In just 18 months as GM of the Chicago Bears, one things is clear about Phil Emery: he is not risk averse. In fact, it appears as if Emery loves building his roster with high-risk/high-reward players. From Brandon Marshall to Shea McClellin, Kyle Long, Evan Rodriguez and D.J. Williams, Emery has often put a high level of value in a player's potential, despite their baggage, inexperience or scheme fit.
Another player who falls in that category is Brandon Hardin. The Bears picked the former Oregon State cornerback in the third round last year, despite missing his entire senior season with a shoulder injury. And on top of that, the Bears knew he'd be transitioning from corner to safety, a position he had never before played.
Yet Hardin is an athletic freak. He's 6-3, 217-pounds of solid muscle who ran a reported 4.43 at his pro day. He carried plenty of red flags heading into the 2012 draft, yet Emery pushed those aside and spent a third rounder, which is a very valuable draft pick, due to Hardin's upside.
During training camp and the preseason last year, Hardin struggled with the position switch and looked very tentative during his one full preseason game. Unfortunately, that was all the chance we had to see him play, as a neck injury in the second preseason game landed him on IR for his entire rookie season.
Bear Report correspondent Beth Long caught up with Hardin at the end of last season to discuss his progress in recovery.
"At the time, we weren't sure exactly what was involved and how quickly it would heal," Hardin said in December. "I was checked in the hospital immediately after it happened, then put on IR shortly thereafter. Neck injuries can be tricky as you can't take a chance of injuring things further. That could be the end of a pro career. In my case, the injury ended up being relatively minor. It would have impacted my ability to play for sure, but it also healed rapidly."
With Hardin on the shelf all of last season, he now hasn't played a meaningful game of football since his junior year at Oregon State in 2010. So what can the Bears expect from him heading into training camp this year?
From what we saw of Hardin during this offseason, the deer-in-the-headlights look he displayed during camp last year is gone. He no longer appears lost in his new position. That's a great sign. Apparently, his time around the team last year didn't go to waste.
"I've been in all the position meetings since my injury so the mental aspect of understanding the pro game is going well," said Hardin. "The Bears have two of the top safeties in the league. I made it my mission to observe everything that they did for the entire season. It's amazing how much you can pick up doing that. The vets have made themselves available to answer any questions I've had along the way and that made a big difference in my understanding of the game at this level."
If Hardin can react on the practice fields of Bourbonnais, without thinking too hard about what his job is on each and every play, we may get a chance to actually see some of that athleticism.
But for Hardin, his biggest challenge will come during the preseason games, when it's finally time for him to hit someone. Most expected him to step on the field and lay the lumber in the preseason last year but he was hesitant, to the point he almost scared. That cannot be the case this year.
Hardin is in a battle for roster spot with Anthony Walters, who started the season finale for the Bears last season, as well as hometown kid Tom Zbikowski. If Hardin doesn't show some toughness when the live action starts, he's going to have a hard time justifying his spot on the final 53-man roster.
The good thing for Hardin is the Bears kept five safeties last season, and will likely do the same this year. If the season started today, Hardin would be an active member of the team, but that could easily change over the next month. If Zbikowski raises his level of play and Hardin struggles, third-round pick or no third-round pick, he could be out of a job come September.
The three weeks in Bourbonnais, as well as the four preseason games, should give us a great idea as to whether or not Hardin can be a long-term contributor for the Bears. If not, he'll go down as Emery's first true busted draft pick.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.