Draft analysis: Why the Bears are considering two game-changers at safety
Part 2 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs:
Bears safety Adrian Amos’ best play last season started with a good one by cornerback Kyle Fuller.
In Week 6, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco forced a throw to receiver Chris Moore on second-and-10 from the Bears’ 30. Fuller broke it up, and Amos caught the tipped pass.
It was a highlight, for sure. Amos weaved his way through potential tacklers and officially scored from 90 yards away. But it’s Amos’ only interception in 40 starts over three seasons, and it’s one that wouldn’t have happened without Fuller.
Amos is a good player, one whom Pro Football Focus has praised and one who deserves a second contract from the Bears. But having a good player shouldn’t preclude the Bears from drafting a potential great one.
That’s why Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s Derwin James — the two best safeties in the draft — have the Bears’ full attention for the first round.
The Bears might have found a fourth-round gem last year in Eddie Jackson, who played with Fitzpatrick at Alabama. But before the Bears traded up to draft Jackson in the fourth round, they had LSU’s Jamal Adams high on their draft board.
Had the Browns drafted quarterback Mitch Trubisky No. 1 overall, Adams would have been a serious option for the Bears with their original No. 3 pick. After the Bears’ bold move for Trubisky, the Jets selected Adams with the No. 6 pick.
Some evaluators think Fitzpatrick and James belong in the same conversation as Adams, though they might lack some of Adams’ intangibles. On the field, they’re more than safeties. Envision players who can match up with new Packers tight end Jimmy Graham, cover Vikings running back Dalvin Cook out of the backfield, chase down Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford off the edge and even handle snaps at cornerback, if necessary.
Adding Fitzpatrick or James wouldn’t exactly spell the end for Amos. Defenses feature five defensive backs a bulk of the time in the NFL these days. Some teams often feature three safeties in some capacity.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio hasn’t had a three-safety option with the Bears because he hasn’t had a player such as Fitzpatrick or James.
‘‘I could do it all,’’ James said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. ‘‘I could play deep. I could cover No. 2 [receiver]. I can play the tight end. I could play in the box. I can blitz. Whatever you need.’’
Fitzpatrick handled Alabama’s ‘‘star’’ role, a hybrid position that is part nickel back, linebacker and rusher, before moving to safety
after Jackson broke his leg during the 2016 season.
‘‘I have the hips and feet of a corner, but I also have the IQ and tackling ability of a safety,’’ Fitzpatrick said at the combine. ‘‘[NFL teams] know I can play multiple positions at a high level.’’
Grading the Bears’ need: Medium. Every safety the Bears have was a mid- to late-round selection. Eddie Jackson might be a star in the making. Adrian Amos is a physical, steady presence. He also had a 90-yard pick-six and two forced fumbles last season. His production improved his standing with the Bears, who initially signed Quintin Demps to replace him. Beyond Jackson and Amos, the Bears essentially have special-teamers.
On the roster: Jackson ($766,449 annual average value), Amos ($628,070), Deon Bush ($716,555), DeAndre Houston-Carson ($585,000) and Deiondre’ Hall ($712,723)
Top five draft prospects
1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama: A game-changer in every way, he set a school record with four pick-sixes. His interception total dropped from six in 2016 to one in 2017, but he still was a consensus All-American.
2. Derwin James, Florida State: Arguably as talented and versatile as Fitzpatrick, James made 15 tackles for loss and had 5½ sacks and three interceptions in three seasons.
3. Justin Reid, Stanford: He had five interceptions and 6½ tackles for loss in his final college season. He’s the brother of former 49ers safety Eric Reid.
4. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama: Known for his physicality, Harrison had seven interceptions in three seasons for the Tide.
5. Jessie Bates III, Wake Forest: Bates had one interception last season after having five, included two pick-sixes, in 2016.
I’m intrigued by: New coach Matt Nagy’s input in the evaluations. He knows what versatile defenders such as Fitzpatrick and James can do to offensive game plans, matchups and play-calls.