5 NFL draft prospects who could end up as Bears
CHICAGO — Well Bears fans, it’s about that time of year again. The time where we collectively lounge back in our recliners (or on our sofas) and let our minds drift toward the future.
‘I wonder who the Bears are going to take this year in the draft?‘ Thinks Jeff in Bucktown as he relaxes in his den, feet kicked up on an Ottoman with a cold Miller Lite in hand.
Well, imaginary guy named Jeff, the good news for you is that I’ve enlisted the help of two JP’s to do just that — breakdown who could be rocking the navy blue and burnt orange this time next year at Soldier Field.
One of those JP’s is familiar to Chicago sports faithful — WGN sports reporter and anchor Jarrett Payton — and the other is one Chicago sports fans should get to know if they ‘love talking ball’ — J.P. Acosta. Acosta is an NFL writer for SB Nation who has appeared on the Ringer’s ‘The Scramble’ podcast, among others.
Between the two, we cover the current state of the Bears, players already on the roster who could be pieces of the puzzle moving forward, position groups to target in the draft, and what players could hear their name called on draft day.
State of the Bears
The Bears are a bit of a statistical anomaly if you’re looking purely at the numbers they put on paper.
Going into their matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, on offense, Chicago is tops in the NFL in total rush yards (2,459), rush yards-per-game (189.2), and yards-per-carry (5.4), but dead last in the NFL in passing yards (2,080) and pass yards-per-game (160). On defense, they’re also dead last in total points allowed (333), rushing touchdowns allowed (21) and total sacks (16.0).
The Bears also ranked bottom ten in the NFL in points allowed per game (25.6 – 30th), total sacks allowed (42 – 28th) and rush yards allowed (1,902 – 27th).
They’re like a throwback, ground and pound football team from the 50’s and 60’s who have decided to do the Birdbox challenge on defense every Sunday.
Jokes aside, Chicago also looks to have finally found that highly sought-after franchise quarterback that has eluded them for the vast majority of their existence.
“I’ve watched [Justin Fields] since he was playing high school ball,” said Jarrett Payton on the Bears’ starting quarterback. “The kid’s a stud. And now we’re seeing him take the strides that get him toward being a more finished product.”
Payton concluded that Fields still isn’t done improving and there’s still plenty more room for him to grow in his game — especially as a passer — but what he’s displayed through his natural athletic ability, character and mindset, has more than earned him the right to be viewed as ‘the guy’ in Chicago.
Outside of Fields, there are other pieces on the Bears roster — more so on offense than defense — that can also be viewed as cogs in a Bears machine that wins football games some time down the line.
“I think Teven Jenkins is a solid right guard who’s really good in the run game, he moves people,” Acosta said. “And then Braxton Jones has played pretty well too. I think he can go forward as either a left tackle or a swing tackle if you want to move him to the right side.”
Acosta also said the Bears skill positions have a number of players to like, even if they lack depth outside.
“Khalil Herbert and David Montgomery are two good running backs that complement each other well,” Acosta said. “Outside … Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney are both guys that are going to be around a while. Claypool is a bigger body who can win 1-on-1’s down the field [and] Mooney you can put in the slot, have him go outside, or you can bring him inside to work on slower linebackers and DB’s.”
While it remains to be seen what will happen with David Montgomery’s contract situation, even if Montgomery walks, Acosta said he still thinks Khalil Herbert is a back who can stand out on his own with more touches.
Cole Kmet is also another player having a productive season on offense. A year after catching 60 passes for 612 yards from the tight end position, Kmet has hauled in 35 catches for 408 yards with 5 TDs through 13 games, all despite the Bears’ passing attack being last in the league.
On the other side of the ball, the nucleus of what will be built upon exists in the back half of the defense.
“The easiest one is [Jack] Sanborn,” Payton said when asked about pieces with futures in Chicago. “For a guy that was undrafted, I didn’t think he would be as sound as he is. It makes sense now that [coaches] wanted to give him a little bit more run because his instincts are phenomenal.”
Payton said he also looks to cornerback Jaylon Johnson as another guy who can develop into a reliable corner for the Bears, but they need to find other game changers at the position to make the DB room a strength.
“I believe [Chicago] needs another corner on the other side,” Payton said. “In this league, it’s rare to find that lockdown, lockdown corner, but it’s super important have guys opposite one another who complement each other, especially on the outside.”
For Acosta, he thinks the Bears also have valuable pieces in their secondary, namely Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon.
“I think a lot of Bears’ fans kind of balked when they saw Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker drafted last year,” Acosta said. “But they’re both good players. Brisker is always around the ball and has the skillset to develop into a good-to-great safety. Gordon’s kind of been caught playing the nickel, but once you move him back outside, he should be fun to watch.”
Regardless of record, statistical output, or what pieces fit where, the fact the Bears finally have their guy under center — with some players who can grow alongside him — is blissful imagery to the eyes of fans who have suffered through mediocre quarterback play for decades.
But now that the Bears have their man in Fields, there are plenty of other question marks over where and how to improve this roster moving forward, and that all begins with how the Bears attack NFL draft preparation.
