When the Bears used their second-round pick on Division II tight end Adam Shaheen, it jogged coach John Fox’s memory to someone he saw develop 27 years ago.
In 1990, when Fox was a defensive backs coach for the Steelers, Pittsburgh drafted tight end Eric Green in the first round from Liberty University. Liberty, until 1989, competed at the Division II level, and Green went on to be a two-time Pro Bowler and catch 36 touchdowns in his 10-year career.
“You flash back when you’ve been doing it as long as I have,” Fox said. “I still have my senses, but every once in a while players will jump to mind. … (Green was from a) very small school but a big body.”
The Bears used three of their five picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on players who didn’t play at the FBS level: Shaheen (D-II Ashland), fourth-round running back Tarik Cohen (FCS North Carolina A&T) and fifth-round offensive lineman Jordan Morgan (Kutztown).
The step up in competition will be most stark for Shaheen and Morgan, both of whom dominated opposition that isn’t close to what they’ll face in the NFL every single week. Morgan had a taste of what facing better players is like at the Senior Bowl — where he was under the watch of the Bears coaching staff — and said after an initial shock, the transition wasn’t too difficult.
“There (were) some speed adjustments, adjusting to the talent level, but I think once I got used to that I kind of just started to take off from there,” Morgan said. “At the end of the day football is football no matter what division or school you’re from.”
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Some of the Bears more solid players on their current roster weren’t stars for a major college program, too: wide receiver Cameron Meredith played at FCS-level Illinois State, linebacker Jerrell Freeman was at Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor and defensive end Akiem Hicks emerged from Regina college in Canada.
General manager Ryan Pace observed how players from off-the-radar college programs can succeed during his time in New Orleans, too.
Specifically: The Saints in 2006 drafted Jahri Evans in the fourth round from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and immediately plugged him into their starting lineup at right guard. Evans, who recently signed with the Green Bay Packers, became a four time first-team All Pro and started 169 games with the Saints.
“You believe what you see on tape,” Pace said. “You have conviction on players. And especially, and I’ve said this before, when I feel like we have a consensus in our building on the player, those decisions are fun to make and exciting to make. And I’m really excited to see what some of these guys do on this stage because we’re confident in our abilities.”