One of the most fun parts about preparing for the NFL Draft is trying to find diamonds in the rough in the way of small-school sleepers.
In looking at just this year’s group of Pro Bowlers, such schools like CSU Pueblo, Eastern Washington, Hobart, Grand Valley State, Valdosta State and South Carolina State boasted alumni. Though there are Power 5 schools who stand out as more reliable NFL feeder programs, the point is that top talent can come from just about anywhere.
The Bears weren’t afraid to take shots on small-school talent under their previous regime, though that came with mixed results. Tarik Cohen stands out as a smart find considering his smaller-school status, while the likes of Adam Shaheen and Jordan Morgan didn’t make much of a dent during their time in Chicago.
It can be a risky practice, but selecting prospects outside of the FBS can be incredibly productive when done currently. The 2022 NFL Draft features plenty of intriguing small-school talents, and the Bears would be smart to do their homework on some of the less-heralded prospects in this class.
I’ll give an honorable mention to North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson. Though he is a small-school prospect who played in the Senior Bowl — which applies to four other players on this list — he arguably has too much hype to be considered a “sleeper” at this stage.
Without further ado, here are 7 small-school sleepers the Bears would be wise to target in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Montana State LB Troy Andersen
Troy Andersen might be the least “sleeper-y” of the prospects on this list, but I do what I want. You’re not my mom.
At 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, Andersen is a big-bodied linebacker with long limbs and a frame built well for the NFL level of physicality. He plays with a high motor on a down-by-down basis, and his size and effort makes him a valuable asset blitzing up the A-gap. For a bigger off-ball linebacker, he’s also a good lateral athlete with sneaky closing speed when targeting a ball-carrier.
His diagnosing speed will need to be improved at the next level, as he can sometimes be a split second too late to process concepts in the passing game. Andersen’s physical outlook is impressive, however, and he could be a great option if the Bears want to find a MIKE on Day 3.
Southern Utah OT Braxton Jones
Braxton Jones is an intriguing prospect whom I’ve talked about a handful of times on WCG, so to prevent myself from being too repetitive, here’s a takeaway of his profile I had from back in November:
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 is a bit raw in terms of keeping his pads low and generating more torque out of his anchor, but he has the physical upside to develop into a solid starter at the next level. He projects best as a Day 3 prospect, and if he’s around for the Bears to draft in Round 5, he would be a name worth keeping in mind.
North Dakota OT Matt Waletzko
It’s not often you find an offensive tackle who’s 6-foot-7 that can move as well as Matt Waletzko can.
A three-year full-time starter for the Fighting Hawks, Waletzko offers long arms and raw power in his upper half that allows him to lock defenders out from his frame. His grip strength and ability to snatch and trap defensive linemen sees him knock them off balance pretty consistently. He’s also a very good athlete for his size, as he accelerates well as a down blocker and offers good lateral mobility in pass protection.
Waletzko’s pad level and weight distribution will need some fine-tuning at the next level, but his physical upside is palpable. He could be a wise target for the Bears if he’s available in Rounds 5 or 6.
Missouri State DL Eric Johnson
Am I possibly biased towards a fellow Plainfield native? Maybe, but Eric Johnson, who grew up about an hour away from Chicago, is a player worth considering on his own merit, not just because of where he’s from.
Johnson dominated at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and was a last-minute invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he more than held his own against top competition. Though he best projects as a 3-technique defensive tackle, he played just about everywhere along Missouri State’s defensive line. He accelerates well off the snap, and his raw power and explosiveness allows him to push the pocket consistently, even when his pads aren’t relatively low. Mobile for a 6-foot-4, 300-pounder, Johnson’s lateral quickness in the open field makes him a dangerous backside threat, too.
He may be raw in terms of pad level and his counter move arsenal, but Johnson’s first step and sheer explosive ability should be enticing to NFL teams late on Day 3. The Bears could view him as a good fit as a 3-tech defensive lineman in Matt Eberflus’ scheme.
Idaho State WR Tanner Conner
It’s a shame Tanner Conner didn’t get invited to the 2022 Scouting Combine, because if there’s any snub who could’ve generated some serious buzz in workouts, it’s him.
Conner is an imposing receiver to say the least; at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he possesses very good length and rare bulk for a boundary receiver. He was an accomplished track athlete during his time at Idaho State, and considering he’s jumped a 40-inch vertical and is projected to run a 4.4-4.5 40-yard dash, that background will show up in testing. He’s a great 50-50 ball competitor whose ball skills and sheer size allow him to bully smaller defenders at the catch point, and he also has good deep speed for his size.
The appeal with Conner comes mostly with his athletic upside, as he’s raw as a route runner and doesn’t have elite production at the collegiate level. That said, his physical profile is just absurd, which would make him a great depth and special teams option for the Bears to consider on Day 3.
Nicholls State WR Dai’Jean Dixon
Nicholls State hasn’t had a player drafted into the NFL since 2009. There’s a good chance that changes this year with Dai’Jean Dixon.
Dixon has two 1,000-yard seasons to his name and likely would have had three if not for a COVID-shortened Southland Conference season. He offers very good size for a boundary receiver at 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds, and his sticky hands complement his length to make him a dangerous jump-ball receiver to have to go up against. For a bigger receiver, he offers impressive coordination and has shown promise in regards to his ability to attack leverage points through his stems.
Besides the typical competition concerns, the main issue with Dixon is a lack of top-notch deep speed, and his explosiveness out of his breaks is just okay. He dominated the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, though, and his tape is every bit as dominant as you’d want for a small-school receiver. The Bears may want to consider targeting him around Round 6 this year.
Brown QB E.J. Perry
Remember that “draft a quarterback every year” strategy we used to hear about? It’s unlikely the Bears abide to that with limited draft capital this year, but E.J. Perry could be a late-round backup option worth targeting.
A Boston College transfer who took over Brown’s starting quarterback job in 2019, Perry was the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year this past year and shredded opposing defenses en route to a Shrine Bowl Offensive MVP in January. He has a good understanding of soft spots against zone coverage, and his decision-making on RPOs is pretty consistent. His flashes of touch from intermediate and deep ranges are encouraging, and he’s also a solid dual-threat quarterback with 1,202 rushing yards at the collegiate level.
Perry’s arm talent appears to just be pedestrian by NFL prospect standards, and his touch can be hit or miss, even on more routine throws. His draft stock isn’t incredibly high, but in a class that lacks in quarterback depth, he’s one of few players outside of the consensus top-six passers with draftable potential. If the Bears want to develop a backup quarterback underneath Justin Fields, Perry could be a name to watch.