By Chris Luttig
The countdown is nearing for the 79th annual NFL Draft Thursday, May 8, at 7 p.m. The decision for fans between ESPN or NFL Network’s draft coverage will be less daunting than the decisions being made in teams’ war rooms. Phil Emery and the rest of the NFL general managers have had extra time this year to refine their scouting, as the NFL pushed the draft back.
Last year, the Chicago Bears addressed their pressing needs on the offensive line through the draft and free agency. A breakout season for Alshon Jeffery solidified the wide receiving core, and tight end Martellius Bennett gave the Bears’ offense a weapon in the red zone that quarterback Jay Cutler hasn’t seen since his Denver Broncos days in the high-powered Jeremy Bates-designed offense.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Chicago Bears have several needs to fill on an aging and depleted defense. Among the holes, the Bears are in desperate need of a play-making safety — something Soldier Field hasn’t seen since 2009, Mike Brown’s last season with the Bears. The Bears’ defense was built on the backs of big-hitting linebackers and play-making safeties, so much so the “46” defense is named such because of Bears safety Doug Plank and the impact he had in the Buddy Ryan-developed defense.
The 2014 draft features a couple of play-making safeties who have a chance of being available when the Bears are on the clock with the 14th overall pick. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (FS) from University of Alabama is an underclassman option who has played in the Nick Saban pro-style defense for the last two seasons. While Clinton-Dix is more of a center fielder at free safety, he can still make big hits and plays the run well. His effort has come into question at times, as well as his strength. Both of these are qualities all NFL draft prospects need to improve on during their first year in the NFL, so it is not as big of a question mark as some may feel.
If the Bears do choose to go safety and don’t have sights set on addressing the D-line in the draft, Calvin Pryor (FS) of Louisville is their man. Pryor is a heavy-hitting safety who is known for his aggressive play. In the 2013 season, Pryor knocked players out of three games in a row. While these big hits might lead to several fines and possible penalties over his career, it will make teams think twice before entering the middle of the Bears’ defense. Pryor is also the best safety against the run in this year’s draft class. He separates himself from Clinton-Dix, as he is able to play both strong and free safety at the next level.
If the Bears decide to address the defensive line first this year, their leading man looks to be off the boards before they get a chance to pull the trigger. Aaron Donald of the University of Pittsburgh, an undersized DT with off-the-chart combine numbers and a breakout 2013 season, has ascended up the draft board in the recent days and continues to draw strong interest as we get closer to Thursday. A couple other defensive tackles will be available when the Bears pick, but it might be way too soon to pick one of these players, as they will not be the best on the board.
Tim Jernigan of Florida State is another such breakout player from the 2013 season. He looked to be an option for the Bears, until recently, as Jernigan’s draft stock has stumbled from the middle of the first round to late first or the second round as whispers he failed his drug test at the NFL combine have started to surface.
The most intriguing DT in the draft is Ra’Shede Hageman from the University of Minnesota, a former high school tight end who is now a 6-foot-6 325-pound freak of nature. He knocked out 32 reps in the bench press to go with a 36-inch vertical jump and a sub-5.0 40-yard dash time. There is no question Hageman possesses one of the highest ceilings in the whole draft. The question is, will it all translate to on-the-field performance, and will he show up to play on every down? There have been questions of his commitment to go all-out over his college career, but Hageman looks to prove the doubters wrong and has a chip on his shoulder. All said, Hageman might be the defensive player of the draft, if he can live up to his lofty projections based on his combine and pro-day workouts.
As the draft goes, look for the Bears to address needs at safety, defensive back, linebacker and back-up running back. Most fans might expect Head Coach Marc Trestman and Emery to take a quarterback with only Jordan Palmer as a back-up on the roster. But Emery doesn’t believe in wasting late-round picks on quarterbacks. A few running backs could be difference-makers on Sundays. Be on the lookout for James Wilder Jr. of FSU, D’Anthony Thomas of Oregon and Ka’Deem Carey of Arizona, who led the nation in rushing in 2012.
From the May 7-13, 2014, issue