During Phil Emery’s press conference Thursday, he mentioned that the safety draft class isn’t very strong after the top options. He admitted that the Bears need help at safety and brought up the possibility of drafting someone from a different position and moving them to safety. Emery tried this once already with 2012 3rd round pick Brandon Hardin (Oregon St) who was a cornerback in college before the Bears attempted to make him a safety. As Bear fans know, that didn’t work out at all. Hardin never played a game with the Bears but it was due more to injury than his ability to play safety. Hardin suffered a neck injury in the 2012 preseason and then a scapula injury in the 2013 preseason. He was cut shortly after and now is a long-shot to make the Jets roster.
So assuming that the Bears don’t draft one of the top 5-6 safety options with one of their first two picks, who is Emery targeting for a position switch? Emery said length, athleticism, instinct and intelligence are the main traits he looks for when considering a position change to safety. The most likely candidates for a position change are college corners or linebackers, but there is a quarterback on this list. I’ve ranked them in order of their potential to play safety in the NFL.
1.) OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio St (6’1, 237): He’s a good enough linebacker to be drafted in the top 50, so why mess with a good thing? Shazier will be one of the lightest linebackers in the league and he might be faster than any safety in the NFL. He ran a 4.38 40 at his pro day and has a 42″ vertical leap, Shazier is the best athlete in this draft. Despite his small stature, he is a big time hitter with great sideline-to-sideline range. Shazier would be a good fit at strong safety where he can come up like a rocket in run support. It would be an adjustment in coverage, but he excelled in coverage as an LB so the instincts are there. If the Bears want him they will have to spend a 1st round pick on him; Shazier might last till the 2nd round but no chance he is there when the Bears pick at #51.
2.) OLB Telvin Smith, Florida St (6’3, 218): As light as Shazier is, Telvin Smith no doubt would be the lightest LB in the NFL. At 218 pounds he’s even lighter than about half the safeties in the league. If he were bigger, Smith would be a 1st round LB, his game tape is that good. His instincts are elite, in the Senior Bowl game Smith snuffed out 3 screen plays by himself slipping blockers and stuffing the RB or WR before they could gain a yard. He is a natural football player whose elite instincts would make the position switch seamless. His above average height allows him to cover tight ends and receivers with little trouble. Smith may go as early as the 2nd round, but if he’s available in the 3rd round, the Bears should pull the trigger and either move him to safety or groom him as Briggs backup at WLB.
3.) CB Dontae Johnson, North Carolina St (6’2, 200): Tall, versatile defensive back who played safety, corner, and even linebacker in college. Johnson has the size that teams are looking for right now, and helped his cause with a better than expected 4.45 40-time at the combine. Johnson has good range in coverage and is also strong against the run. As a corner Johnson is probably limited to a zone scheme due to a lack of quickness & fluidity, but he is quick enough to play safety and has the potential to become a starter. I have Johnson projected as a 3rd-4th round pick.
4.) CB Keith McGill, Utah (6’3, 211): Was a junior college All-American at free safety before transferring to Utah and then played safety for the Utes for 5 games before moving to corner, so he has experience at the position. If McGill is going to stick at corner in the NFL, it might have to be in a press coverage scheme since he may not have the fluidity in coverage to play man in space. McGill is more than athletic enough to handle the safety position though and has great height for the position. As a safety he should excel in coverage, but is not physical enough verse the run. Unless he becomes more of a factor against the run he may be limited to nickel & dime packages initially. McGill could go as high as the 2nd round with teams looking for tall corners, but I think he is a 3rd-4th round talent.
5.) CB Antone Exum, Virginia Tech (6’0, 213): Exum is a versatile defensive back; He played slot corner as a freshman, free safety as a sophomore, and was a starting corner as a junior. His junior year he had 5 interceptions, 16 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles, and was considered a better NFL prospect then CB Kyle Fuller who I have as a late first round pick. Since then Exum has had both an ACL and an ankle injury so it’s unknown if he still has the quickness and burst to play corner. He’s built like a safety anyway and that might be his best position in the NFL. Wherever he ends up, Exum is a big-hitter in run support and an aggressive coverage guy with the size to match up with the league’s taller receivers. His recent injury problems are an obvious risk and he is rumored to have some “coachability” issues, but Exum is a day 2 talent who could be available early on day 3.