By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) — Let the debate begin.
Part of the fun of draft season is debating the position priorities for each NFL team.
In the Bears’ case, what’s the greatest need? Defensive line? Safety? Cornerback? Linebacker?
The answer is: all of the above. And a case for each of those positions could be made when it comes to the Bears’ first pick in May — 14th overall.
I’ve heard it mentioned many times over the last few weeks — including while I was down in Mobile for the Senior Bowl — that 14th is too early to draft a safety.
Well, consider this: When Bears general manager Phil Emery was the director of college scouting in Kansas City, then-Chiefs GM Scott Pioli selected safety Eric Berry with the fifth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Then, in the fifth round, the Chiefs also took safety Kendrick Lewis.
Berry is a three-time Pro Bowler and was an All-Pro this past season. Lewis, meanwhile, became a starter his rookie year and has been a solid safety for the Chiefs, although his play has regressed somewhat since he suffered a shoulder injury in 2012.
That, of course, doesn’t mean the Bears will use the same formula in May’s draft, but it remains a fact that the Chiefs — with Emery as director of college scouting — were willing to draft a safety fifth overall and that pick was well worth it.
With Major Wright due to hit free agency in March and Chris Conte coming off a sub-par 2013 season, I’d be shocked if the Bears don’t select at least one safety in the draft and if there’s a safety they believe can play right away and boost the secondary, you take that player.
Of course, that’s just an argument for one defensive position and equally compelling arguments can be made for defensive line, linebacker and cornerback.
Thus, here are five players I saw at the Senior Bowl who could fill the Bears’ needs:
DT Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota – Labeled as a “boom-or-bust” player, Hageman helped himself a lot in Mobile. Scouts were happy with how he weighed in — 6-6, 318 pounds — and how he performed in practices. Many believe he transcends scheme (a 3-tech or a 5-tech), which makes him a viable target for the Bears’ new defensive philosophy. They’d have to use their first-round pick on him, but he should be available at No. 14.
CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska – If the Bears go to a hybrid defense, they’ll have to play more man-coverage, which means they need a cornerback with size and press-man abilities. Jean-Baptiste showed those skills in Mobile, although he also looked vulnerable when playing off. 40-times can be overrated, but he needs to post a good time at the Combine next month to show he can run with receivers. I’m not sure I’d use a first-round pick on him — especially at No. 14 — but the second round makes sense.
LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin – Borland quickly proved his undersized 5-11 3/8, 245, frame isn’t a concern. He has an energetic motor that never turns off, taking every rep like it’s his last. He jumps off the screen when you watch the film and moves North, South, East and West with ease, sometimes in all four directions within a single snap. He told me his lack of size can be an advantage because he’s able to hide from blockers. My only concern is durability as he absorbed a ton of contact throughout his college career. He played both outside and inside in a 4-3 at Wisconsin, as well as inside in a 3-4 his senior year. I’m not sure he’ll last beyond the third round.
LB Telvin Smith, Florida State – I wrote about Smith before the BCS National Championship Game and mentioned that the biggest problem with the speedy, athletic linebacker is where to play him. I suggested a move to safety might be necessary and, after seeing him in person, I’m even more convinced that’s where he’ll be most effective in the NFL. Smith said this week that he wants to prove he’s a linebacker, but when I look at his size (6-2 7/8, 218 pounds) combined with his speed and instincts, I see an impact safety at the next level. He could be a steal in the fourth or fifth round.
C Weston Richburg, Colorado State – Yes, an offensive player. Even if the Bears bring Roberto Garza back, they need to start looking towards the future at the position. Richburg stood out to me this week and at times looked even better than Arkansas center Travis Swanson, who most consider to be the No. 1 center prospect in the draft. Richburg showed off a strong anchor and was one of the few offensive linemen able to handle Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, which says a lot. He’s unlikely to last beyond the third round, however, so he might make more sense if Garza doesn’t return and they need a guy to play right away.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.