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Bears 2021 college prospect preview: SEC

In the second part of our annual college football prospect preview series, we take a look at some of the top players in the SEC.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Louisiana State Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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 SEC is seen by many as the top football conference in the NCAA, so it’s no surprise the Bears have targeted players from those schools in recent years. In the last few years alone, Roquan Smith and Eddie Jackson turned into All-Pro talents from SEC schools, while hundreds more prospects from the conference have put together incredible careers over the years.

In the second part of this year’s series, Jacob Infante and Erik Christopher Duerrwaechter will break down some of the top NFL Draft prospects that the Bears should keep an eye on in the SEC.

Cream of the crop

Jacob: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU (6-foot-1, 195 pounds)

It takes a special talent to be a consensus All-American as a freshman on a national championship-winning team, and Derek Stingley Jr. fits that bill.

Breaking out with 6 interceptions and 15 pass deflections in 2019, Stingley put together one of the most impressive true freshman seasons in recent memory. While his production fell off in a shortened 2020 season, he still displayed the tools that have him viewed as the top cornerback in the 2022 class. A lengthy defender with long arms and an ideal frame to excel along the boundary, Stingley uses his size well in his physicality at the catch point and in his ability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. He plays with a scrappy edge in coverage, displaying willingness to enter the frame of opposing receivers to lock them down or to make a play on the ball.

Stingley is also an impressive athlete for a longer cornerback. His hips are loose and fluid, allowing him to change direction seamlessly and mirror the movements of the opposition. He has great acceleration coming out of his breaks upfield, which helps him defend vertical route concepts efficiently. Patient in his backpedal, precise in his footwork and sharp in his route-recognition abilities, he blends athletic ability with a high football IQ to shadow the top receivers of opposing offenses.

Though a bit out of control as a tackler both in the run game and after the catch, Stingley has the upside in coverage that teams love at the cornerback position. He is a scheme-versatile talent who should garner top-5 looks in the 2022 draft.

ECD: DeMarvin Leal, EDGE, Texas A&M (6-foot-4, 290 pounds)

Welcome to the SEC, where you will find the most freakish and athletic specimens in the collegiate football world. Jacob wants to talk about the best corner in this year’s draft class. Yet, what if I told you a player comparable to Julius Peppers happens to be the best prospect in this conference?

DeMarvin Leal is a sight to behold in any defensive front. I am not the biggest fan of Jimbo Fisher, but I will tip my hat to his work of establishing an intriguing assembly line of NFL prospects for this next draft class. Leal has the size and athletic profile to play anywhere between edge and DT. People believe he will transition to DT at the NFL level. I say, leave him at edge, and let him wreck havoc for years to come. He’s not as tall or lengthy as Julius Peppers, but he’s every bit as big and powerful. Plays with exceptional bend and explosiveness when turning the corner. Possesses a wide variety of techniques in his tool box to swat off fatty magoos on the O-line.

This versatile chess piece does need to develop his counters more consistently once merged into the fray. It’s not that he can’t shed once engaged — he’s demolished plenty of tackles in the SEC — it’s that he’ll remain in engagement for too long on occasion. All he needs to do is stab the lineman, and burst through once his path opens. Otherwise he has few holes in his game. I expect him to have a huge year with the Aggies and to be selected early in the 1st round come next April.

Top Bears target

Jacob: Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas (6-foot-3, 225 pounds)

A.J. Brown has quickly developed into a Pro Bowl talent for the Titans as a big-bodied YAC monster at the wide receiver position. Treylon Burks has the potential to be exactly that for whichever NFL team drafts him.

With 51 receptions, 820 yards and 7 touchdowns in just nine games last year, Burks would have topped the 1,000-yard mark in a season not shortened by COVID. He offers impressive length as a wide receiver but perhaps even more impressive bulk; his muscular frame shows up in his play strength. Physical through his stems and not afraid to make contact at the top of his route, Burks’ power makes him a difficult receiver to defend in press coverage. He also possesses very good contact balance as a ball-carrier, the ability to bounce off would-be tacklers, and a mean streak as a run blocker.

Though his size stands out the most at first glance, Burks isn’t just a stereotypical, big-bodied ‘X’ wideout. Rather, he is an agile runner with the ball in his hands who changes direction easily in space and has the vision needed to make creative cuts and evade defenders. He has good body control, as he does a good job of squaring up to the ball and contorting himself in a necessary manner to do so. He accelerates well off the snap and has the raw speed needed to stretch the field vertically.

Burks is a raw route runner with a limited route tree at Arkansas and inconsistent crispness coming in and out of his breaks. However, his physical upside should see him high in demand come Draft Day next year. If he manages to fall to the Bears in Round 2, he would be a target worth considering.

ECD: Kenyon Green, OL, Texas A&M (6-foot-4, 325 pounds)

Oh, the Bears have problems on their offensive line? Is that really the case? All snark aside, it’s time to stack consecutive drafts of reeling in blue chipped pieces to fill their trenches. Teven Jenkins, regardless of his long-term outlook, is just the starting point.

Kenyon Green would provide Chicago with a true O-lineman who can play virtually every position on the line. For 2021 he will be lining up at left tackle, which is interesting, considering he spent these past two years at guard. Jimbo Fisher has identified Green as his best lineman, and the film backs that up. For a guy who’s 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, he’s a monster who’s combination of size, short area quickness, and athleticism is nightmare fuel for D-linemen and LBs alike. Kenyon Green looks very similar to Jason Peters in terms of size and mobility while at any position on the O-line. Like Peters, he plays with excellent pad level, punches with violent hands, and has a nasty streak when engaged with his target. He anchors himself with a solid base, which is likely the attribute Fisher was looking for when considering the switch to LT.

Grading this particular player is difficult. On one hand, if he excels, he’ll shoot up the boards and be seen as one of the best linemen to select within the 1st round. On the other hand, coaches may see him sticking to guard at the NFL level. I’m on the fence between keeping him at LT to see what happens; or, flip him to RT. He does have a tendency to lunge out at his target, given the time he’s spent at guard. With so much uncertainty regarding which position he’ll play, I can see him sliding into the 2nd round. Remember, the Bears do not pick until Day 2 of the 2022 draft, and Green would be a fantastic option for their 2nd rounder if things play out the way I see. The more premium players at the O-line the Bears can add, the better.

Hoping they slide

Jacob: John Metchie III, WR, Alabama (6-foot, 195 pounds)

With DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle now in the NFL, the No. 1 receiver spot in the Alabama offense is up for grabs, and the player most likely to take on that role is John Metchie III.

Despite his talented predecessors, Metchie isn’t an unproven weapon. He finished the 2020 season with 55 catches, 916 yards and 6 touchdowns, putting together consistent production for the Crimson Tide down the stretch. Similar to Smith and Jerry Jeudy before him, Metchie is a crafty route runner who blends impressive sharpness in his cuts with an acute understanding of how to attack leverage through his stems and how to disguise route concepts. He accelerates well off the snap, is explosive in and out of his breaks and has the agility needed to make defenders miss after the catch.

Metchie also plays bigger than his frame indicates. He has strong hands that allow him to come down with grabs in tight windows, and he brings a variable of toughness in space that makes him difficult to bring down. He has very good body control, too, which allows him to track down the deep ball effectively and efficiently. Even though he projects best as a field-side receiver at the next level, he has a diverse arsenal of releases against press coverage on the boundary.

He’s a bit skinny and lacks top-notch value on the 50-50 ball, and he can stand to be more physical and strengthen his anchor as to not get shut down by physical coverage through his stems. However, Metchie is a technician with legit NFL athletic upside and the tools to be a quality starter at the next level. He’s being projected heavily in Round 1 prior to the 2021 season, but if he manages to slip into the second round, the Bears would be smart to make him their pick.

