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Chicago Bears Draftwatch - A Tale of Two Safeties

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Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker are often mentioned in the same breath, but should they be?

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It was the best of drafts..., yeah it sure is if you need a safety. The Bears definitely need some playmaking talent at that position and they need it now. The group of safeties in this year's draft is outstanding. It's easily the best group that has come up in the last 5 years. There are stars at the top, value in the middle rounds, a massive diversity of skill sets and styles and plenty of sleepers with potential sprinkled in farther down the board. If your team needs a safety and can't find one in this batch, they need a new scouting staff pronto.

The two names mentioned at the top of heap most often are Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker. Because they are talked about so often, many people have begun to believe that they are amazingly well-rounded and ready to go in almost any defensive system right now. After a closer extended look at both of their games on tape, that isn't exactly true. There are certainly plenty of things to love, but neither player is perfect and both show some tendencies that are in contrast to the "conquering hero" narrative drumbeat we have been hearing for months in draft circles.

Jamal Adams, Safety, Louisiana State University

Let's get this out of the way right at the top: I do not hate Jamal Adams. Saying a player is rated more highly than you think he should be is not hate; although it is often mistaken for such these days. Adams is an amazing athlete. In fact he's probably one of the best overall athletes in this draft. He also smart, enthusiastic and tough. I think he is good football player worthy of a first-round selection and has the potential to be a star if he lands in a favorable spot in the NFL. That being said, if I held the number 3 overall pick in this draft, I would not spend it on Jamal Adams.

If the gasps and cries of outrage have subsided, I'll continue. Let's take a look at the good and the bad in Jamal Adams's game and why I value him the way I do.

The Positives

Adams, by all accounts, is a natural leader; an "alpha". The kind of player others look up to. He is supremely talented physically to the point where it actually looks like he is toying with other very skilled athletes moving down the field. He understands plays quickly and can line himself and his teammates up to counter what the offense is doing. He loves to chirp at opponents and teammates alike. He is always barking after a play, slapping his teammates on the helmet and clapping. Boy does he clap a lot.

He can cover the short passing zones and plug running lanes with his tremendous speed. Due to his great skill in that area of the field people have labeled him a "box" safety. With Adams that is like Schrodinger's compliment: it is both true and untrue at the same time. Jamal has plenty of speed to match deep seam routes or cover over the top down the sideline. So that's untrue part of the compliment: because he can play deep. The true part is twofold. First off, he just doesn't do those things very consistently, over overly well, with regularity. Secondly, most of his impact plays do occur closer to the line of scrimmage. It is undeniably where he makes his mark. So that is the true part of him being "box" safety.

The Concerns

My concerns regarding Adams come from the expectations of a player who is taken in the top 10 picks of a draft and my own biases about what I value in a safety. I think players taken in the top 10 need to be the best at their position in that draft and have immediate impact ability at the NFL level (QB's are excluded from the "immediate impact" stipulation in my model due to the learning curve of the position). I'm not sure Adams is the best safety in the draft. When I combine that with a couple of traits from his game, the idea of using a pick in the top 10 on Jamal starts to look like a poor value proposition.

Safeties are the last line of defense and one of the most important things in their job description (TO ME), is their ability to tackle. Adams is a hitter more than a tackler. He loves to charge towards ballcarriers, lower his shoulder (and his head) and try and knock them down. It absolutely leads to some highlight blows but it also leads to ugly misses. Safeties can't afford the long gains (and often touchdowns) that occur due to those missed tackles. Jamal can form tackle beautifully when he wants to. A few times over the 4 games I watched, he dropped his hips, squared up, wrapped up the ballcarrier and drove him down. So he can tackle like a champ, but he often does not.

When he misses his mark he relies heavily on the other 10 players around being supremely gifted (which they were at LSU) and cleaning up his miss. The NFL is matchup game and that means isolating defenders one-on-one. When he misses in the pros the results will be much more costly than they were in the SEC. Another troubling trait is the discrepancy between his reputation as a physical "tone-setter" and the plays he leaves on the field. There are plenty of time that he approached closing off a running lane tentatively (especially from deep alignments) and either got run around or dragged for extra yards flat-footed. His highlights show huge, decisive stops at or behind the line of scrimmage but his full game tapes tell a more balanced story.

The last thing that bothered me about Adams tape is the volume of plays he made. Jamal is almost always there at the end of play whooping it up with teammates or jawing at opponents. But many of those times he didn't do anything to make the play. For a guy that I'd been told was supremely skilled, an aggressive leader and a sure-fire high draft pick... he just doesn't make as many plays by himself as I’d expect. He launches into plenty of piles and has some big highlights for sure, but on balance he made way less plays that I expected him to based on his glowing reputation.

