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2022 NFL Draft: Senior Bowl winners Bears should target

With the Senior Bowl over with, let’s take a look at some top performers from the game the Bears should keep an eye on.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The first big step of the 2022 NFL Draft process has come and gone, as this year’s Reese’s Senior Bowl came to its conclusion on Saturday.

A fun week of practices wrapped up with an enjoyable game, which the Jets-coached National team won 20-10 over the Lions-coached American team. Windy City Gridiron was represented in Mobile again this year, with Robert Schmitz, Jeff Berckes and Brandon Robinson covering the action all week.

Though I was unable to make the trip down for practices this year (fingers crossed for 2023), I was able to watch the game and make some observations while snowed in at my apartment instead of enjoying the warm Alabama weather. I’m not bitter, I swear.

Here are some of the top performers from the 2022 Senior Bowl whom the Bears would be wise to keep an eye on in this upcoming NFL Draft.

Oklahoma DL Perrion Winfrey

Perrion Winfrey served heavily in a rotational role at Oklahoma, but if his NFL play is anything like his performance in Mobile on Saturday, he’ll serve a much bigger role for his team at the next level.

Winfrey was named the Senior Bowl MVP after an incredible outing which saw him tally 2 sacks for the National team. He was a consistent force in the backfield, bursting off the snap with impressive speed for a 303-pounder while showcasing a red-hot motor and top-notch power at the point of attack. In a group of Senior Bowl defensive linemen that really shined both Saturday and during the week, Winfrey might be coming away as the biggest winner of them all.

The Bears’ defensive line situation is one with little long-term clarity, with Eddie Goldman a cut candidate and both Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols currently slated to hit free agency. It’s not their biggest need, but if they want a new, explosive 3-technique who can rush the passer well, Winfrey could very well be a target for them in the second round.

Minnesota EDGE Boye Mafe

When your Senior Bowl performance is enough to win your team’s player of the game award, it’s pretty clear that you had a strong game.

That was the case for Boye Mafe, who finished Saturday with 2 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble. He showcased his trademark explosiveness that he used to excel with the Golden Gophers to beat offensive tackles with speed off the edge and turn the corner with impressive flexibility in his lower half. He was a constant force in the backfield for the National team, and though he’s projected mainly as an early Day 3 talent, he could end up rising into late Day 2 if he builds upon this week with a strong Combine outing.

Though the Bears have a talented group of edge rushers with Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson, it never hurts to add some additional depth when the value is right. Mafe’s explosiveness would give Chicago another young pass-rusher to work with in their defensive system.

North Dakota State WR Christian Watson

Perhaps no wide receiver did as much with their appearance at the Senior Bowl as Christian Watson.

The 6-foot-4, 211-pound weapon with 10-inch hands was consistently able to overcome the competition during practices, and that was no different in the game itself on Saturday. He was able to beat Sam Houston State defensive back Zyon McCollum with a jab on his speed release to the outside, adjusting to an underthrown ball incredibly well for a big gain. His combination of size, straight-line speed and fluidity across the middle of the field should have him propelled well into Day 2 territory.

If Allen Robinson doesn’t come back to the Bears, they’ll be in need of a new ‘X’ wide receiver to fill their need of a big-bodied receiver. Watson could be a player worth targeting.

Baylor S J.T. Woods

If you didn’t know who J.T. Woods was before today — or even if you still don’t — now’s as good of a time as any to remember his name.

His teammate Jalen Pitre gets a lot of recognition as one of the top safeties in the 2022 draft class, but Woods is an enticing talent in his own right. He came away with a game-clinching interception in single-high coverage in Cover-3, breaking on the route with precise timing and taking full advantage of an underthrown ball to seal the deal for the National team. Breaking out with 6 interceptions for Baylor in 2021, Woods’ trademark range and ball-hawking mentality have him well suited for a pass-heavy NFL game.

Outside of Eddie Jackson, the Bears have relied on veterans on one-year deals to rotate alongside him at safety. Woods isn’t on too many national radars as of this writing, but I have a fourth-round grade on him right now. If he’s available with one of Chicago’s fifth-round selections, he might be a prospect worth considering.

Boston College OG Zion Johnson

The Bears currently have two interior offensive linemen with center-guard versatility in James Daniels and Cody Whitehair. It wouldn’t be too shocking if they add another this year in Zion Johnson.

A three-year starter at Boston College after starting for two seasons at Davidson, Johnson has started at both left tackle and left guard at the collegiate level. He added to his versatility by taking center reps in Mobile during practices and in the game, and he looked plenty comfortable in that role. His snaps were consistent, and he was able to pave lanes open for his teammates in the run game with his powerful frame and low center of gravity.

With former offensive linemen Ryan Poles and Ian Cunningham in the fold, the Bears’ front office might make the offensive line a priority this offseason. Should Johnson be available at No. 39, they might end up pulling the trigger on him pretty quickly.

Rutgers WR Bo Melton

Though under the radar from a national perspective, Bo Melton solidified on Saturday what those who watched him already knew: get the ball in his hands in space, and he can do some serious damage.

Melton looked the part of a true weapon on screens at the Senior Bowl, making the most of his given opportunities to make some plays out in the open field. With his thick frame and his above-average lateral agility and creativity past the first level, he was able to make defenders miss by running both through and around them. He was also able to show off some chops as a punt returner, bouncing outside for a 15-yard return on special teams.

Pro Bowl returner Jakeem Grant is currently slated to hit free agency, and while an ideal situation sees him return to the Bears, he could depart elsewhere if a team is willing to pay him more money. Should Chicago want to find a weapon with slot-outside versatility and special teams value, Melton could be a nice pickup in the fifth or sixth round.