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Bears sign standout WR Tanner Gentry, 13 undrafted free agents

Bears sign standout WR Tanner Gentry, 13 undrafted free agents

The Bears have found success in the undrafted free agent market with the likes of wide receiver Cameron Meredith, linebacker Christian Jones and safety Harold Jones-Quartey among others during GM Ryan Pace's tenure with the club. 

Pace and the Bears hope to continue that trend and uncover some hidden gems in this year's crop of undrafted free agents.

Ahead of rookie minicamp this weekend, the Bears announced on Thursday they have signed 13 undrafted free agents.

Here's a look at some of the notable UDFA's the Bears signed:

Tanner Gentry (WR), Wyoming: The 6-foot-2 wideout ran a 4.40-yard dash at his Pro Day and had 72 catches for 1,326 yards with 14 touchdowns for the Cowboys last season. Gentry also led the country in deep targets (49) last season.

Dieugot Joseph (OT), Florida International: After a switch from defensive end to the offensive line, Joseph became a stalwart at left tackle for the Panthers. Joseph was named honorable mention All-Conference USA in 2016.

Andy Phillips (K), Utah: A former member of the United States National Ski Team, Phillips walked on to the Utah football team in 2012. As the Utes starting kicker from 2013-16, Phillips converted 84 percent of field goals and missed just one extra point.

Freddie Stevenson (FB), Florida State: For three seasons Stevenson served as the lead blocker for All-American running back Dalvin Cook. A former four-star recruit as a linebacker, Stevenson had 292 total yards and seven touchdowns with the Seminoles.

Kermit Whitfield (WR), Florida State: One of the most explosive athletes in the country, Whitfield accumulated 2,386 yards as a kick returner at Florida State. Whitfield broke the ACC record for yards per return (36.4) during his freshman season.

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Jhajuan Seales (WR), Oklahoma State: Seales has the ability to climb the ladder and make the contested catches with a 41.5-inch vertical leap. After subpar sophomore and junior seasons, Seales rebounded as a senior with 37 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns.

Franko House (TE), Ball State: House was a standout basketball player for the Cardinals. House will use his 6-foot-6, 247-pound frame to make the transition to the gridiron after not playing the sport since his senior year of high school.

Joel Bouagnon (RB), Northern Illinois: The ex-Huskies running back couldn't quite replicate his junior year numbers, but still posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry with nine total touchdowns in 2016.

Rashaad Coward (DL), Old Dominion: Coward was a second-team All Conference USA selection last season, finishing with 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Coward fits the Bears 3-4 base defense as somebody who could rotate either inside or outside on the defensive line.

Mitchell Kirsch (OL), James Madison: Kirsch was the starter at right tackle for the Dukes since 2014, and was named an FCS All-American last year.

Hendrick Ekpe (LB), Minnesota: Ekpe started 11 games for the Gophers and notched 28 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Ekpe played defensive end at Minnesota, but with his size (6-foot3, 245 pounds) he'll play outside linebacker for the Bears.

Isaiah Irving (LB), San Jose State: The 6-foot-3, 255 pound Irving led San Jose State with seven sacks as a senior.

Alex Searce (LB), Coastal Carolina: Searce was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan National Defensive Player of the Year Award. He had eight sacks for the Chanticleers in 2016.

Below are some standout players who have been invited to rookie minicamp:

Denard Robinson (RB): The artist formerly known as "Shoelace" from his days as a quarterback at Michigan is one several veterans that will try to impress the Bears' brass at rookie minicamp this weekend. Robinson was used as an "offensive weapon" during his four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2013-2016) and accumulated 1,058 rushing yards, 310 receiving yards and five total touchdowns.

Tyler Gaffney (RB): The former Stanford star will be at rookie minicamp for the Bears after he was released by the New England Patriots in March. Gaffney, originally a sixth-round selection by the Patriots in 2014, spent the majority of the last three seasons on injured reserve. During his season year at Stanford, Gaffney started 14 games and had 1,709 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

Titus Davis (WR): Davis, a standout wide receiver at Wheaton South High School, is the older brother of Tennessee Titans' 2017 first-round selection Corey Davis. Titus Davis played at Central Michigan from 2011-2014 and registered 204 receptions for 3,700 yards and 37 touchdowns. 

D.J. Johnson (TE), Kansas State: Johnson joins House as one of two college basketball players the Bears will have in rookie minicamp. Johnson averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game with the Wildcats in 2016-17 and helped the team to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Johnson was an All-Conference defensive end and tight end at Parkway North High School in St. Louis.

Mark Spelman (OL), Illinois State: Spelman was one of the key members of the Redbirds offensive line last season and garnered third-team All-American honors.

D'Nerius Antoine (S), Southern Mississippi: A two-year starter for the Golden Eagles, Antoine had 189 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions and 10 passes defended. Antoine also has experience as a returner.

DeSean Smith (TE), LSU: Smith wasn't often utlized in the Tigers passing game, ending his collegiate career with 19 receptions for 346 yards and one touchdown.

Lance Lenoir (WR), Western Illinois: Lenoir, a high school teammate of 2016 Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Laquon Treadwell at Crete Monee, finished his Leathernecks career as the school's all-time leader in receptions (273), yards (3,796) and touchdowns (28).

Quality more important than quantity for Bears in 2017 NFL Draft

Quality more important than quantity for Bears in 2017 NFL Draft

NFL teams typically wants as many draft picks as possible. The theory: The needier the team, the more picks required for those needs.

Not sure that this is the true situation confronting the Bears in 2017, however. In fact, something nearly the opposite, a variation on a less-is-more theme, is truer.

For the Bears approaching the 2017 NFL Draft, quality is more important than quantity. “Best available” player is fine, but for a team in major need of true impact difference-makers, a “best-possible” player is paramount. How GM Ryan Pace and his personnel posse accomplish that will be one of the most closely watched and far-reaching dramas of this draft. Because it may require some creativity on the clock, with a dizzying array of scenarios popping up in front of them by virtue of possible picks by the Cleveland Browns at 1 and San Francisco 49ers at 2.

Pace already has been about the business of giving himself the option of going after best-possible rather than simply waiting, staying with the draft board and selecting best-available.

The Bears were among the NFL’s most active teams in free agency. That has taken care of some “quantity” issues (cornerback, wide receiver, tight end), with an eye toward freeing the draft for the pursuit of true excellence, something too few Bears drafts have managed to secure (which is how teams miss playoffs nine times in 10 years and find themselves on third different GMs and coaches in the span of six years).

As he has always had within the context of the overall direction of the football franchise, Pace has a draft plan. More specifically, he also has a structure within which to execute that plan.

Draft “bands”

Besides an overall top-to-bottom ranking of players, the Bears establish various “bands” of players they identify as being worth a pick at a certain spot. Not all players in the band are graded equally, and the Bears may move to trade up if a significantly higher-graded players in the band is within reach, or if they fear other teams leap-frogging them to grab a targeted player.

But the bands allow the Bears to weigh trading back and still being able to select one of the talents in that band. With the Bears sitting at No. 3 this year, the first band in this draft will be a small one.

“We’ll have an elite group of names that we’re confident will be there [at No. 3],” Pace said at the recent owners meetings. “Three names, yeah. But beyond that, [we say,] ‘OK, there’s some pretty good depth in this draft, too, so are there scenarios’ — and it’s easier said than done — ‘where we can trade back.’ Those things’ll be discussed.”

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They’re being discussed right now. The phone in Pace’s Halas Hall office has been increasingly active the past couple weeks — calls ingoing and outgoing — and will become more so this week as the Bears and most of the NFL take the temperatures of trade ideas going into the start of the draft Thursday night. It happens every year about this time: general managers looking to satisfy sometimes-conflicting objectives, one of adding draft picks via trades down where possible, and the other of adding best-possible players, sometimes necessitating trades of picks or players to move up.

For the Bears, this year is a bit out of the ordinary, if only because they hold the No. 3-overall pick in a draft considered extremely talent-rich at certain positions and extremely less so at others. Loosely put, a position such as cornerback is rated deep enough that quality starters can be had even down into the fourth round, so teams likely need not trade up to land a blue-chipper. Conversely, the quarterback position, the one most often targeted for round-one trades up, is short of consensus elites, so again, teams are less likely to trade up to secure one.

The Bears are in position to select a franchise quarterback but opinions vary widely on whether there are clear ones to be had as high as where the Bears draft, as the order now stands. Pace, who established last year his willingness to trade up for what he considers “elite,” is like any other personnel executive in wanting more selections.

The Bears do not want to slip out of a band entirely. When they sat with No. 7 in the 2015 draft, the Bears identified a quiver of eight players deemed worth the seventh-overall pick. Those ranged from quarterback Marcus Mariota to wide receiver Amari Cooper to defensive lineman Leonard Williams, and included Kevin White, one of two from the eight not already selected by that point.

Because the goal was a player judged to be elite, trading down was not a realistic option because of the risk of getting none of their targets and instead settling for the next, lower tier of prospects.