ECD: Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn (5-foot-11, 187 pounds)

I’m rolling the die on a player who has 1st round talent, yet grades out as a fringe 2nd-to-3rd round selection at this current time. There’s no question Roger McCreary faces the best receivers in the country on a yearly basis. He’s proven himself capable of mirroring even the most explosive of athletes while in coverage. Yet, he will need some strong coaching to eliminate bad habits at the next level.

Did I say McCreary can mirror even the most explosive athletes? Yes, yes I did, he’s plenty fast and has smooth hips when faced off against NFL-caliber receivers. He plays with extreme aggression, high intelligence, and a fiery attitude to make up for his size. Not that his size is bad, perhaps a couple more pounds of muscle to add in preparing himself for the future. I absolutely love how he attacks the ball carrier when closing in, and he is outstanding when filling in against the run. He blasts receivers off the line of scrimmage when assigned to press his targets. He’s a feisty DB who will fight in the basket drill with any contested catch.

The one bad habit he needs to knock off is face guarding the receivers once the ball is in the air and headed his direction. Too many times he would be in prime position to make a play on the ball, only to not get his head turned at all. That’ll lead to a lot of flags early in his NFL career. I attribute that habit to poor coaching from his previous staff - Auburn completely upgraded their coaching this offseason. His skillset is a perfect match with what Sean Desai is installing with his defense. Fix up his tendency to keep his back turned in coverage, and you’ll see a CB who can start day one in the NFL.

Later round hopefuls

Jacob: Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans, CB, Missouri (6-foot-2, 202 pounds; 6-foot-2, 198 pounds)

I know that I’m cheating by including two players, and I may be biased as a Missouri student by placing two prospects here. However, I’d be remiss not to use this opportunity to hype up two transfer cornerbacks from Tulsa with sleeper potential in the 2022 draft whom the Bears should target.

Allie Green IV will be a three-year full-time starter by the time the 2021 season comes to an end. His size is a major boon in his game, as his long arms allow him to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage in press coverage and maintain activity through a receiver’s stems. He brings very good physicality to the table in coverage, which combined with his size makes him a tough defender to box out at the catch point. He is a willing and capable tackler with ideal form in run support, and he has shown promise in terms of his route recognition and temperance in his backpedal. His lack of ball production and top-notch ball skills on tape is worrisome, and his lateral agility coming in and out of his breaks is a bit inconsistent. Green is a physically-gifted cornerback, though, and he offers starting upside if he works on his ability to attack the ball and consistently make the right reads in coverage.

Akayleb Evans is also a lengthy defensive back with ideal physicality at the catch point who uses his length very well in press coverage. He isn’t afraid to make contact through a receiver’s stems and can do so without bordering into penalty territory. He is a consistent tackler who wraps up well and has the play strength needed to consistently bring down ball-carriers that come his way. For a cornerback who is as big as he is, he’s also a quality athlete who changes direction seamlessly in coverage and offers loose hips that allow him to mirror the movements of opposing receivers. He accelerates well coming out of his breaks and has good deep speed coming uphill. Evans doesn’t have any interceptions at the collegiate level yet, and he has battled injuries in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but his physical upside is palpable. He could rise up boards with a strong year for the Tigers.

ECD: Jeremiah Moon, EDGE, Florida (6-foot-6, 250 pounds)

You all knew it was just a matter of time before I included a Florida Gator in my list. I don’t think Kaiir Elam will be a realistic option for Chicago, given they do not currently possess a 1st round pick. Instead, Jeremiah Moon is a prospect that I believe can be had on Day 3 of the draft, and will develop into an edge player comparable to a bigger/faster version of Alex Brown.

