For Bears, safety comes in numbers

The Bears selected safety Brandon Hardin in the third round of this year's draft. That makes eight straight draft Chicago has selected a safety. Let's look back at the position that keeps on giving.

The more things change, the more the overall situation seems to remain the same at Halas Hall. For the third year in a row, the Chicago Bears selected a safety in the third round of the NFL Draft. During Lovie Smith's tenure as head coach, Chicago has picked a safety in all but one draft.

It might be too early to expect new GM Phil Emery to take a dramatically different approach, or perhaps the powers that be in the Halas Hall draft room have safety written in permanent ink on their board.

This year's pick is Brandon Hardin, a cornerback from Oregon State. At 6-3 216, Hardin has excellent size for his position. He's reportedly both physical and versatile and has been productive at safety and on special teams. In 2010, Hardin registered 63 tackles, the fourth highest total on the team.

S Brandon Hardin
Jason O. Watson/US Presswire

Hardin's downside could be a surgically repaired shoulder that kept him on the sidelines in 2011. He was able to play in the East-West Shrine game in January where he had four tackles and an onside kick recovery.

Phil Emery characterizes Hardin as a "big, fast, physical player who is both smart and athletic." Emery also touted Hardin's ability to leverage receivers. He could challenge Major Wright and provide necessary depth at the strong safety position.

But exactly how durable is Hardin? In 2008, Hardin played with a broken hand and a sprained wrist. Still able to get 13 tackles, the injuries no doubt hampered Hardin's overall performance. Chicago has an unfortunate history of picking safeties who are either injury prone or only briefly successful at the NFL level.

Here's a quick look back to see how the Bears other recent safeties fared:

2005: Chris Harris, 6th round
Harris was productive early on but later deemed expendable as younger safeties kept being added to the team. He was traded to the Panthers in 2007, then traded back to the Bears in 2010. Harris was released by Chicago midway through last seasons after a slow recovery from a hamstring injury and overall poor play. He was subsequently signed by the Detroit Lions, where he still plays.

2006: Danieal Manning, 2nd round
Despite starting his rookie season, Manning developed slowly and was benched in 2008. Yet by 2010, he was easily the best safety on the team. His cover skills and tackling ability had progressed to a very high level and he was an outstanding kick returner. Yet, pressed by new hires and even more young players at his position, Manning left the Bears in 2011 after former GM Jerry Angelo lowballed him in contract negotiations. He signed with the Texans last July.

2007: Kevin Payne, 5th round
Payne appeared in 32 games with 22 starts for Chicago. In 2009, Payne played in 13 games, starting five and registering 60 tackles. The return of veteran Chris Harris sealed Payne's fate and he was traded to the Panthers in 2010.

2008: Craig Steltz, 4th round
Steltz is still on Chicago's roster, playing in a total of 32 games so far and spending the majority of his time on special teams. A quick, athletic and intelligent player, Steltz has 23 career tackles, 15 solo tackles and one interception. He had the fourth most special teams tackles on the team in 2011 and fared well in spot duty late in the season. The Bears re-signed him this offseason to a two-year deal.

2009: Al Afalava, 6th round
Afalava played for the Bears in 13 games in 2009, then was released at the conclusion of the season. He went to the Colts but only played in four games in 2010. He was out of football in 2011 and signed with the Titans this offseson.

2010: Major Wright, 3rd round
Wright played in 11 games as a rookie despite injuries early in the season. He was named the starter coming into training camp last year, a post he still holds. Despite some egregious missed tackles and some lax coverage last year, Wright is developing nicely as a player. That said, he'll need to prove he's worthy of the starting strong safety spot this year, with both Steltz and Hardin breathing down his neck.

2011: Chris Conte, 3rd round
Due to poor play from Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather, Conte was named the starter in Week 6 last year. As a rookie, he showed very well as a free safety, with good range and tackling ability. He was hurt in Week 15 after he suffered what Conte termed a "defenseless hit", resulting in a foot injury that ended his season prematurely. He combined with Wright for 125 tackles and four interceptions in 2011. The duo are slated to be the starters heading in to 2012.

2012: Brandon Hardin, 3rd round
An injury waiting to happen or a difference maker? Hardin has the speed and instincts to make a mark in the backfield, however, he seems to get hurt with alarming frequency. But if Hardin doesn't work out, there's always next year. Finding safeties is what the Bears always seem to do in the draft.

Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.

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