The trip that general manager Ryan Poles and members of his personnel department took to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in early February was a productive one.
After spending the week watching practices and meeting with players, the Bears ended up drafting four prospects who participated in the Senior Bowl: third-round receiver Velus Jones Jr., fifth-round tackle Braxton Jones, fifth-round defensive end Dominique Robinson and seventh-round offensive lineman Ja'Tyre Carter.
"Anytime you have that added exposure, the interviews, you get to see them up close and personal and really you get the whole staff there, too," Poles said. "When you do school visits, you usually will align it where it's one or two or maybe three scouts going to a school. Now you have the whole staff. You see them compete. For some smaller school guys, they get to go against the guys from Power 5 schools, so that exposure's important. It's a big part of the evaluation process."
It was particularly valuable with small-school offensive linemen Braxton Jones (Southern Utah) and Carter (Southern).
Jones appeared in 34 games over five seasons for the Thunderbirds. The 6-5, 310-pounder was named first-team all-Big Sky each of the last two years, starting all six games during Southern Utah's 2021 spring season and all 11 last fall.
"That Senior Bowl was huge for him," said Bears area scout David Williams. "Some of those small-school prospects I've scouted over the years, they never really know until they get to the East-West Shrine, the NFLPA, especially the Senior Bowl, the Combine. So, for him to exist in that and not just exist but compete and be one of the better linemen there, I thought that was a really good sign for his future."
Carter—the first Southern player drafted since 2004—also was selected by the Bears due in part to how he fared at the Senior Bowl.
"I was actually on the field right off the bat and they go to one-on-ones," said Bears area scout Breck Ackley. "That's kind of the highlight for O- and D-line. You want to see them. I believe it was an Oklahoma guy he lined up against, so I'm kind of back there standing by the goal-post going, 'Here we go, baptism by fire.'
"He gave a little ground, kind of sat on it, then when he came out of the rep he almost barked back a little bit. It was almost like he himself realized, 'I can hang.' After that, every other rep, he battled and held his own. There's going to be some losses. I mean, everybody there goes up and down, but he just kept showing up and held his own. I was excited to see him battle and kind of realize he could play at this level."
Carter felt that his performance at the Senior Bowl helped boost his draft stock.
"I already had a lot of confidence, but that week proved to teams that [I] can compete with the high-level guys," Carter said. "That was the biggest question for me going into this draft process."
“He just kept showing up and held his own. I was excited to see him battle and kind of realize he could play at this level.” Bears area scout Breck Ackley on seventh-round pick Ja’Tyre Carter
Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker, Velus Jones Jr., Braxton Jones, Dominique Robinson, Zachary Thomas, Trestan Ebner, Doug Kramer, Ja'Tyre Carter, Elijah Hicks and Trenton Gill. See photos of all the new Bears rookies selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.