This week, former North Carolina linebacker Zach Brown met with the Detroit Lions. He told DetroitLions.com that he's also had visits with the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears, and has visits lined up with the N.Y. Jets and Baltimore Ravens.
The Bears have a pair of Pro Bowl linebackers on the roster in Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. They are still playing at a very high level, despite the fact that both are over 30 years old, and should continue to do so for at least another year or two.
Chicago signed Briggs to a one-year extension yesterday, keeping him with the club through 2014. Urlacher, on the other hand, is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. It's likely the team will extend him as well but the Bears need to start preparing for a future without these two players – a future that isn't too far down the road.
Which is why the organization has been heavily scouting linebacker prospects in this year's draft.
LB Zach Brown
Brian A. Westerholt/Getty
Brown (6-1, 244) is an intriguing player, due to his blazing speed. He officially set a North Carolina school record in track with an indoor 60-meter time of 6.72 seconds in 2009. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he posted a 4.50 40-yard dash, second best among all linebackers invited to Indianapolis.
Brown's straight-line speed translates to the playing field, where he appears extremely fluid, almost effortless in his movements. Athletically, there are few better linebackers in this draft. He tackles very well and packs a punch. He also does a good job of using his hands and quickness to disengage from blockers.
In coverage, Brown uses his athleticism and speed to keep up with tight ends and many wide receivers. Man-to-man, Brown might be able to keep pace with elite NFL tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Jermichael Finley and Jimmy Graham.
Yet Brown's game is still very raw. He lacks field vision and does not have good instincts. In zone coverage, he looks lost at times. His inability to read and diagnose plays, combined with a lack of physicality, will hurt him at the next level.
Still, his overall skill set cannot be ignored. Most NFL coaches drool at the thought of turning a player with Brown's talent into a Pro Bowl player. Most scouts agree that he will fit best as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 system, like the one run in Chicago.
For the Bears, Brown could learn under Briggs, Urlacher and Nick Roach for at least a year or two. If he can build up his technique and recognition skills, he'll be a beast in a few years. Speed is one of the main reasons Urlacher has had so much success in coach Lovie Smith's Cover 2 system. Brown is even faster.
Right now, he's considered a first- or second-round pick. At 19th overall, Chicago would be reaching for Brown in the first. If he were to fall to them at 50th overall in the second, the team might run to the podium to grab him.
The Bears also brought in former Oregon State defensive back Brandon Hardin (6-3, 219). He missed all of his senior season due to a shoulder injury and was not invited to the combine. At his pro day in mid March, Hardin showed that perhaps he should've been.
DB Brandon Hardin
Rick Scuteri/US Presswire
He was clocked at 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and registered a 35.5-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump. He also had 24 bench press reps – very good for a DB.
Hardin played cornerback in college yet, due to his size, some project him as a safety in the NFL. In the East-West Shrine Game, he moved to safety and looked like a natural on the back end. He started in just 15 games in college and dealt with wrist and hand injuries as a freshman.
His injury history is worrisome but it's hard to ignore a defensive back that runs in the 4.3 range. His speed could allow him to develop into a free safety with good range. He's also a solid special teams player, something the Bears covet.
Right now, he's considered a late-round pick. His versatility, combined with his top-tier athleticism, has definitely opened the eyes of Chicago's staff. They likely brought him in to make sure he's completely healthy. If he is, and the club can grab him in the fifth or sixth round, they'll likely take the risk on a sleeper with a lot of upside.
He reportedly has 15 visits lined up with various NFL teams, so there is a lot of interest throughout the league.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.