Walter Payton went to Jackson State. Jerry Rice went to Mississippi Valley State. Terrell Owens went to Chattanooga.
Are any of the players in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft likely to live up to any of the aforementioned players’ standards? Possibly not, but all three serve as proof that you don’t have to go to a big school to make an impact in the NFL.
The Bears have made it a priority to do their homework on small-school prospects under general manager Ryan Pace. Out of their six drafts since Pace joined the organization, all but one have involved the selection of a player selected at the FCS, Division II or Division III level.
As they find themselves in need of a youth infusion on their roster, the 2021 draft serves as an especially important draft for the Bears. If they aim on finding a few diamonds in the rough, they would be smart to keep their eyes on some of the under-the-radar, small-school players.
Here are eight prospects who didn’t play at the FBS level who could be targets for the Bears in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Arguably the most notable FCS prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft, Trey Lance is a player the Bears would be foolish to not do their homework on.
Playing just one game in 2020 — and a disappointing one, at that — has seen Lance fade into the background in the discussion of top quarterbacks. Make no mistake about it, though: his ceiling is sky-high. A true dual-threat quarterback who can make plays through the air and with his legs, Lance brings an ideal skillset for a game that seemingly favors mobile quarterbacks more and more each year. He has a very strong arm, delivering throws with consistent velocity and significant distance when he gets the chance to stretch the field vertically. He is also an elusive runner who can evade pressure in the pocket and either make defenders miss or run them over when he gets into space.
Lance has shown impressive flashes of deep-ball and intermediate accuracy, and his undefeated record as a starter is nothing to scoff at. The concerns are apparent: he’s a one-year starter at the FCS level who struggles with making full-field reads and throwing with consistent touch. He may be raw, but the upside factor with him is so massive that the Bears could consider trading up for him if they don’t make a move for Carson Wentz or any other big-name veteran this offseason.
Dillon Radunz, OT, North Dakota State
Unlike his teammate Lance, Dillon Radunz should be able to start from Day 1 in the NFL, which is a testament to just how good his tape is.
Radunz showed up from Day 1 at the Senior Bowl, physically dominating much of his competition, despite his lack of significant 2020 reps and his small-school status. He put on display a lot of the traits that are apparent when watching him on tape. He is an athletic tackle whose mobility and flexibility in pass protection allows him to seal off speed rushes at the top of opponents’ arcs. He also brings plenty of power at the point of attack, as the pop he packs in his jabs allows him to knock defenders off balance. With his combination of agility and anchor strength against power, he projects very well as a reliable pass protector.
An ability to excel against top competition was showcased down in Mobile, but there are still some concerns in Radunz’s game. He struggles a bit with pad level, and while his issues don’t seem to be rooted in lower-body stiffness, his composure when engaged with defenders can improve a bit. Though he measured below the typical 34-inch arm length that is desired for an offensive tackle at the NFL level, Radunz could likely still play at tackle — as well as guard — if needed. If the Bears want to target an offensive lineman in Round 2, he could be their guy.
Spencer Brown, OT, Northern Iowa
If you like height at the offensive tackle position, you’ll get plenty of it with Spencer Brown.
A 6-foot-9 behemoth who weighs roughly 315 pounds, Brown looks even more like a WWE Superstar than he does an NFL player. He brings an insane frame to the table, as well as pretty long arms that should allow him to stay at tackle going forward. He showcases an extensive knowledge of hand usage on tape, as he has very good placement when landing his strikes and has shown that he can constantly fight to get inside leverage. Brown is a polished athlete for his size, as he has good coordination and can change direction pretty well in space. That’s not to mention his upper-body strength, which he proved at the Senior Bowl can help him maul just about any defender, let alone FCS competition.
As is the case with numerous tall offensive linemen, Brown struggles with sinking his hips and keeping his pads low. His lower-body flexibility isn’t necessarily ideal, and he doesn’t get the most out of his anchor strength as a result. He may require some polishing before he can crack an NFL starting lineup, but if the Bears are willing to wait a year, they could have the chance to feature a monster along their offensive line in the near future.
Calvin Ashley, OT, Florida A&M
If the Bears want a truly under-the-radar offensive line target this year, Calvin Ashley could be a player worth considering.
A former five-star recruit at Auburn, Ashley certainly looks the part of an NFL offensive lineman. Listed at 6-foot-7 and 335 pounds, he is a massive lineman with extensive reach and plenty of raw bulk in his frame. He packs a powerful punch and has the grip strength needed to control a defender’s momentum and seal off lanes in the run game. He plays with a nasty edge to his game, showing off the ability to pummel defenders into the dirt. Ashley is a fairly coordinated tackle who moves with good cadence in pass protection and is measured in his movements as both a run and pass blocker.
Ashley’s path to getting drafted could be a difficult one. He didn’t play in 2020 with the postponing of his team’s season, and he has just eight collegiate starts to his name: seven in 2019 for Florida A&M and one for Auburn in 2018. He also lacks top-notch mobility for an offensive tackle and has pretty stiff hips, which limits his ability to get low at the point of contact. Ashley may be too much of a question mark to warrant investing much more than a flier seventh-round pick in, but the physical talent he has could make him an intriguing developmental target for the Bears.
Quinn Meinerz, OG, Wisconsin-Whitewater
Perhaps no player made themselves more money on Senior Bowl weekend than Quinn Meinerz.
While first catching attention for letting his gut hang out with a crop-top during practice, Meinerz soon proved that he was anything but a gimmick. A thickly-built interior blocker at about 6-foot-3 and 320 pounds, he packs plenty of raw strength in both his upper and lower body. He’s nasty at the point of attack and has impressive power in his jabs, and his anchor strength prevents defenders from pushing the pocket against him. Meinerz showcases an innate ability to demolish the opposition and drive them into the dirt. He’s also pretty intelligent, being able to pick up twists and exotic blitzes with relative ease.
Meinerz doesn’t exactly have the highest physical ceiling, as his arms are fairly short and he doesn’t have top-notch flexibility or agility in his lower half. That aside, though, he projects as a potential starter at the next level. Having taken reps at both guard and center at the Senior Bowl, his versatility and high motor could be intriguing to the Bears early on Day 3.
David Moore, OG, Grambling State
Another small-school standout in Mobile this year, David Moore also fits that stout, powerful mauler mold along the interior offensive line.
With 350 pounds to his name, Moore is a behemoth of a man whose width translates well in his strength on tape. His jabs are nasty and powerful, and when he locks onto an opponent, it’s going to be a challenge for them to disengage. He keeps his legs churning as a run blocker, working hard to drive his opponents back to create running lanes for his teammates. Moore is a sound decision-maker in zone-blocking situations and knows when to disengage with one defender and pick another one up. Though not the flashiest athlete in the world, he showcases good coordination on tape and has solid footwork in pass protection.
At just under 6-foot-2 with below-average arm length, Moore doesn’t have tremendous physical attributes outside of his weight. His pads are a bit high coming out of a three-point stance, and he doesn’t bring top-notch flexibility or agility in his lower body. Those attributes could limit him to the middle of Day 3, but if the Bears want to add a nasty edge to their interior offensive line without paying a premium price, Moore would be a player worth targeting.
Cade Johnson, WR, South Dakota State
It’s not often than receivers coming off of back-to-back seasons with over 1,200 yards fly under the radar in draft spheres, but that’s currently the case with Cade Johnson.
An ultra-productive weapon who projects best out of the slot, Johnson is one of the more dynamic receivers in this year’s draft. He accelerates well off the snap and has the deep speed needed to stretch the field vertically. He is a fluid athlete across the middle of the field, showcasing flexibility in his lower half and coordination in subtle breaks on seams and drag routes. Johnson excels at making defenders miss in space with fantastic lateral quickness and good ball-carrier vision past the second level. That big-play ability gives him special teams value, as he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in college with a 26.7 yards-per-return average.
At 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds, Johnson isn’t going to be an imposing threat on any team. He’s still developing as a route-running technician, and he can struggle with securing passes in tight windows. While maybe not on par with some of the top slot weapons like Kadarius Toney, Rondale Moore or Amari Rodgers, Johnson is a fantastic consolation prize on Day 3. With his dynamic play-making skills and his special teams upside, the Bears could consider adding him to their roster in this year’s draft.
Christian Uphoff, S, Illinois State
Let’s face it: 2021 should be an offense-heavy draft for the Bears. That’s not to say they should completely ignore the defensive side of the ball, though, as there are a few Day 3 sleepers who could prove valuable down the line.
A 6-foot-3 safety with a 213-pound frame, Christian Uphoff fits the big-bodied, small-school safety mold that Jeremy Chinn and Kyle Dugger fulfilled in last year’s draft. His size is apparent in his physical style of play: he is a hard-hitting safety who closes in on ball-carriers with good closing speed and a willingness to lower the shoulder. Uphoff has a sound mental trigger as a run defender and is able to quickly charge downhill and break down in space to make the tackle. He offers very good physicality at the catch point, which could see him tasked with taking on tight ends in man coverage from time to time. His size, tackling skills and straight-line speed give him a very high ceiling on special teams, as well.
Uphoff isn’t the most mobile safety, as his range is just decent and his lateral quickness coming out of his breaks is fairly pedestrian in the grand scheme of things. His processing in zone coverage — particularly when placed as a centerfielder in single-high shells — can be a bit slow, indicating he may play primarily underneath or in the box at the next level. He may not have the highest ceiling in coverage, but Uphoff is still a physical specimen at safety with special teams value whom the Bears could target late on Day 3.