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.
The Bears found their potential franchise quarterback out of the Big Ten this past draft in Justin Fields, and the conference has produced hundreds upon hundreds of stud NFL prospects over the years.
Cream of the crop
Jacob: Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa (6-foot-3, 290 pounds)
Since 2010, Iowa has had 10 offensive linemen drafted into the NFL. They appear to have another early-round stud on their hands in Tyler Linderbaum heading into the 2021 season.
As is the case with many Iowa linemen, Linderbaum is a polished technician with a style of play that offensive line coaches will love. He does a very good job of keeping his weight underneath him and distributed accordingly. His pad level is ideal, and he has flexible hips that allow him to stay low at the point of attack and generate maximum power in his anchor. He works hard to keep his legs churning through contact and plays the game with a mean streak. A four-sport athlete in high school with an accomplished wrestling background, Linderbaum accelerates well moving to the second level and does a good job of rolling his hips through contact to seal off running lanes for his teammates.
He is a bit light for a center, and that lack of pro-ready bulk can see him get pushed back in the pocket by explosive nose tackles and 1-techniques from time to time. From a technical and athletic perspective, though, he seems to be just about everything an NFL team would want in a Day 1 starter along the interior.
ECD: Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State (6-foot-3, 240 pounds)
I’m starting off this year with a pick I’m sure most readers will question outright. Brandon Smith is a player who has not received the credit or the hype that he deserves. Where so many people will obsess over the tandem of receivers from Ohio State — and they’re ridiculously good — this LB from Penn State will go under the radar when thinking about prospects from the Big Ten.
He’s currently projected to start as the “WILL” LB for Penn State’s 4-3 front-based defense in 2021 after a strong breakout season as the “SAM” in place of former star (and current Dallas Cowboy) LB Micah Parsons. Smith possesses a great balance of strength, athleticism, and intelligence to help him distinguish himself from his peers in this upcoming draft class. He hits with authority and a loud “boom” while wrapping up to secure the ball carrier. His toolbox of pass-rushing moves is diverse, and has a good amount of bend when coming off the edge. Smith can stay on the field during obvious passing situations as well.
Given that he’s had just one big year so far, and that he’s now entering year three in Penn State, a lot of people are placing a conservative 2nd round grade on him. To me, he’s a player who will rise up the boards once the season reaches the half-way point. People can make a case for him to transition into an edge defender, as he possesses enough size and frame to make that possible. Either way, I see him becoming a full-time starter at LB in the next level.
Top Bears target
Jacob: David Bell, WR, Purdue (6-foot-2, 205 pounds)
For the record, I personally support the concept of paying Allen Robinson and extending him to a long-term deal. Regardless of whether the Bears do or not, though, they would be wise to do their homework on David Bell this year.
With an average of about 92 yards per game through his first two collegiate seasons, Bell has been a productive weapon with Rondale Moore missing time in both 2019 and 2020. He is a physical boundary receiver who can box out defenders at the catch point and separate from press coverage using a diverse arsenal of releases. Bell does a very good job of attacking leverage points through his stems, and his reliable hands make him a consistent target across the middle of the field. He has impressive ball skills and overall body control, contorting himself in a necessary manner to square up to the ball and adjust himself to make the grab.
Bell’s athletic profile might not turn some heads, and he might struggle to generate as much buzz with his numbers in workouts as other top receivers in the class. However, he is a refined technician with strong hands and a lengthy frame, and that skill-set makes him a prototype as an ‘X’ receiver in the pros.
ECD: Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State (6-foot-1, 190 pounds)
I, too, want Allen Robinson to remain in a Bears jersey for 2022 and beyond. This pick has nothing to do with any possible departure for AR12. Instead, and here we go again… another year where I expect Ryan Pace to trade up for a premier blue chip talent, this time to surround Justin Fields with offensive weapons. In Chris Olave, the Bears would be getting the top deep threat in college football.
This pick follows the latest trend in team roster building league-wide. Last year alone we witnessed three different teams: the Cincinnati Bengals; Miami Dolphins; and Philadelphia Eagles; select receivers who were the top targets for their respective QBs the year prior. Naturally, the Bears could also go for Garrett Wilson — see Jacob’s part below for more — yet I see Chris Olave as a receiver who fits Matt Nagy’s offense like a glove. His burst, speed, and fluidity while running deep routes is tailor-made for what the Bears are looking to fill their receiving corps with. It’s because of his athletic makeup and precise route-running that he gains separation easily even against the toughest secondaries in college football. Olave’s hands are dependable, and he has a knack for making tough catches with his strong sense of spatial awareness.
The only thing holding Olave back from being considered as the top receiver in this 2022 class is his perceived lack of physicality with blocking and in contested catches. It’s not for a lack of trying or willingness, he just doesn’t maintain his blocks downfield as he’ll get tossed aside too easily. He’ll fight for the ball, yet again, he doesn’t win a lot of those toss-ups. Those are two areas I expect for him to improve on with his surprising decision to return for his senior year. And, those aren’t bad enough for the Bears to pass on an opportunity to acquire such a dynamic threat into their construction efforts around Justin Fields.
Hoping they slide
Jacob: Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State (6-foot, 192 pounds)
What better way to appease your new franchise quarterback than by reuniting him with one of his top weapons?
Erik touched on fellow Buckeye Chris Olave already, but there’s another receiver who should also garner first-round looks: Garrett Wilson. Breaking out with 723 yards and 6 touchdowns in eight games last year, Wilson looked the part of a future NFL starter. He is an explosive athlete who uses his deep speed to stretch the field vertically, as well as his impressive lateral quickness to sink his hips and explode coming in and out of his breaks. He is able to change direction on a dime to separate and evade defenders after the catch.
