run game, and he works hard to keep pushing once he locks up with an interior defender. He has a sharp understanding of how to execute his assignments as a zone-run blocker, and he has long arms that make it easier for him to control the battle upon contact.

Being 6-foot-6 and 301 pounds, Strange has a high center of gravity that can see him sometimes lose body control at the point of attack, and he doesn’t necessarily have great lateral quickness at this stage of his career. If the Bears want an ass-kicker at guard on Day 3, though, he could be an option worth considering around Rounds 5 or 6.

Fordham OL Nick Zakelj

Whether projected as a tackle or a guard at the next level, Nick Zakelj will bring one thing in particular to an NFL team: nastiness.

A five-year starter who has starting experience at both tackle spots, Zakelj’s boatload of starting reps shows up in how he plays the game. He does a good job of executing well-place jabs and is able to consistency land his punches with good timing and accuracy. He plays with a mean edge when locked up with defenders, and he puts his 6-foot-5, 325-pound frame to good use: he has the upper-body strength needed to overwhelm the opposition at the first point of contact, and the anchor strength needed to finish them off and bury them into the dirt. He’s also a coordinated athlete, as he does a very good job of rolling his hips through contact and coiling to seal off running lanes, as well as shuffling laterally in a vertical pass set.

Zakelj is a bit stiff in the hips and can struggle with generating ideal pad level, and the precision in his angles in pass protection is lacking at times, resulting in his getting beat to the outside by speed rushes. This may see him translate better at guard, but regardless of where he plays, he’s an under-the-radar talent who could be a solid target for the Bears near the end of the draft.