The current Bears defensive backfield is not an All-Star group. In fact, it's pretty hard to even find a Pro Bowler in their midst. Saying they are not terribly effective would be putting it kindly. Realizing they need some upgrades is a simple fact. While Chicago has several young defenders that may turn into solid contributors with more playing time, they need all the help they can get.
The current slate of Chicago safeties isn't a "Who's who" of NFL stars. They are a lot closer to "Who's that?". Outside of Antrel Rolle, most casual NFL fans would be hard pressed to name another Bears safety. There's a good reason: the Monsters of Midway are currently starting 2 rookies at the position. One is a 5th round draft choice (Adrian Amos) and the other is an undrafted free agent signed off waivers from the Cardinals (Harold Jones-Quartey). While they're doing their best and improving as a tandem, their play can mostly be described as "on-the-job-training". Rookie safeties typically have a tough learning curve (mistakes often turn into touchdowns) and without a veteran supporting cast surrounding them it usually looks even worse.
Getting Antrel Rolle back from his current ankle injury will be a boost to the struggling safety corps, but even that won't give them the upgrade they really need. Playmakers have been a rarity in the Bears safety ranks since the days of Mike Brown, and to a much lesser extent, Danieal Manning. Vic Fangio has put a high priority on drafting safeties in the past (Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward were 1st round picks for the 49'ers in 2013 and 2014). It is entirely possible, given the dearth of talent the Bears have at the position, that they will look to add a dynamic safety early in next year's draft.
Jayron Kearse, Safety, Clemson
At 6'5" and almost 220 pounds, Kearse has the frame of a modern NFL safety. If his last name sounds familiar, it should. His uncle, Jevon Kearse, was an All-American linebacker with Florida State (Edit - correction: Jevon Kearse attended the University of Florida, not Florida State) and went on to be a feared pass rusher with the Tennessee Titans. His cousin, Phillip Buchanon was a standout defensive back at the University of Miami and was picked 17th overall by the Raiders in the 2002 NFL Draft. You'll probably wish you had a dollar for every time you hear the term "NFL bloodlines" mentioned in the same breath with Jayron Kearse this year. Count on it happening early and often.
On his own merits, Kearse is an exciting player:
- He's a long strider with good (but not great) speed and his height is a major asset in pass coverage.
- Has very long arms that certainly help him make plays other safeties can't.
- He's got positional versatility, as evidenced by him being not only Clemson's staring safety but also a gunner on the Tiger's kickoff coverage unit.
- Diagnoses run plays very well, keeps an eye on the ball and fills his assigned run gap quickly.
- More than willing to engage blockers and is a decent hand-fighter once he gets there.
- Although he is not usually a huge hitter he can bring the pain when the opportunity presents itself - this year against Notre Dame he pancaked an offensive guard on a run blitz all by himself.
One of his greatest strengths is press coverage. With his large frame Kearse can simply engulf receivers off the line and destroy their ability to release into pass routes. Jayron lines up all over Clemson's defense. He'll set up as a single high safety on one play and then jam the slot WR with tight man coverage on the next. That kind of versatility is very valuable to a defensive coordinator. Once you add in his patience to sit down in zone coverage and hands that are good enough to snag some interceptions, you have the makings of a solid contributor in the defensive secondary.
For all of his physical gifts, Kearse is not a complete player yet. He could use more time to fill out physically. He still looks a little bit like a basketball player. As scary as it is to imagine, he could probably add 10-15 pounds more muscle and not lose any speed. His mental game also needs to be sharpened with more practice repetitions and game time:
- He can get caught by play action passes - he doesn't "bite", but does get flat-footed and hesitates
- His pursuit angles could use some work - he's pretty good against run plays, but can take too tight an angle versus a receiver and underestimate their speed
- He is tough and not afraid to tackle but his leverage could use some fine tuning - he tends to hit up high
- He's a very smooth athlete but that alone won't be enough to win match-ups in the NFL - his man coverage technique (specifically taking extra/bad steps) needs to be refined.
Kearse is an exciting young athlete who is still growing into the player he'll eventually become. If he keeps working, growing and honing his craft he could be true terror as a versatile safety/"heavy nickel" linebacker with nearly unmatched size. That kind of weapon would certainly be a very useful chess piece for Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell to help stifle the pass-heavy offenses of NFC North for years to come.
Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are thriving in the pro game)
Hau'oli Kikaha (OLB, Saints) - Kikaha led the nation in sacks last year as a Washington Husky. Many analysts said that production would not translate to the pro level. They were wrong. Kikaha was a force for the New Orleans defense logging 6 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in this week's win over previously unbeaten Atlanta. For the season he's amassed 34 tackles, 4 sacks and 3 forced fumbles; excellent production from a 2nd round choice.
Stefon Diggs (WR, Vikings) - For the second straight week a short receiver who people thought had a better chance as a returner is making an appearance in this section. Last week it was Jamison Crowder and this week Diggs is carving out a niche in Minneapolis. He pulled down 7 receptions for 129 yards against the Chiefs this week, and has a total of 13 catches for 216 yards over the last 2 weeks. Very impressive numbers for a 5th round selection who is working in a run-first offense.
Failure to Launch (slow starters on the NFL stage)
Jordan Richards (S, Patriots) - New England has always marched to it's own special music during the NFL Draft. While it is hard to argue with their overall success, occasionally they do pull a real head-scratcher. Richards was just such a pick in the 2nd round last year. Many analysts had him going a full 2-3 rounds lower, and some even had him as a free agent. Over 6 weeks of the season (5 games and a bye week for the Patriots) he has totaled 5 tackles and 1 pass defended. Far from eye-popping numbers, even on a Patriots team that traditionally has limited use for rookies.
Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)
Be Kind, Rewind - When watching game tape, do not be afraid to rewind and watch plays again. If you missed something because your eyes wandered, you're not sure what you saw or were just busy typing notes; pick up your remote (or touchpad as the case may be) and back that tape up. I've rewound and rewatched a single play 3 or 4 times in a row to fully understand what happened and why. It's simply part of the learning process and you will often pick up on little things you missed on the first run through.