The third day of the 2018 NFL Draft can be uneventful for most teams. However, for a team with many needs like the Chicago Bears, the late rounds and undrafted free agency (UDFA) period are crucial when building the roster for the future.
Ryan Pace is “fired up” about his hidden gems, but what signings, picks and hires don’t fire him up? All general managers and coaches are supposed to be excited about potential. Unfortunately, the odds of late-round draft picks and UDFA players having long and successful careers are slim. Yet, there are always guys who defy the odds and go on to be perennial Pro-Bowlers or even Hall of Fame selections.
Players like Richard Dent (eighth round – 1983), Doug Buffone (fourth round – 1966), Mark Bortz (eighth round – 1983) and Doug Plank (12th round – 1975) were notable names the Bears found in the rounds four or later. And undrafted jewels? Names like Robbie Gould (2005), Jay Hilgenberg (1981), James “Big Cat” Williams (1991) and Tom Waddle (1989) were all valuable contributors throughout their careers despite not having their names called on draft day.
While no one can definitively say Pace’s late-round selections and UDFA signings will be slam dunks, there are a few that have clear potential to be consistently productive.
Here are the three players worth keeping an eye on before the season starts.
- Position: Defensive lineman
- School: Delaware
- Draft Pick: 145 (fifth round)
- Height: 6’4″
- Weight: 305 pounds
While Nichols didn’t play against stellar competition in college, he managed to dominate his competition as a standout on Delaware’s defensive line. Despite spending his first three years in a 4-3 defense, he still managed to have a highly productive senior season in a new 3-4 scheme. Nichols amassed 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks and an interception while earning first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association honors last year.
As it stands, nose tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Akiem Hicks are anchors on the Bears’ defensive line and should remain in those roles for at least a few more seasons. However, there is a clear void at the end spot opposite Hicks.
Nichols has a chance to compete against Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris coming into the season. If he has a strong training camp and preseason, there is no doubt he’ll get the starting job and a lion’s share of snaps heading into the opener in Green Bay.
- Position: Outside linebacker
- School: Utah
- Draft Pick: 181 (sixth round)
- Height: 6’4″
- Weight: 263 pounds
Fitts has elite speed and possesses multiple moves to elude blockers, and his skill set has Pace and company excited about the upside. After transferring from UCLA, he played three seasons at Utah but was limited by injuries the past two years. He missed all but two games of the 2016 season with a Lisfranc injury and dealt with ankle and shoulder injuries in 2017.
Aside from injuries, he struggles getting off bigger blockers and lacked the strength to power through blockers who got a hold on him. A good outing at the combine helped his declining draft stock, but his short sample size on the field played a significant role, too. However, in 2015, Fitts finished the year with 41 tackles, seven sacks and four forced fumbles in 13 games.
If healthy and playing up to his talent level, Fitts could end up filling a huge pass-rushing void that ails Vic Fangio’s defense. That’s a big “if” of course, but Fangio can probably find ways to get him involved. The veteran defensive coordinator is frothing at the mouth to find the right dance partner opposite Leonard Floyd. Fitts has the ability do it, and at the very least, he still might be a solid situational rusher on passing downs.
- Position: Cornerback
- School: LSU
- Draft Pick: UDFA signing
- Height: 6’2″
- Weight: 195 pounds
Toliver was a highly-touted, five-star recruit coming out of high school in Jacksonville, Fla. He enjoyed a solid freshman season in 2015, finishing the year with 35 tackles, an interception and 5 pass deflections in 12 games. Toliver followed that promising first season with two so-so campaigns, missing the end of 2016 with a shoulder injury and having a below-average junior year in 2017.
Prior to the draft, the Bears re-signed last year’s starting cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara as well as nickelback Bryce Callahan. After that? Meh. Marcus Cooper, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Doran Grant and Jonathon Mincy most likely aren’t going to have big breakthrough seasons.
You can never have enough cornerbacks on the roster to provide depth or fill special teams roles, and competition at the position is always welcome. That’s what makes Toliver the most intriguing prospect Pace signed after the draft.
He not only has a shot to earn a roster spot, but Toliver can become a second-string corner or consistent special teams contributor given the current lack of quality depth behind Fuller, Amukamara and Callahan. While some scouts view Toliver as raw and immature, gurus like Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell might be able to tap into his full potential.
Toliver, without question, has the body and skills to do it.