Northwestern’s ‘Franchise’ to give Bears an up-close look

“The Franchise” is waiting for one.

In three seasons at Northwestern, inside linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. grew from a part-time starter as a redshirt freshman to an All-America sophomore. His junior season didn’t match the one before it — he had 122 tackles and 20½ tackles for loss in 2015, after all — but was close enough.

Walker became the first NU player in 20 years to declare early for the draft.

“Football is so precious,” he said Monday. “You definitely want to be able to get in as early as possible in the NFL. Nothing is guaranteed.”

Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker is the first Wildcats player in 20 years to turn pro early. (AP)

Walker was dubbed “The Franchise” by teammate Auston Anderson and later promoted as such. He laughs about it now but said he didn’t embrace the moniker, no matter how flattering.

“I tried to dial it down a little bit,” he said. “I’m not really one for the spotlight or anything like that.”

Wherever Walker lands this month, he won’t have that sort of responsibility. The 6-1, 238-pounder thinks he’ll be picked late in the third round or early in the fourth, and projections seem to agree with the latter.

If the Bears pass on him, it won’t be for lack of exposure. Walker, who met with the Bears at the NFL Scouting Combine, will participate in their local pro day Thursday at Halas Hall.

He doesn’t have a feel for which team will pick him.

“You kinda don’t get that preference when you’re under the radar,” he said. “Wherever I end up, I’ll be happy to play. If that’s in Chicago, I’ll definitely enjoy that.”

Inside linebacker, though, isn’t high on the Bears’ list of draft needs.

They hosted the only surefire first-rounder, Alabama’s Reuben Foster, at Halas Hall last month. They undoubtedly asked about his most public misstep: Foster was sent home from the NFL Scouting Combine after getting into a heated argument with a staffer during the medical exams. He later posted an Instagram video claiming that nothing happened and telling fans and media to stop asking him about it.

The 6-foot, 229-pound Foster won the Butkus Award, given to the best college linebacker, and was the MVP of the SEC championship game after making 11 tackles and getting two sacks in a blowout victory against Florida.

Walker, who was slowed by a knee injury suffered in training camp last year, believes he turned a few heads when he ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash at the combine. After starting last season at 245 pounds, he thinks he’ll move better at his current weight.

The Miami native, who also participated in the Dolphins’ local pro day, hopes his experience against the Big Ten’s more traditional offenses will benefit him in the NFL.

“There aren’t many two-back sets in college football anymore,” he said, “but I was able to play a lot of them.”

He’ll watch the draft from Florida, waiting for a call.

“Now it’s finding the right fit,” he said. “Wherever that is, I’ll be happy.”

 

Position spotlight: Inside linebacker

Rating the Bears’ need: Low.

Under contract: Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman, Nick Kwiatkoski, John Timu, Jonathan Anderson, Christian Jones.

You should know … 

The Bears’ big-money free-agent signing a year ago, Trevathan might not be available for the start of training camp after rupturing the patellar tendon in his right in knee in November.

The Bears signed Trevathan and Freeman last year and drafted West Virginia’s Nick Kwiatkoski to develop behind them. The rookie started seven games, filling in during Freeman’s performance-enhancing-drug suspension and after Trevathan’s injury.

Trevathan has recovered from a serious knee problem before. Two fractures and a dislocated kneecap in 2014 led to reconstructive surgery on his left knee.

Best of the best

Alabama’s Reuben Foster, with whom the Bears met privately last month, will be drafted in the first round. Florida’s Jarrad Davis might be the second-best inside linebacker available. Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan and LSU’s Kendell Beckwith could be drafted on the second day.

The quote

“We’re happy kind of with the direction it’s heading. But to sit here and say, ‘OK, he’s ahead or behind,’ it’s too early.”

— Bears GM Ryan Pace, on Trevathan’s progress

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