ESPN’s Matt Bowen – an NFL defensive back for seven years, an analyst for ESPN, and an assistant coach on a state champion football team – probably knows a thing or two about what makes a secondary good.
Recently at ESPN, Bowen goes through 17 categories and presents the best defensive back in each area. There are only two repeats, which is a sign of how deep this class of defensive backs really is. It’s an ESPN Insider piece, so I won’t give out too much, but some of the names are worth noting for various reasons.
A few players have been tied to the Bears and the third overall pick. For example, Ohio State Marshon Lattimore is Bowen’s best overall cornerback. Bowen sees Lattimore as a fit for defensive schemes that ask their cornerbacks to play man or zone coverage. That bit of versatility can be helpful, and obviously makes him a fit for any team looking to upgrade at the position. Even though Lattimore was just a one-year starter for the Buckeyes, he showed the ability to play several different styles as a cornerback.
The hamstring issues will play a factor in his draft position because they could play a role in whether or not he plays to his potential, that being a top-rated cover corner in the NFL.
LSU safety Jamal Adams is another name Bears fans following the mock draft process have grown familiar with in recent months. Adams is the defensive back Bowen believes has the best instincts. Bowen lauds Adams’ skills in-the-box as a run stopper and as a defender in coverage. While Adams running a blistering 4.33 in the 40-yard dash at LSU’s recent pro day checks a box for pro evaluators, it also could be seen as an indication and validation of his highly regarded in-game speed. Adams top-notch instincts allow him to read plays as they develop, which allows him to make the correct breaks on the ball on pass plays or on the ball carrier in running situations.
You can’t teach instincts, but if you could, you would want whatever lessons Adams took to get to this level. Bowen believes Adams’ presence can change the identity of the secondary of whichever team drafts him.
Despite surgeries that prevented him from performing at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Ohio State safety Malik Hooker comes away as the best defensive back in two categories – best range, best ball skills. While Adams might take the nomination for best instincts, Hooker isn’t likely far behind. Hooker’s range and ball skills play hand-in-hand. He is a ballhawk with a nose for making plays in the secondary to the point some have made it a point of comparing him to former Ravens star Ed Reed. Hooker’s range and ball skills combine to make him a top-rated prospect and potential Bears target, despite the concerns surrounding his health.
The depth in this draft is exemplified by three different Washington defensive backs being the best in three distinct categories. Cornerback Kevin King owns the draft’s best press-man skills in Bowen’s eyes, which could make him a factor against pass-happy teams. Sidney Jones will likely slide down draft boards because of a torn Achilles he suffered at Washington’s pro day, but Bowen sees him as having the best down-the-field technique of any cornerback in this draft. Perhaps Jones is a sleeper pick for a team who values his skills and can use 2017 as a redshirt season of sorts. Jones believes he can be back six months after his surgery, which means an October return could be possible. Safety Budda Baker is Bowen’s most overlooked defensive back. Despite not having ideal size (Baker measured at 5-10) of a safety in the modern era of football, he ran the 40 in the 4.4 range, and led Washington in tackles, tackles-for-loss, hauled in a pair of interceptions, broke up six passes, and picked up three sacks. Baker does a little bit of everything and could possibly even step in as a playmaking rookie.
All this adds up as a major positive for the Bears, who have needs at the cornerback and safety positions despite adding four newcomers to the secondary via free agency. The depth in the draft could allow the Bears to find a value pick outside of the first round. The middle rounds will be filled with talented secondary members who can grow into their positions with the rebuilding Bears. Remember, only Marcus Cooper and Quintin Demps signed multi-year contracts among new Bears defensive backs. Or the team could capitalize on its position and use it to pounce on one of the draft’s elite players.
In any case, the Bears are in a position to take advantage of the depth and talent of this class – whether it’s early or late in the draft.