When drafting a player the first round, an NFL team hopes to get a franchise building block. When picking in the top ten, as the Bears have done far too often recently, the hope is to get a superstar. On the second day of the draft, most teams hope to come out with a pair of players that could potentially be starters in the not too distant future. But often times, franchises are made or broken by the number of late round picks that exceed expectations. In the later rounds, teams are taking chances on longshots whom they hope can build a career as a core special teamer with a chance to develop as a backup in one of the larger phases of the game (offense or defense).
As of 2015, about six percent of fifth-round picks, less than five percent of sixth-round picks, and only four percent of seventh-round picks were starters for NFL teams. In contrast, over 13.5 percent of undrafted free agents started for NFL teams. So, the work is cut out for the third day picks to be much more than a rotational player.
In 2018, the Bears spent late round picks on Bilal Nichols, Kylie Fitts, and Javon Wims. All three players were picked on the draft’s last day for completely different reasons. Nichols was a fifth-round pick, despite having an ideal six-foot, four inches, 306-pound frame. He impressed scouts with his length, agility, and by running a 4.95-second 40-yard dash, top five among interior defensive linemen. But Nichols was around for the 145th overall pick because he played his college football at FCS, University of Delaware.
Fitts played major college football albeit at non-powerhouse, Utah. Fitts was a four-star recruit, who originally attended UCLA before transferring to Salt Lake City. He showed promise with seven sacks his first year at Utah. However, he didn’t hear his name called until the sixth round due to several injuries. Fitts missed 10 games as a junior and suffered from a lack of production during his senior season while missing another pair of games.
Wims, on the other hand, was the number one receiver for that national championship runner-up. He great size, good hands, leaping ability and speed, but was not chosen until the 225th overall selection in the draft. Wims likely slipped due to the fact he was a late bloomer. A basketball player in high school, Wims didn’t try football until his first season in community college. From there, he became a top five junior college recruit when he landed at the powerhouse, Georgia. Due to his late start in football, Wims only had one season of major college production and is very raw as a wide receiver.
Like all other late round picks, Nichols, Fitts, and Wims will have to show enough developmental tools in order for them to make the 53-man roster to start the season.
Nichols was the highest regarded pick of this group, but at his size, he’s not a candidate for special teams play. So he’ll have to make his mark as a defensive reserve, at one of the deepest positions on that side of the ball. Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks are the horses of the defensive front who will get the majority of the snaps in the base and nickel defenses, as long as they are healthy. Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris are also ahead of Nichols in the defensive line rotation as they compete to start as the third down lineman in the base defense. So, Nichols figures to compete with the veteran journeyman, John Jenkins, for what is likely a minimal number of snaps each week. The edge for Nichols in that competition is that he has some upside as a pass rusher, whereas Jenkins is only a run-stuffing nose tackle in the middle of a three-man front.
Wims also is competing for a roster spot at one of the team’s deepest positions. The historically bad wide receiver position for the Bears hit an all-time low as the 2017 team struggled to find reliable targets all season long. Wims joins a revamped group that includes big-ticket free agents, Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel; priority draft picks, Kevin White and Anthony Miller; and veteran special teams stalwarts, Joshua Bellamy and Benny Fowler; in addition to camp legend, Tanner Gentry. The highly paid and highly drafted players will hold the top four spots in the receiver rotation, so as a fifth or sixth receiver, Wims will have to show a willingness to play on all phases of special teams.
Even if he isn’t a kick coverage standout, Wims could find a niche on the offense as he does have a unique skill set. At six-foot-four, 215 pounds, Wims is a big body receiver with big, strong hands and amazing body control and leaping ability to win 50/50 balls and box out defenders on slant passes. Wims also has deceptively long strides and can be used to stretch a defense as a target or a decoy to open up the underneath passing game. Playing for a run-heavy Georgia team, Wims also displayed the ability to block on the edge and spring his running backs for big gains.
Unlike the other late picks, Fitts gets his shot to make the roster at maybe the thinnest position on the entire team. After featuring a slew of veterans opposite Leonard Floyd at outside linebacker in 2017, the Bears also revamped this position in the offseason. But instead of spending big money and high draft picks on edge rushers, the Bears went with a reclamation project in Aaron Lynch, reliable veteran Sam Acho, and the undrafted Isaiah Irving. So without a lot of talent ahead of him, Fitts will have every opportunity to make the team as a rotational outside linebacker.
Whereas the other late picks won’t likely see the field even if they make the roster, Fitts will have to show he can play on game days probably right away. Fitts will get plenty of reps in the preseason against twos and threes, but he’s also gaining valuable experience against the number one offense in training camp. He primarily uses a speed rush to get after the quarterback but can turn speed to power and use his momentum to bull rush a lineman into the passer’s lap. Fitts also has the size, speed and demeanor to play on all phases of special teams.
While the odds are increasingly against a player the further down he goes in the draft, Ryan Pace has only had two of his draft picks not make the roster as rookies. One of those two, Daniel Braverman, made the practice squad and eventually got a trial on the 53-man roster. Jeremy Langford is the only other drafted player in the Pace era that’s not currently on the Bears roster. Of course, part of the reason most draft picks have made the team in recent years is the severe lack of talent on the roster. Conversely, having top end talent on the roster means that talented players can be hidden at the back of the roster and developed for future seasons. All three of the Bears late picks have the upside to be worth keeping on the final roster, with each having the potential to surprise as rookies.