Our Rookie Expectations series has looked at what we should expect from Shea McClellin and Alshon Jeffrey based on the performances of similarly drafted players during their rookie years. This time around, though, we're looking at what we should expect from surprising third round pick safety Brandon Hardin, and putting a bit of a different slant on things. Rather than comparing stats from rookies with similar draft positions, let's take a look at how Lovie Smith has utilized his extensive collection of rookie safeties over the years and see what we should expect from Brandon Hardin in year one.
Eight years, eight safeties drafted; it just wouldn't be a Chicago draft board if a safety wasn't selected. This year, even with a new General Manager, the Bears went in the same direction as the previous two drafts by selecting a safety in round three. Hardin is yet another answer to the question of "who's going to be the Bears' safety of the future?" and to gauge what his rookie season could end up like, let's examine the last seven guys to enter the safety gauntlet. First up are the Bears' safety picks from 2005-09 with their rookie year totals (games played, games started, pass defenses, interceptions and tackles).
Manning was the only draft pick out of the five that was taken before round four, but a lack of talent and consistency led to four of the five guys listed earning at least one start (poor, poor Craig). Three of them were utilized as primary starters during their rookie campaigns, with Harris and Manning performing especially well considering their rookie status, and Al "Keyser Soze" Afalava made his grand entrance into professional football before - poof - he was gone. Looking back at these picks, it comes down to a combination of a player's skill and Lovie's mood.
We all know about DMS, and how it can negatively effect a player's performance on the field, but along with that Lovie Smith likes to take his new safety toys out of the box and play with them more than at other positions. Manning and Harris both saw major playing time as rookies, but Manning was benched in 2008 for Payne and Harris was traded after two years and twenty starts. Steltz has never been a consistent starter, but when Afalava as a sixth round pick can start one year and then vanish the rest, you know Lovie is just throwing pickles at a window to see which one drops the fastest. If you consistently have late late round rookies starting year after year, at some point you would imagine the madness would stop and someone would stick - or is that madness?
Regardless, the data above shows that despite using late round picks on safeties, Lovie will not hesitate to insert them into the starting lineup (and then vanquish them to the Phantom Zone). Next up are the Bears' last two third round safety picks.
Wright understandably saw limited playing time his rookie year thanks to Chris Harris and Danieal Manning still being on the team and performing at a respectable level. Conte was expected to follow a similar path with Harris, Wright, and Brandon Meriwether on the roster (and yes, Craig Steltz), but ineffective safety play led to Conte making a solid contribution in year one.
With both Wright and Conte returning this year as the expected starters, Hardin will need to quickly make the transition from college cornerback to professional safety in order to earn some snaps at starting safety (or, just wait for Major Wright's next hangnail injury). Out of the previous seven (seven!) rookie safeties under Lovie Smith, four started at least nine games, giving Hardin a by-the-numbers chance at playing time. Also, Wright nor Conte have yet to prove that they are good enough to be entrenched as season-long starters, so Hardin's chances will largely rest on how difficult his learning curve is for the NFL safety position, and the health and production of last year's young starters (oh, and Craig Steltz).
Prediction: Hardin starts five games, gets 32 tackles, forces two fumbles, and makes a few vicious special teams tackles. Make your prediction in the comments section.