Dealing with market forces

But what will the market allow this time? 

“Yeah, and based on the talent of the guys in those bands, what it would require for us to go back?” Pace said. “Those things are all being talked about and studied now, and we’ll keep on fine-tuning it.

“But you’ve got to have a partner willing to do that, too.”

Pace has been a willing partner for trades either up or down, sometimes in the same draft.

Last year, holding the 11th pick, the decision was made to trade up to No. 9 because of their grade on Georgia edge rusher Leonard Floyd, and the concern that either the New York Giants would take Floyd at No. 10 or another team would leap-frog the Bears and grab him. The Bears wanted a pass rusher and the falloff from Floyd was viewed as significant. Clemson’s Shaq Lawson was the next edge rusher taken (No. 19), he was less the speed player that Floyd was, and concerns about Lawson’s shoulder issues proved valid, requiring offseason surgery that cost him most of his rookie season.
 
On day two, Pace traded down twice with an eye toward landing one of his top second-round-band talents: Kansas State offensive lineman Cody Whitehair. 

Recruiting News and Notes: Luke Ford commits to Arkansas

Recruiting News and Notes: Luke Ford commits to Arkansas

Luke Ford (TE), Carterville

Carterville High School three-star ranked junior tight end Luke Ford (6-foot-7, 250 pounds) ended his recruiting process on Monday. Ford, who was drawing national recruiting interest and scholarship offers this winter, made an unofficial visit to Arkansas this past weekend and gave Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema his verbal commitment.

"I'm pumped right now, if you can't tell," Ford told HogSports.com's Danny Ford on Monday. "I am pumped. This is awesome, I'm so excited. I'm happy to shut down the recruitment and just focus on school and sports now. I'm committed. I loved everything about Arkansas that I saw. I just don't know what to say, I'm pumped."

Gavin McCabe (DT), Marist

Marist junior three-star ranked defensive tackle recruit Gavin McCabe (6-foot-3, 255 pounds) has 24 scholarship offers this winter and remains on multiple recruiting radars.

"I have 24 offers so far," McCabe said. "It's been fun but in all honesty it's also been sort of crazy."

McCabe will remain busy this spring by making multiple unofficial visits.

"I've been able to visit Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State and Miami (OH) so far and I also went to games at Michigan State, Kansas State and Iowa State," McCabe said. "I'm looking to make a trip out East soon and visit schools such as Boston College, Syracuse, Rutgers, Virginia and North Carolina. I also want to head down South and see Arkansas and Kansas. I know that I'll also head back to visit schools like Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa and Wisconsin. I also want to get all of these visits in by the end of spring recruiting."

Samson Evans (ATH), Prairie Ridge

While Prairie Ridge three-star ranked athlete Samson Evans (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) was hoping to have a handful of scholarship offers at this stage of his recruiting process, he admits to being pleasantly surprised by his success on the recruiting trail so far this winter.

"I have 11 offers now and I had no idea I would have so many offers at this point a year ago," Evans said. "I also just didn't expect to have as many quality offers as I have right now. I was hoping to maybe build up to some bigger Power 5 offers so it's been a great surprise."

Evans also shared his gameplan in regards to his recruiting process.

"I have a top schools list in my head but I won't be releasing any top schools list," Evans said. "I would like to be done with recruiting before the start of the season. I might decide then or I might decide at the end of spring or maybe even earlier. It all just depends when I feel ready and comfortable in making my decision. Once I'm 100 percent comfortable with a school then I'll make my choice."

Does Evans get any recruiting pitches from teammate and good friend Jeff Jenkins, who recently committed to Iowa?

"Jeff and I have lunch together every day and he makes sure to let me know where he stands with Iowa and that he wants me to commit to them," Evans said. "It's not over the top all the time, but he always seems to be wearing Hawkeyes gear a lot when ever we hang out."

Dashaun Mallory (DT), Bolingbrook

Bolingbrook junior defensive tackle Dashaun Mallory (6-foot-3, 280 pounds) is starting to see his recruiting stock take off over the past month. Mallory, who has early offers so far from Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Iowa State, NIU, Toledo and Wyoming, also made a recent visit to Michigan State.

"I was able to visit Michigan State a few weeks ago and it was awesome," Mallory said. "I really enjoyed myself at Michigan State and it was an amazing experience. The coaches at Michigan State said they love my game and want to get me back on campus. They want me to keep working hard and also stay in touch."

Mallory has also been in touch this month with coaches from Arkansas, Penn State, Michigan, Louisville, Kansas State, North Dakota State and Western Michigan.