“So if I’m Ryan Poles, I’m thinking along the defensive line first,” Acosta said. “Poles is an offensive lineman, that’s his background. I think they’re going to go after the trenches heavy, offensive and defensive line. Then you get to the skill positions, [the Bears] need a receiver, or two, or three.”
Here are five NFL draft prospects to keep an eye on as the NFL draft inches closer, especially if the Bears keep losing, and their draft picks keep rising:
1. Jalen Carter – DT – Georgia
According to Acosta, if the Bears stand pat and their first-round choice remains in the top 3 of the NFL Draft, a premier talent at defensive tackle may be waiting in the wings.
“I think if I’m the Bears, I might go Jalen Carter from Georgia,” Acosta said. “If you can find that game-changing defensive tackle in the middle, that’ll make everyone else better.”
According to Pro Football Focus, there had been 168 interior defensive linemen who rushed the passer at least 300 times over the last three college football seasons as of Nov. 8 of this year, including Carter. The 6’3″, 300 pound defensive tackle ranked third overall in pass-rush grade (90.3), second in pass-rush win percentage (16.3%) and ninth in total QB pressures (60) in that group.
This taken into consideration with Matt Eberflus’s 4-3 defense not being a system that particularly relies on extra pressure, but instead emphasizes four down linemen creating as much havoc as possible, and the stars start to align. Acosta called back to Eberflus’s days as a defensive coordinator in Indianapolis to exemplify the ideology behind this.
“If you look at Matt Eberflus, you’ve got to look at his tenure before he came to Chicago,” Acosta said. “Look at the guys he brought in. [The Colts] traded a 1st round pick for DeForest Buckner. They drafted Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo in the first and second rounds in 2021 … It makes sense that Eberflus would go defensive line.”
Of course, there are several other factors that could impact the Bears’ ability to land Carter.
While the possibility of trading back for more draft capital exists, where the Los Angeles Rams first round pick (acquired by the Detroit Lions in the Matthew Stafford trade) ends up could also affect whether Carter is available, especially if it lands in front of Chicago’s top draft choice (according to Tankathon, the pick is currently one spot behind the Bears at no. 4).
How Chicago values the next guy on this list in comparison to Carter could also sway the Bears in a different direction.
2. Will Anderson Jr. – OLB/EDGE – Alabama
Considered by many to be the top overall prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft — regardless of position — Will Anderson Jr. would represent an immediate upgrade to the Bears’ linebacking corps and ability to rush the passer.
The choice for Chicago to draft Will Anderson Jr. or Jalen Carter is a case of weighing option 1A versus option 1B — either one would be a great pick for the Bears, but the front office will have to split hairs over what aspects of their defense they want to improve most.
Carter is a game-changing disruptor in the middle of the line that can blow up a run game and put a guard in an opposing QB’s lap, while Anderson Jr is a premier edge talent that covers ground just as exceptionally as he rushes the passer.
“I love watching Will Anderson play because he is a perfect blend of technicality and athleticism,” Acosta said. “He can shoot gaps — like shooting the B gap on blitzes — you can use him against tackles on stunts where you loop him outside against a tackle or loop him inside [against a guard] and he’ll go straight through them.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Anderson Jr led all of college football in QB pressures during both his true freshman and sophomore seasons at Alabama, while also compiling 41.5 tackles-for-loss and 24.5 sacks over those two seasons.
As if that wasn’t enough, PFF also lists Chicago as one of Anderson Jr’s three best fits in the NFL.
3. Peter Skoronski – OT – Northwestern
Remember that stat about the Bears being bottom 10 in the NFL in sacks allowed on offense?
Northwestern All-American left tackle Peter Skoronski could be the Bears’ answer to helping solve their pass protection problems.
“It’s just how good he is in the technical aspects of pass blocking,” Acosta said. “If you turn on the tape, Skoronski is a very technical pass blocker … He could honestly be a pro bowl left tackle or pro bowl left guard depending on where the Bears would want to play him.”
According to Inside NU’s Bradley Locker, Skoronski ended the 2022 college football season with a 93.7 pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus, the highest pass-blocking grade for any offensive lineman in college football over the last two years.
“A friend and advisor of mine once told me … young quarterbacks need the three P’s,” Acosta said. “Play calling, protection and playmakers. They have good play calling, I think Luke Getsy puts them in position to win. I think they have a few playmakers — Claypool, Mooney and Khalil Herbert. They still need protection.”
Skoronski gave up just one sack and six QB pressures over the span of those two seasons. Packaged with the fact he grew up in Park Ridge, played collegiate ball locally at Northwestern, and the Bears could stick it to the Green Bay Packers by drafting Skoronski because his grandfather played for the cheese heads, it would make almost too much sense for Chicago to draft him and anoint Skoronski to be the cornerstone of their offensive line.
This all hinges on whether or not the Bears’ first round pick stays in the top three though. If they end up trading back into the 5-9 range and swap picks with a QB-needy team like the New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts or the Carolina Panthers, look for Chicago to go after a guy like Skoronski to be Fields’s top bodyguard.
4. Quentin Johnston – WR – TCU
While Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba is a much more highly talked about name in the college football world — especially in the Midwest — Quentin Johnston’s physical traits and incredibly-high ceiling make him someone who is impossible to ignore at the wide receiver position, especially if the Bears slide down draft boards by collecting a few wins, or trading back to collect more draft capital.
Standing at 6’4″, 215 pounds, Johnston checks just about every box an NFL QB would want in having a big-bodied, no. 1 option on the outside.
“He’s so big, but so agile at the position,” Acosta said of Johnston. “He’s going to be in the league for a long time just because of his size and ability to eat up cushion — meaning you can’t just back off of him on defense.”
Johnston was a state medalist in high jump and an above-the-rim finisher on the basketball court in high school, according to 247 Sports.
When asked who Johnston could be compared to in the NFL, Acosta said there’s no true 1-to-1 comparison for Johnston based on his unique skillset, but worst case scenario, he thinks Johnston could become a Marvin Jones-type of wide receiver that profiles as both a vertical threat, and a red zone operator who can high point the football.
Just like in the situation of the Bears trading back to acquire more draft assets while also selecting Skoronski, Johnston would make the most sense if they moved back even further into the first round, swapping picks with a team like the Atlanta Falcons at no. 10, Seattle Seahawks at no. 17, or the New York Jets at no. 18.
5. Paris Johnson Jr. – OT – Ohio State
In the same vein as trading back into the 5-9 range and going after an offensive tackle, Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. is another premier O-line talent the Bears could seriously consider if they find themselves in that situation, and Skoronski is already off the board.
Where Johnson Jr. lacks the technical expertise and execution of Skoronski, he’s slightly taller and a longer offensive tackle than the Northwestern product, who scouts around the NFL think may have a higher athletic ceiling than Skoronski, but also a lower floor.
“He’s a great athlete and an easy mover,” Acosta said of Johnson Jr. “He played right guard, but moved out to left tackle this year and was phenomenal at times. You worry a little bit about him leaning in the run and pass game where he gets his head over his heels and loses his balance, but the Bears are in a great spot to load up regardless of whether they focus on offense or defense.”
Other guys to look at
There are plenty of other players that could catch the Bears’ eyes in the mid-to-late lottery, and there are also plenty of other players further down the board to consider as well.
If Chicago trades back in the first round, they could still end up drafting a defensive lineman, even if Carter or Anderson Jr. are no longer options available to them. In that case, fans could also look out for a guy like Clemson’s Myles Murphy.
“Myles Murphy would be a perfect fit for what Matt Eberflus looks for in a defensive lineman and an edge rusher,” Acosta said. “He’s a power rusher who’s also a smart run defender.”
Jordan Addison — the 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner for best wide receiver in college football — could be an alternative choice to Johnston in the first round if the Bears chase after a skill position player.
“When you watch Jordan Addison, it’s hard not to think of Stephon Diggs or DeVonta Smith,” Acosta said. “He’s a lot like Smith in terms of how nuanced he is as a route runner. He attacks a DB’s blind spot and creates separation without necessarily being the most overly explosive player on the field.”
If the Bears look to add on to the defense (which they should) in the second round and beyond, guys like edge rushers Zach Harrison from Ohio State, and Isaiah Foskey from Notre Dame, could be later picks with upside to make an immediate impact on Chicago’s roster. Here’s what Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden had to say about Foskey during a Dec. 11 press conference:
“Well, [he’s] the total package, just the way he conducts himself everyday. The work ethic, he exudes class on and off the field,” Golden said. “Just a sharp kid … a great impact he’s made here. Obviously, that’s what we look for in Notre Dame kids.”
Foskey finished his junior season with 45 tackles, 11 sacks and a forced fumble after opting to pass on Notre Dame’s bowl game in favor of preparing for the NFL Draft.
As for Harrison, he’s notched 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and an interception this year for the Buckeyes. According to Acosta, he could be a second round selection that, if he puts it all together, could be a quality edge rusher in the NFL.
“A guy like Zach Harrison from Ohio State, he’s still trying to put it together a little bit from down-to-down, but the athleticism is there,” Acosta said.
Another edge rusher the Bears could be looking at in the later rounds plays opposite of a player already named in this article, according to Acosta.
“I’m going to shout out another Northwestern guy, [defensive lineman] Adetomiwa Adebawore,” Acosta said. “He may not be the biggest or the tallest, but he’s strong and he has heavy hands. That’s something Matt Eberflus loves in his defensive linemen — you want to be able to get guys off of you and get to the quarterback.”
Adebawore was one of only a few bright spots on a Northwestern Football squad that bumbled and tumbled its way at times to a 1-11 record this year. Adebawore paced the Wildcats in sacks (5), QB hits (3), forced fumbles (2) and was second on the team in tackles-for-loss with 9.0.
For more content on news and sports around Chicago, you can follow Eli Ong on Twitter at @ThePenOfEli and Jarrett Payton at @paytonsun.
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