Wilson is a bit light and can stand to be more physical at the catch point and at the top of his route. He can struggle with his releases against press coverage, and while he’s moving back outside for the 2021 season, he seems to be a better fit in the slot at the next level. He seems like a first-round talent, but if he happens to fall into the second round, the Bears would certainly be wise to target him.
ECD: Matt Bedford, OL, Indiana (6-foot-5, 314 pounds)
Indiana’s emergence in the Big Ten last season surprised many people, including myself. Most will focus on their stout defense, yet I was impressed with their big nasty tackle, Matt Bedford. If placed in the right system, and paired with a quality coaching staff, he could be a day two pick who’ll start plenty of games in the pros.
Bedford possesses above-average athleticism and mobility for a lineman of his size. Here is one of the few cases where I would not recommend kicking a player like Bedford inside at Guard, he’s just too good of a tackle to warrant that positional switch. He’s held his own against quality talent and edge defenders within the Big Ten, his wide body and sound fundamentals walled off pass rushers when setting himself up in pass protection. He’s a powerful mauler at the point of attack, using his size to bully his man off the line of scrimmage.
He is a good, but not great, prospect at the NFL level. He could be more forceful and consistent in his hand placement to give himself a better advantage against the more freakish defenders he’ll face in the long term. He’ll become a mainstay once he taps into his inner bull on every snap. Given all the room he has for growth, he’ll start receiving higher grades, and I have him as a late 2nd round/3rd round pick.
Later round hopefuls
Jacob: Jaelyn Duncan, OT, Maryland (6-foot-6, 315 pounds)
A soon-to-be three-year starter with impressive physical attributes, Jaelyn Duncan stands out as a possible riser up draft boards with a strong 2021 campaign.
Duncan brings impressive length for the offensive tackle position with a large wingspan and lengthy limbs. Those long arms, combined with his raw power in his upper half, allows him to lock out defenders at the point of attack easily. He has a strong anchor in pass protection and does a very good job of keeping his pads low and his weight underneath him. He’s also an impressive athlete for his size, accelerating well as a down blocker and possessing the lateral mobility needed to mirror the movements of edge rushers to the outside.
He seems a bit raw in terms of the timing and placement of his jabs, which can affect how consistently he maximizes the power in his frame. He can also work on developing a nasty edge in his game, as he doesn’t appear to have a tenacious mindset when engaged with defenders. While a bit of a work in progress, Duncan is a physically-gifted offensive tackle with a high ceiling at the next level.
ECD: Vederian Lowe, OT, Illinois (6-foot-6, 320 pounds)
The Bears finally started to utilize more premium picks in re-building their offensive line during the 2021 NFL draft. That needs to continue from this point forward. A dream scenario for me would be for the Bears to draft Bedford in the 3rd round, and then land this behemoth in the 6th round.
Vederian is a very big man, and he’s still growing. Throughout his time at Illinois he’s produced respectable results as the Fighting Illini’s blindside protector. He’ll bounce defenders out of the club on a regular basis. Then again, his average athleticism and mechanics are a rough combination, and he would benefit from a move to the inside as a Guard.
If he does commit to a transition as a Guard at the next level, I can see him playing relatively soon. He’s a developmental body whose attitude and physicality will serve him well.
Jacob: Indiana vs. Ohio State (Oct. 23)
No team played Ohio State as hard during the regular season as Indiana did, and as the Hoosiers come back with most of their returning starters, this year’s matchup figures to be another barnburner.
The Buckeyes find themselves without Justin Fields at quarterback, but they still have a loaded offense, led by their two aforementioned star receivers. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert is unproven from a production standpoint, but he is a big-bodied weapon with above-average athletic ability and a high ceiling in the red zone. Explosive running back Master Teague steps into a full-time starting role behind an offensive line that features two notable prospects at tackle in Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere.
Defensively, Ohio State features an intimidating pass-rushing duo with edge rushers Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith, while defensive tackles Haskell Garrett and Taron Vincent provide NFL upside with solid quickness. Their linebackers are an unproven group, but watch out for the eligibility of USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote IV. The secondary also features some new faces in the starting lineup, but cornerback Sevyn Banks and safety Marcus Hooker stand out as early-round talents.
Indiana may not have the luxury of having dozens of highly-touted recruits in their lineup, but they have a talented roster nonetheless and are very well coached. The offense revolves around the connection of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and wide receiver Ty Fryfogle, the former of whom showing promise as a touch thrower who can scan the full field, and the latter being a physical possession weapon along the boundary. Peyton Hendershot is an athletic move tight end with loose hips, while Stephen Carr is an intriguing, big-bodied USC transfer at running back.
The Hoosiers had one of the best defenses in the Big Ten last year, and they return most of their starters in 2021. Leading the charge is the secondary, featuring early-round prospect Tiawan Mullen at cornerback and the versatile Marcelino McCary-Ball serving as the team’s “husky” defender, which is essentially a hybrid linebacker-safety. Linebacker Micah McFadden is another player worth keeping an eye on, having 59 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks and 2 interceptions last year.
ECD: Ohio State vs. Oregon (Sep. 11)
At last, a sense of normalcy has returned to college athletics. Teams are no longer restricted to playing just in-conference games. Ohio State draws an early CFP-level matchup against the Oregon Ducks.
Jacob already set the scene with the bounty of talent the Buckeyes possess. There surely will be fireworks from both offenses in this game. My bias as a defender-by-trade will have me focused on the defenses between each team.
Ohio State’s offense will be challenged mightily by guys like Kayvon Thibodeaux, Verone McKinley III, and Mykael Wright. To see how Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson will fare against an NFL caliber secondary shall be noteworthy.