By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) An old adage says there’s safety in numbers. When it comes to safety play in Chicago, the Bears beg to differ with that hypothesis. Since 2009, the Bears have gone through 16 different starting safety combinations, 10 different players and used nine draft picks in the past 10 draft classes on safeties.
The 2014 season will be no different.
With Major Wright now in Tampa Bay, the Bears are assured of their 17th different starting combination when they kick off the season against the Bills. Despite the seemingly never-ending carousel of combinations, the Bears prioritized their defensive needs at other positions this offseason. Twice.
Instead of dipping into a talented pool of free agent safeties, the Bears allocated the lion’s share of their free agent dollars — $34.45 million to be exact — to rebuilding their defensive line. Strong safety Ryan Mundy, a career backup, was given a modest $650,000 guaranteed at the outset of free agency, and former All-Pro Adrian Wilson was recently brought in to have his tires kicked.
In the first round of the draft, the Bears had their choice of any draft-eligible safety, yet they opted for a different position in the secondary, selecting cornerback Kyle Fuller. Four safeties ended up going in the first round and a mini-run occurred on the position in the fourth round — after the Bears selected running back Ka’Deem Carey — prompting them to trade back into the round to select Minnesota’s Brock Vereen with the 131st overall selection.
Here’s the breakdown on Vereen in our rookie spotlight.
Arm length: 30″
40-yard dash: 4.47
Vertical jump: 34″
Like several other Phil Emery draft picks — five by my count — Vereen has NFL bloodlines. His father Henry, a running back, was drafted by Tampa Bay in 1979, and his older brother Shane, also a running back, currently plays for the Patriots. Vereen earned All-Big Ten honors in 2013, made 36 career starts, was a team captain and logged position-best numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.47 seconds) and bench press (25 reps).
Alignment/coverage versatility – At some point or another, Vereen was utilized at every position in the secondary during his time at Minnesota: field/boundary cornerback, nickelback, box safety and free safety. Cornerbacks are required to see half of the field, while safeties are required to see all of the field, so his ability to line up at all of these positions – sometimes within the course of a single game – and effectively play press-man, off-man or execute a zone drop speaks to his football intelligence and is a boon for his NFL prospects. He was asked to cover faster athletes on the perimeter and bigger athletes inside, but he was most effective as a nickelback and safety.
Read and react – Vereen is an instinctive player, which is a combination of athleticism and film study. Pre-snap, it was common to see him getting his teammates lined up and communicating coverage adjustments and exchanges. Post-snap, it was common to see him quickly reading his keys and reacting with speed downhill. Against the run, he takes good angles to the ball. Against the pass, he shows good route recognition. His combine numbers prove he’s an excellent measurable athlete, but his tape shows he has more straight-line speed than lateral quickness.
Open-field tackling – Vereen isn’t an explosive hitter, but he is a sure tackler in the open field. As spread offenses become more prevalent, the ball gets to the perimeter quicker, so defenders must be able to get receivers to the ground to minimize yards after the catch. He delivers hits from a solid base, keeps his shoulders square to his target and rolls his hips to drive through on contact.
Areas for improvement
Mirroring receivers in transition – Vereen has a tendency to give a bit too much cushion at the top of the route stem, allowing receivers to separate and create throwing windows. Secondary players must disrupt a receiver’s steps as they progress down the field to alter the timing of a play. Vereen needs to give less cushion and read and trail the hips of the receiver to stay in phase throughout the route to be in a position to prevent a throw or make a play on the ball.
Ball skills – Despite playing for four seasons at Minnesota, Vereen only managed four interceptions, which is very low ball productivity. He was in position to make more interceptions – 22 career pass break-ups – on deeper passes, but he seemed to struggle with judging exactly when to high point the ball to make a play. As a free safety prospect, he will be in a position to break and make a play on deep balls, so he must work on his hands to fight the ball less when it arrives and become less of a body catcher.
Footwork on play entry – Vereen was frequently used as a blitzer and both a “spill” and “force” player against the run, yet in his career, he only registered 7.5 tackles for loss and a half sack. Part of the issue had to do with Vereen’s footwork at the outset of a play. On blitzes, he would tip his blitz by taking small stutter steps or creeping closer to the line prior to the snap, allowing the protection scheme to adjust their count to negate the extra rusher. He also took longer paths to the quarterback instead of staying in his rushing lane, which allowed the quarterback to navigate away and climb the pocket.
Prospects for 2014
Given the pass-happy nature of the NFL, safeties must have coverage skills. It’s a three-receiver league, so as teams go to nickel and dime packages more and more, every player in the secondary must be able to cover. Combine this with the rule changes – targeting, crown of the helmet, defenseless receiver – and the days of “enforcers” over the middle of the field are numbered.
Vereen didn’t go earlier in the draft because he’s not a dynamic playmaker. He is, however, a dependable and versatile player with a solid athletic grade. He may be better suited for a nickel corner or strong safety role in the future, but with Chris Conte recovering from shoulder surgery and M.D. Jennings – Packers fans’ version of Conte – being the only competition, Vereen has a legitimate chance to challenge for the starting free safety spot this fall.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin