College free agency, or the "eighth round," as some call it, appears to have been fruitful for the Bears, who announced their 22-man UDFA class Thursday.
Just as the Bears' five-man draft class is among the smallest in the NFL, they have among the bigger UDFA crops — and, from the looks of it, perhaps one of its best, too.
The UDFA class also includes a pair of Notre Dame blockers and former pupils of Bears O-line coach Harry Hiestand, OG Alex Bars and C Sam Mustipher; Baylor OL Blake Blackmar; Georgia Southern TE Ellis Richardson; Matt Betts, an edge rusher from Canada's Lavar University; Buffalo EDGE Chuck Harris; Kansas LS John Wirtel; Utah OG Marquez Tucker; Appalachian State DB Clifton Duck; Widener University S Jordan Powell; UCLA DB Adarius Pickett; Michigan DL Lawrence Marshall; Ohio University OL Joe Lowery; Cal TE Ian Bunting; Limestone College DB Josh Simmons; Grand Valley State DE Dylan Carroll; Brown DL Daryle Banfield; Nevada LB Jomon Dotson; Lindenwood DL Jonathan Harris; Fort Hays State DB Doyin Jibowu; and Colgate WR Thomas Ives.
"You can tell, again, a lot of players want to be here," Pace said. "We felt it in free agency and now we're feeling it in college free agency. I want to credit our scouts and our coaches for all the hard work that's gone into this. Really with limited draft picks, I really feel like we maximized it."
"There's a ton of work behind the scenes. I can't stress the importance of the relationship between our scouts and our coaches and how strong that is right now and having that connected vision is huge as we go through this process. A lot of hard work by them. And now we're just excited to get these guys in here for the rookie minicamp."
PFW graded Raymond, Mustipher, Hall, Bars and Harris as draftable prospects in the 2019 Draft Guide.
Hall might be the most exciting of all.
The 6-2, 201-pound vertical weapon led all of college football with a 43 percent big-play rate — receptions of at least 20 yards — averaging 22.4 YPC overall. We projected him to be drafted in Round 6-7 mainly because he struggled with injuries at Mizzou, and reports indicate his durability and willingness to play through nagging injuries contributed to his fall out of the draft, but his playmaking ability is tantalizing.
Another fascinating addition is Raymond, an overaged but athletic tight end with some two-way potential at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds. The redshirt junior recorded 72 catches for 853 yards (12.1 YPC) and three touchdowns in his career, including 27-345-2 in his final season, when he missed four games with a broken hand. Raymond, PFW's highest-rated prospect (Round 4) to sign an undrafted contract with the Bears, should compete for a roster spot behind Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen.
Likely to be the most discussed UDFA signing is Baron II. The 2018 Lou Groza semi-finalist converted 17-of-22 FGAs last season, culminating a career that included a school record six 50-plus yard connections, an .833 overall FG accuracy rate (No. 2 in Aztecs history) and a 5-for-6 mark when the score was within three points in the final quarter.
Baron II, in addition to four tryout kickers — Minnesota Mankato's Casey Bednarski, Minnesota's Emmitt Carpenter, Purdue's Spencer Evans and Notre Dame's Justin Yoon — join Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and Elliott Fry to total eight (!) kickers competing at the Bears rookie minicamp this weekend.
"Like anything, you learn from every one of these experiences," said Pace, who has signed five veteran kickers in the wake of Robbie Gould's 2016 ouster, including the disastrous one-and-done Cody Parkey last season.
"You’re only getting better if you’re paying attention to those things. That’s why, maybe it’s a little unorthodox to have four kickers out there. We don’t care. Let’s increase the competition and let’s let the whole thing battle out. We’re unbiased on it. Our eyes are wide open. If we need to add a veteran, we’re going to do whatever we can to get that situation right. We know the importance of it, and that’s why we’re attacking it in such an aggressive manner."