He’s an extremely raw player who has the size and physical gifts to succeed in the pros. He’ll flash off the edge and has been one of Florida’s best pass rushers since making his debut as a freshman. Also has a large set of tools in his box to fight off linemen when engaged. It’s just his lack of consistency to get off blocks against credible O-linemen, and his injury history, that weighs his score down considerably low in comparison to his athletic profile. That of which is almost identical to (former Bear) Leonard Floyd’s.

What will help him is his endless motor that won’t turn off until the whistle is blown. This is where his comparison to Alex Brown comes in, as once Brown figured out how to win his matchups consistently, he became a mainstay for the Bears’ D-line. Brenton Cox gets plenty of love in Gainesville, yet don’t sleep on Jeremiah Moon come draft day. Start him in a rotation, maybe play him on special teams, and let him grow.

Featured game

Jacob: Texas A&M vs. Alabama (Oct. 9)

This matchup could very well be an early preview of the SEC championship game later in the year.

Alabama lost many key contributors from their championship-winning team, but they’re still an incredibly deep team with potential to repeat this year. Bryce Young takes over at quarterback and showed some intriguing flashes as a true freshman in 2020. He’ll be throwing to players like the aforementioned Metchie, athletic tight end Jahleel Billingsley and Ohio State transfer receiver Jameson Williams. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. returns to run behind a talented offensive line with nasty blockers like potential first-round tackle Evan Neal and guard Emil Ekiyor. Defensively, the Crimson Tide feature five interior defenders with draftable grades for the 2022 class. Linebackers Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o combine to form what might be the best linebacker duo in the nation. Edge rusher Chris Allen features draftable potential, along with true sophomore stud Will Anderson. In the secondary, cornerback Josh Jobe and safety Jordan Battle project as Day 2 picks.

Texas A&M could really miss Kellen Mond this year, because they’re likely a proven quarterback away from being a strong title contender. Well-rounded running back Isaiah Spiller projects as a possible first-round pick, while tight end Jalen Wydermeyer is a physical freak with great speed and physicality at the catch point. Erik already mentioned the nasty Kenyon Green, who currently projects as my top guard in the 2022 class. The X-factor on the Aggies’ offense might be Ainias Smith, a running back/receiver hybrid with top-notch athletic traits and eye-opening shiftiness as a route runner. Their defensive front is commendable, too: the aforementioned DeMarvin Leal is a potential top-10 pick, while edge rushers Tyree Johnson and Micheal Clemons bring above-average athleticism for being such big defenders. Linebacker Aaron Hansford is an intriguing prospect who, although raw, is a very good athlete with great size at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. Texas A&M features two draftable safeties in the rangy Demani Richardson and the physical Leon O’Neal Jr., too.

ECD: Georgia vs. Florida (Oct 30)

This annual rivalry always includes some of the best prospects to watch for in any NFL draft class. You can bet scouts from all 32 teams will be in attendance at Jacksonville come October 30th. There will be an air show on display as Georgia Bulldogs QB JT Daniels looks to continue his comeback campaign against Emory Jones and his bid to be a great Florida Gators QB.

Both teams also feature some incredible players around the QB position and some stacked defenses.

The world’s biggest collection of monster hog mollies, AKA Georgia’s behemoth O-line, squares off against a Florida Gators front featuring Brenton Cox, Jeremiah Moon, and Zachary Carter with Ventrell Miller patrolling at ILB. Florida is also DB-U with Kaiir Elam and Trey Dean III headlining their secondary. They’ll face off against the speedy George Pickens deep in coverage.

Meanwhile, Florida’s QB Emory Jones is armed with an explosive backfield led by the RB tandem of Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis. Pensacola native Jacob Copeland leads the group at receiver, as they look to fill the big voids left by last year’s star-studded group. And who will they face off against? Why, Georgia’s defense filled with several Day One prospects like Safety Lewis Cline, OLB Adam Anderson, DT Jordan Davis, and DE Travon Walker. Plenty of NFL-ready talent to appease all appetites.