So what is he really? If I was being completely honest and trying to design the perfect situation for him, I'd draft him and make him into a moneybacker. If you are not familiar with that role it is the way that Arizona plays Deone Bucannon; sort of hybrid safety-linebacker that plays near the line of scrimmage. I think Jamal would excel in that circumstance and make an impact immediately on his physical gifts alone. The problem is that Vic Fangio's scheme doesn't use a moneybacker and unless he is planning to change that I don't think Adams holds proper value for the Bears at the third overall pick.

Malik Hooker, Safety, Ohio State University

The first word out most analyst's mouths about Hooker is "range". There's a good reason for that. Malik is a fast football player and he plays that way, especially in deep pass coverage. The flip side of that all that speed is that people naturally assume that if he's that good playing the pass he can't possibly good at playing the run or be physical at the point of attack. That's the label that Hooker has picked up this draft season and I wanted to see if it held up after watching 4 games from this talented redshirt sophomore's meteoric season.

The Positives

For a team like the Bears that is desperate to upgrade their ability to generate turnovers, watching a player like Malik Hooker has to make them salivate. He has a knack for making interceptions that doesn't rely on luck. He combines solid awareness with some of the best wheels I have seen from a safety in a long time. This deadly combo gives him an absurd ability to cover massive amounts of real estate on the back end of a defense. He can (and does) make plays deep down the sideline on the opposite side of the field from the hashmark he started on. That kind of capability is very and rare and you can bet it has multiple teams dreaming about what they could with Hooker roaming around their defensive secondary.

I knew Malik could play the deep pass but I really wanted to discover if he was one-dimensional or not. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw him sprinting to the line to slam into running backs, and wrapping them up to bring them down. I figured it must have been an aberration because of all I had heard about Malik not being a physical player and suffering against the run. But as the tapes wore on the aggressive tackles at, near, or behind the line piled up, and they weren't just the "piling on" variety. Many of them were solo stops.

One of the plays that made me know the talk that Hooker wasn't physical was junk came against Oklahoma. Malik ended up isolated outside on Samaje Perine who is a powerful back that likes to attack defenders. It was Hooker's play to make alone or Perine would have a large gain down the sideline. Malik showed no hesitation despite the fact that Perine outweighs him by 30 pounds. He managed to quickly force Samaje out of bounds despite being on the receiving end of an ugly facemask/stiff-arm from the runner. Don't let anybody tell you that Hooker is afraid to tackle or is not physical. That's pure bull. Malik sells out to stop the run and will form tackle to limit the gains while doing it.

Malik also adds to his play speed by being mentally sharp. Several times on film he can be seen pointing out where the offense's play is headed well before the snap. This is a sure sign that he watches film and is able to isolate opponent's tendencies. Combining that knowledge with his sizeable athletic gifts allow him to play as fast any defensive back in this draft. One of the most obvious benefits from this pairing is his ability to blitz off the edge. He has an uncanny knack for timing his blitz and being in the right place to make the impact play. There were at least 4 big plays in the 4 films that were a direct result of his edge blitzes.

The Concerns

There are two larger concerns that may keep teams from choosing Hooker at the top of the draft. The first thing is his injury status and the second is missed tackles in the run game. Malik is currently recovering from surgery to repair two core muscle injuries he suffered during the season; a torn hip labrum and a hernia. The surgeries to repair them were successful and he is already running and projected to be ready by training camp. I am no doctor but from what I can tell with limited research, once issues like this are addressed they are not likely to re-occur. The other thing to consider is that Hooker played with both injuries against Michigan and Clemson, and was still incredibly effective.

I believe Malik's missed tackles in the run game stem from a singular source: lack of experience. The problem I saw usually started with improper alignment, slightly too far towards the inside of the formation. Once the play began Hooker tried to make up for being a step behind and took a poor (usually too aggressive) angle to the ball that left him unable to catch the ballcarrier. That is a problem easily fixed by an experienced secondary coach like Ed Donatell. He could certainly help Hooker adjust his pre-snap alignments and landmarks so that Malik would be in a much-improved position to bring his substantial athleticism to bear making a consistent impact against the run.

Overall I think Hooker is an already tremendous player who is still learning and improving. Given a good position coach and a couple of year's worth of reps, we could easily be talking about him as one of the next great safeties in the pro game.

Who would you rather see patrolling the back end of the Bears defense for years to come; Adams or Hooker?