Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald offered tackle Rashawn Slater a spot at the Big Ten Championship game in December. Slater, one of the top offensive linemen in the 2021 NFL Draft, had previously opted out of the 2020 season.
Fitzgerald believes Slater’s answer tells NFL front offices everything they need to know about him.
“He texted me before the Big Ten championship game and said, ‘Coach, this game’s about the team, not about me. I don’t want to be a distraction. Thanks for the invite,’” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, what a stud? That’s Rashawn in a nutshell.”
Slater, a Texas native, skipped his pandemic-shortened senior season and spent the fall working out with with offensive line coach Duke Manyweather in Texas. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound Slater is a potential first-round draft pick and draft buzz indicates he might go pretty high in April’s draft. He showed a throng of NFL scouts what he could do on Tuesday at Northwestern’s Pro Day in Evanston.
[2021 NFL mock draft: Hub Arkush version 1.0]
Multiple reports indicated that the Bears, who hold the No. 20 overall pick, were well-represented Tuesday, with general manager Ryan Pace, head coach Matt Nagy and offensive line coach Juan Castillo in attendance.
Slater hadn’t had much contact with the Bears prior to Tuesday.
“Yeah, just being able to talk to them today and being coached up a little bit by coach Juan Castillo,” Slater said. “Today was my first contact with them, but they were awesome.”
Slater was not shy about his ambitions. He said he believes he’s the best tackle in the draft. He turned some heads in 2019 when he held his own against former Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young, last year’s No. 2 overall pick and the 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
But Slater’s body of work is more than just one game. He started 37 games in three years at Northwestern. He started 12 at right tackle as a true freshman in 2017. The one knock against him during the pre-draft process has been that his arms are short for the position (they measured in at 33 inches Tuesday).
“It’s definitely tiring when you put so much work in, put all that film out of me playing tackle, and then you’ve got questions just based off of a measurable,” Slater said. “But honestly, as far as the teams I’ve talked to, they’ve been pretty honest about saying it’s not a huge concern for them.”
Slater took a calculated risk sitting out the 2020 season, and it appears to be paying off. He wants to be a tackle, but said he’s be willing to move anywhere on the offensive line if that’s what a team needs.
[NFL mock draft: Sean Hammond’s version 1.0]
On Monday, the Bears released right tackle Bobby Massie in order to create more space in their 2021 salary cap. An offensive lineman, a quarterback or a wide receiver are their three biggest draft needs. They haven’t selected an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft since they took Kyle Long 20th overall in 2013. Long, who spent 2020 as a television analyst for CBS, announced Tuesday that he was coming out of retirement in 2021.
The Bears could use another tackle in 2021. They still have 29-year-old left tackle Charles Leno under contract for one more season. One possible scenario might be to draft a tackle and stick the rookie at right tackle for a year, before transitioning him to left tackle in 2022.
Slater certainly fits that mold.
“He looks like he’s been training since August,” Fitzgerald said. “He looks great, man. He’s ready to rock. If the NFL said he can go to OTAs right now, I think whatever O-line coach got him would see a guys who’s physically ready to go and that’s a credit to Rashawn.”
The 2021 draft is deep in tackles and the Bears should be able to find a quality tackle at No. 20. The biggest question will be if Slater is even still available at No. 20. He could be long gone by then.