Emma: Bears Have Options In Deep Safety Class

By Chris Emma–

(CBS) Just a decade ago, the Bears had a dominant defense that made takeaways a regularity.

It feels like much longer than 10 years ago after the Bears posted just 11 takeaways in 2016 — eight interceptions and three forced fumbles. They were dead last in such a critical category.

The frustration of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is easy to see. His defensive identities are built around creating pressure and forcing turnovers. The Bears have done neither in the last two seasons, which is why general manager Ryan Pace made it known from the start of this crucial offseason that he would be seeking game-changing players for Fangio’s defense.

Though he struck out on the top three cornerbacks available, Pace added one in Marcus Cooper who’s coming off a season of four interceptions, and he signed safety Quintin Demps fresh off his six picks in 13 games. Prince Amukamara brings another upgrade from the status quo at cornerback.

Following the first waves of free agency, the Bears feel better about their position in the secondary with two new top corners and either Bryce Callahan or Cre’Von LeBlanc at the nickel. But a void still remains next to Demps at safety.

With the No. 3 overall pick, the Bears have a golden opportunity to complete their improved secondary by adding another safety from a deep draft class. So who could it be for the Bears?

Evaluations begin with LSU’s Jamal Adams and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker, two individuals who have the potential to be elite safeties. While the norm is typically to not select a safety in the top five, some scouts believe highly in what these two could become.

Adams was the leader of LSU’s defenses, a game captain in his third college game and a team captain as a junior. He’s a force in the run game with a physical presence that could complement the rest of this Bears secondary.

Adams prides himself on versatility.

“The game is changing,” Adams said.

“You need safeties that can do everything in the back end, can cover, can tackle.”

Then there’s Hooker, who tallied six interceptions in his first season starting on Ohio State’s defense. Concerns linger over his mid-January surgery to repair a torn labrum on his hip, but Hooker says he’s ahead of schedule and hopes to be ready for rookie mini-camp.

If the Bears can confirm his long-term health with their own doctors, Hooker must be considered with their top pick. He could be the ballhawk their secondary needs.

“I feel like it’s just a mindset,” Hooker said. “Either you feel like you’re a dog out there or you’re not.”

Bears linebacker Pernell McPhee would smile at that quote. He’s been seeking “dogs” to join him on this defense. But Pace still has other needs to fill, especially after missing on some top players from the free-agent market. One of those voids is at defensive end, which could bring Jonathan Allen into play if his shoulders concerns check out.

And of course, the quarterback position still needs a long-term answer. Despite signing Mike Glennon to a three-year deal, the Bears also still plan to draft a developmental prospect. They could move for a quarterback with the third pick.

If the Bears want to address other priorities with their first pick, they can move for a safety in the second round. Michigan’s intriguing Jabrill Peppers could fall out of the first round and would be a steal for the Bears at that point in the draft. Texas A&M’s Justin Evans could be a quality fit, as he’s a strong run defender who posted four picks as a senior.

Then there’s another breakout prospect, UConn safety Obi Melifonwu, who stands at nearly 6-foot-4, ran the best 40-yard dash of any safety at 4.40 — a mark that included a 1.51 10-yard split — then he blew away scouts with a freakish 44-inch vertical that topped everyone at the Combine. Now, it’s a wonder of how high he’ll jump in the draft.

The Bears coached Melifonwu at the Senior Bowl in January and got a feel for how he could fit in Fangio’s defense. After the second day of practice in Mobile, Fangio met with the media and reinforced his desire to add playmakers for his defense. Melifonwu could be that player, having posted 128 tackles and four interceptions last season. The Bears may need to move into the late first round to get him.

Washington’s Budda Baker is another name to consider. He posted a 4.45 time in the 40, backing the belief that his athleticism could make an impact in coverage.

How the Bears rank these safeties is something only available in the second-floor offices of Halas Hall. They must balance their scouting convictions at safety with their other priorities in play.

The Bears have improved their struggling secondary, but they’re still lacking game-changing talents. There’s a void that could be filled by one of these heralded safeties in the draft class.

Takeaways could again be commonplace for the Bears if they get this decision right.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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