With where the Bears appear to be headed, the NFL Draft serves an even greater purpose.
After releasing Kyle Fuller and giving Akiem Hicks the option to explore trades, it appears likely that the Bears could undergo a youth infusion in the very near future. With draft picks in the first three rounds for the first time since 2016, the 2021 NFL Draft serves as an important checkpoint for Chicago to turn things around and add some talented young studs to their roster.
Luckily, I was able to attend the virtual press conferences for both Auburn and Stanford on Thursday and had the chance to speak to some enticing draft prospects. Here are some of my takeaways in talking to this class’ finest.
Auburn has cemented itself as one of the SEC’s toughest programs, and while their 6-4 fell short of expectations, it was still good enough to place fifth in the 14-team conference.
One of their keys to success has been their passing attack. Rising junior quarterback Bo Nix had two dynamic receivers to throw to in the form of Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams. With Schwartz serving as the team’s speedster and Williams dominating in tight windows, the Tigers had a true thunder-and-lightning combo at the position.
Schwartz put his speed on display during his Pro Day, running an insane 4.26 in his 40-yard dash. As a speed demon who bursts well off the snap, it can be tougher for him to come to a stop to dig deep in his breaks, but he mentioned that he has worked hard at perfecting his route-running technique since the end of the season.
“I will say that it makes it tougher if I’m striding,” Schwartz commented. “But I’ve learned how to run fast and burst out without having to stride out, being able to be quicker, so it’s come a little bit more naturally for me to come at the top of my breaks and cut fast. It’s something I’ve definitely worked on the past two months, just trying to improve and get it better. I feel like now I got a better understanding, and it’s been feeling a lot more [natural]. It’s not as taxing as it used to be.”
While Schwartz wins with athleticism, Williams is a big-bodied weapon whose physicality stands out on tape. As Auburn’s de facto No. 1 receiver on the boundary, he went up against some of the best cornerbacks in the nation. Among his most notable performances was against South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, who is projected to be a first-round pick. Williams caught four passes for 72 yards in the matchup, during which both players were able to showcase their skills.
“It was a good battle,” Williams said of his matchup with Horn. “He’s a pretty good corner. I feel like, just having that game under my belt just helps me in the long run because it taught me that you can never over-prepare for a game. I took every game after that super seriously. I over-prepared myself for all of them, every single down.”
Auburn also features plenty of talented defenders, as well. Linebacker K.J. Britt was a standout, physical linebacker who suffered a season-ending hand injury two games into the 2020 season, but has since turned out a Senior Bowl performance and a Pro Day outing to show NFL teams that he’s fully recovered and ready to compete.
“It’s no pressure. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. That’s the mindset I had: just do what I could do,” Britt said. “It is what it is. You’re going to either impress heads or you’re going to make heads go down. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Another gifted defender on Auburn’s defense last year was safety Jamien Sherwood. A 6-foot-2, 216-pound defensive back with a 7-foot wingspan, Sherwood is a lengthy player who hits hard and offers schematic versatility. He jokes that his long arms give him added value both on the field and around the house.
“That’s just the way I was born,” Sherwood told Windy City Gridiron. “Growing up, I pretty much always had the longest arms, the biggest wingspan. To my advantage, play-fighting with your friends, you always hit them from wherever [laughs]. On the playing field, whether you’re in a press-man having those long arms, it helps you at the line of scrimmage, even if someone’s far away, just reaching for them. Having long arms comes in handy. If something’s high up for your mom in the house, [she] can’t get it in the refrigerator or the cabinet, you always got me, so I’m always the handy man around the house.”
Stanford was only able to play in six games with the Pac-12’s shortened 2020 season, which is a shame, considering how much talent they had on their roster this year.
Despite playing in just one game since 2020, offensive tackle Walker Little finds himself projecting as a Day 2 pick and a potential starter at the NFL level. He suffered a torn ACL in the first game of the 2019 season, and he opted out of the 2020 season. However, it’s his 2018 performance that truly has him on the radar of professional teams. During that extensive time away from playing, Little has been working hard to perfect his craft.
“I’ve obviously been training a lot, trying to get stronger and quicker,” Little explained. “And that’s been a big part of [my pre-draft process]. On the football-specific side, I’ve had a chance to work with two coaches in particular — Paul Alexander and Duke Manyweather — and both of them have really helped fine-tune my game, both in the run game and pass game. We’re working on hands, working on always having a good base, and just working on being able to adjust to certain pass-rushers and trying to take my game to the next level to be ready for some of these elite pass-rushers I’m going to have to see very soon to give myself an opportunity to step into the NFL, play right away and do well against these elite pass-rushers.”
The big-bodied tackle has not met with the Bears as of this writing, but he does have a meeting set up with them on Saturday.
Another enigmatic Stanford prospect is quarterback Davis Mills, who only has 11 starts to his name but displayed NFL-caliber traits on tape. Though he only threw 7 touchdowns to 3 interceptions in the five games he was able to play in a shortened Pac-12 season, the former five-star recruit has an incredible arm, has flashed top-notch ball placement, and he ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at his Pro Day.
Given a lack of accumulative tape when compared to other top quarterback prospects, his Pro Day on Thursday was important to him.
“Obviously, with the shortened season, I wasn’t able to get the sample size of games I wanted on tape,” Mills replied. “I played well and had stuff on tape that NFL teams can go back and see, but this day just allowed them to come out and confirm what they saw on tape. There was pressure there, but I didn’t really feel the pressure; just confidence in myself to go out there and do what I always do and go sling the ball around some NFL teams.”
Mills’ top target in 2020 was wide receiver Simi Fehoko, who brings an enticing combination of size and speed to the table. At 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds with a 4.42 40-yard dash, Fehoko displayed the raw physical attributes that he put on display as a deep threat along the boundary for the Cardinal.
Though his size gives him an advantage in 50-50 ball situations, his height can make it tougher for him to drop his hips coming out of his breaks, which is something he has been working on to diversify his skill-set leading up to the draft.
“I knew that was one of my weaknesses: dropping my weight and coming out of my breaks,” Fehoko admitted. “I knew that was one of my weaknesses coming into this whole process, watching film, things like that. I’ve been working for the past three months with Ricky Proehl, and I would say for me to improve that, it’s just repetition. The more I get to do it — obviously, my role in Stanford’s offense this past year was a little more of that deep ball guy, deep threat guy, so I didn’t get as much repetition in those shorter, intermediate routes. I’d say just repetition, and eventually, I’m going to get that. I already feel like I’m a lot better than I was during the season, and I’m only going to improve.”
Stanford is heavy in offensive talent in the 2021 draft, but they also have an enticing defensive prospect in cornerback Paulson Adebo. Seen as a highly-coveted prospect in the 2020 draft, Adebo decided to return to school, only to opt out after the cancellation of the Pac-12 season. Remaining opted out when the conference announced a shortened season, the 6-foot-1, 198-pound defensive back let his tape from 2018 and 2019 do the talking, a period in which he tallied 8 interceptions and 27 pass deflections.
Considering his tremendous ball production at the collegiate level, Adebo has displayed an acute understanding of route recognition and determining what moves to make in coverage.
“Especially in the NFL, you can run one route six different ways,” Adebo told Windy City Gridiron. “You’re kind of [using] process of elimination. Your guy’s coming at you, you’re reading it from there, and then you’re eliminating the different possibilities. As far as pre-snap, just looking at down and distance, alignment — you’ll see on the divider, he has a wide split, tight split. Personnel — is this a speed guy, a big, physical guy, what kind of release does he normally do, is he somebody who just speed releases, does he switch it up, is he going to slide you.”