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Bears must be careful sorting through draftees with medical past

Malik Hooker did not work out at the combine or his pro day. (Getty Images)

The Bears have spent the last few weeks at Halas Hall trying to find a consensus about potential draft picks — and their medical issues.

“Doctors and trainers, they’re like scouts,” former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said. “They all have different opinions.”

This year, there’s plenty to be opinionated about — and that’s just with the third overall pick Thursday night.

Safety Malik Hooker of Ohio State had surgery in January to fix a torn labrum and two sports hernias. He didn’t run at the NFL Scouting Combine or at Ohio State’s pro day. Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen had surgery on both shoulders during his Alabama career and also has an arthritic condition in them; he claims doctors told him it won’t affect him until after his NFL career. Both players figure to be in consideration for the Bears.

Other first-round talents with medical questions include Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis, who didn’t run at the combine or at his pro day after ankle surgery in January. Washington receiver John Ross had surgery on his right shoulder after setting the combine 40-yard dash record. He missed 2015 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Before making their first-round decision, the Bears must decide exactly how comfortable they are with a player’s medical history. Re-checks two weeks ago in Indianapolis seemed to provide good news about Hooker. The Bears attended Allen’s pro day and brought him to Halas Hall — signs they’re not scared off by his shoulder.

They hope to never draft this high again. But the fastest way to return to the top of the draft next year will be to select a player who fails — or is hurt and unavailable.

“This is where the maturity of an organization can really shine through,” said Savage, now a SiriusXM analyst and Senior Bowl executive director, “because of the relationship between the general manager and head coach and his medical staff and team doctors.”

Trust needed

After a 3-13 season in which the Bears lost a ridiculous 19 players to injured reserve, they made tweaks to their training programs in the name of injury prevention. For the same reason, they swore off traveling to practice against other teams during training camp, the way they had in each of coach John Fox’s first two seasons.

Evaluating draftees is another big test for the medical staff.

“You’ve got to trust your staff to be able to forecast,” Savage said. “When will this player return? Are there any issues in terms of the future? How successful was the surgery?”

Sometimes there’s just buzzard’s luck: Kevin White, the Bears’ No. 7 overall pick in 2015, first felt a shin injury a month after the draft, didn’t play his rookie season after undergoing surgery and appeared in four games last year before going to IR with a spiral fracture of his left fibula.

The Bears’ second-round pick from that draft, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, also finished last season on IR, where he’d landed after only six games because of a left high-ankle sprain. The Bears’ third pick of 2015, center Hroniss Grasu, missed the entire season after tearing his right ACL during Family Fest.

Linebacker Leonard Floyd, a first-round pick last year, suffered two concussions as a rookie. His fate was better than that of 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams, a left tackle and known injury risk before the draft who needed back surgery before he ever played in a Bears game.

Immediate health isn’t everything

Evaluators, of course, prefer draftees who are healthy enough to perform offseason drills and workouts without inhibition.

“It’s certainly good to have it,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. “It doesn’t mean it’s the end-all, be-all. We’ve seen plenty of guys not be able to work out and get drafted high and go on to have very good careers.”

More at issue is whether the injury has a long-term effect on a player. In that sense, Allen’s arthritic condition is more concerning than Hooker’s surgeries. Combined that with Bears GM Ryan Pace’s apparent preference for uber-athletic first round picks and Allen might face more questions from the Bears than his résumé can offset.

McShay called Davis the most difficult of the bunch to evaluate when you combine his lack of workouts with the fact he played in the Mid-American Conference.

“I would guess he’s going to run in the mid 4.5’s if he ran a 40-yard dash,” McShay said, “but we’ll never know.”

Pro Football Focus analyst Steve Palazzolo doesn’t have the same concerns about Hooker, calling him the best center-field safety available in the draft since the Seattle Seahawks took Earl Thomas seven years ago.

“I don’t need to have seen [Hooker] run,” Palazzolo said. “From a style standpoint, I’ve seen his instincts on the field, I’ve seen his range on the field.”

Deciding factor

Sometimes a pre-draft workout can settle a tie, McShay said. Teams are more comfortable drafting someone they saw — healthy and in person.

Other times, workouts just cloud things, said Gil Brant, the Dallas Cowboys’ former vice president of player personnel.

“I do think that sometimes you can be misled by pro days and you can be misled by the combine,” said Brandt, who’s also a SiriusXM analyst. “They’re a good way of backing up ideas about how you think a player is going to perform. But when you throw out two years, in most cases, of player performances for a workout or a combine . . . I try to put my evaluation primarily on what I have going in.”

INJURY WORRIES: 5 first-round draft talents with injury questions:

S Malik Hooker, Ohio State

Issue: Surgery in January to repair a torn labrum and two sports hernias.

Which means: He didn’t participate in local pro day or NFL Scouting Combine.

Projection: Top 10.

Quotable: “I think he’s the best center-field free safety I’ve seen in a while on tape. But I have two concerns. No. 1 is the durability. He’s a one-year starter at Ohio State. He’s coming off two surgeries after the season, and you’ve got to worry about his durability. No.  2, he’s an inconsistent tackler.” — NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock

DL Jonathan Allen, Alabama

Issue: Arthritic shoulder condition.

Which means: Allen says doctors have told him it won’t affect him until after football.

Projection: Top 10.

Quotable: “I know he had the bad combine from a workout standpoint and from the fact that the long-term injury prognosis is not great. . .. From what I’ve seen on the field, I think he’s a great fit for [the Bears’] defensive front. Best interior pass rusher in the entire draft.” — Pro Football Focus analyst Steve Palazzolo

WR Corey Davis, Western Michigan

Issue: Ankle surgery, January.

Which means: The Wheaton Warrenville South alum didn’t run at his pro day or the combine.

Projection: Top 20.

Quotable: “It helps to have size and speed, and he has both. . .. He didn’t run an official 40, and won’t, because of the injury. But I think on tape he plays like a 4.4 [-second 40-yard dash] guy.” — ESPN analyst Todd McShay

WR John Ross, Washington

Issue: Had surgery on his right shoulder after the combine and missed all of 2015 with a torn left ACL.

Which means: His record 4.22-second combine 40-yard dash will get him drafted high.

Projection: First round.

Quotable: “I mean, he flies. The concern [is] there — and there are some teams that have pushed him down the board or off the board because of injury.” — Mayock

CB Sidney Jones, Washington

Issue: Ruptured left Achilles tendon at March pro day.

Which means: He said he wants to play this season, but it seems unlikely.

Projection: First three rounds.

Quotable: “He goes, for us, from a mid-round prospect to a back end of the first, second-round redshirt option.” — Palazzolo

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

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