In each of the last few drafts small school prospects have popped up as potential earlier draft picks, not in the first round but in some cases close to it.
In 2017 it was the Bears making a risky second-round pick to select Adam Shaheen and it didn't work out. He's made 38 receptions in four years and the Dolphins say they like him now. But with just 12 catches, the blocking they get better be pretty solid for Shaheen ever to live up to status as a second-round pick or even the sixth-round pick the Bears got in exchange when they dealt him.
It was with this Division II selection from Ashland that Bears GM Ryan Pace should have sworn off small school selections, but didn't.
They took Stephen Denmark from Valdosta State in 2019 and last year were the only NFL team to select a player from Historically Black Colleges and Universities when they picked Tennesse State offensive lineman Lachavious Simmons in Round 7.
There is a big difference between taking a player from a smaller or less known school early like Shaheen or the Patriots did with Lenoir-Ryne's Kyle Dugger, and taking one in Round 7 like with Denmark, who is no longer with the Bears—or even linebacker E.J Speed of Tarleton State, who went to the Colts in Round 5 in 2019.
When risk is lower at the end of the draft it can be worth taking a shot. The way Pace says he analyzes small-school prospects is by whether they were able to dominate at their level of play.
This year the concensus top small-school player is an offensive lineman, even more highly regarded than St. John's of Minnesota's fourth-rounder Ben Batch was last year.
It's Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater's Quinn Meinerz, a center/guard who is said by FanNation's NFL Draft Bible to be the best center prospect in the draft and has a second-round grade.
Drafting another center or guard seems the least likely move the Bears would make in this draft when they have Cody Whitehair, Sam Mustipher, James Daniels and even Alex Bars who can play center or guard, and they drafted guard/tackle types Simmons and Arlington Hambright last year in Round 7. Germain Ifedi was a guard or tackle. They have interior linemen everywhere imaginable.
There are a few smaller school players at need positions who could interest the Bears in later rounds of this draft, or even as undrafted free agents.
Edge Chris Garrett, Concordia-St. Paul
A freakish sack machine from the Milwaukee area at 6-3, 245, he made 1.3 sacks per game which was third best in NCAA Division II history. He finished with 36 sacks and 15 forced fumbles. Then held up well against Division I competition at the Hula Bowl. He had earned an East-West Shrine game invitation but it was canceled. Garrett will have a pro day April 1 so more will be known on his measurables then.
Tackle Calvin Ashley, Florida A&M
Ashley is about as raw as a candidate could get but his size keeps scouts from immediately dismissing him as an undrafted free agent. The asterisk on Pace's belief smaller school players must dominate is they can also have unique athletic ability or traits. At 6-foot-7, 335 pounds it's easy to see why Ashley attracted a crowd of about 10 NFL teams to a pro day workout, including Bears scouts and scouts from all the other NFC North teams. This player is very raw. He was with Auburn and started one game, then briefly Florida Atlantic but left for personal reasons, then had seven starts at Florida A&M before opting out in 2020. He might be considered a long-term project type like LSU's Badara Traore has been at tackle with the Bears. NFL Draft Bible rates him as an undrafted free agent type and the 15th-best left tackle available, although his foot speed might require he be at right tackle.
Cornerback Bryan Mills, North Carolina Central
NFL Draft Bible has given Mills a much higher grade than many other scouting services or on-line analysts. He was given a third-round grade. Although N.C. Central is a Division I program, they are in the HBCU and as such there have been very few players come into the league from those programs in recent years, Simmons being the perfect example with the Bears. Mills has the height to be an effective outside cornerback in the NFL but badly needs to bulk up because he weighs 170. He has speed and leaping ability but technique issues can cause him to slide back, according to scouting reports. Although thin, he is very aggressive as a defender and tackler.
Tight End Zach Davidson, Central Missouri
This year's version of Adam Trautman, he's believed to be a Day 3-type who is an excellent all-around athlete. He was also a punter who averaged around 40 yards a punt, so some team could be set in an emergency situation with him on the roster. At 6-7, 245, he could add some weight but his athleticism and route-running ability are such that they offset possible problems from facing lower competition. And at 6-7, he definitely has the catch radius. NFL Draft Bible views him as the seventh-best tight end in the draft and a fourth-round pick. As a punter, he had 29 punts of 50 yards or longer.
Running Back JaQuan Hardy, Tiffin
NFL Draft Bible lists him as the 22nd best back available and an undrafted free agent type. He set a conference record with 7.62 yards per carry, the fifth highest in Division II, while rushing for a conference record of 1,554 yards. A possible fit for the Bears is he is very experienced with RPO offense and is regarded as a threat as a receiver.