It’s been a long time since the Chicago Bears have fielded a consistent safety duo.
Despite selecting a safety in all but two drafts since 2003, as well as signing a host of free-agent safeties, the Bears have not been able to stabilize the position for the long term.
In 2016, Chicago's secondary was among the worst in the NFL. The defense finished second-to-last in interceptions due in large part to the inconsistent play of the defensive backs.
Adrian Amos had a promising start to his career in 2015, showing a lot of upside as a full-time rookie starter. Yet it appeared Amos took a step back in his development last season. Deon Bush struggled as a rookie last season, as did DeAndre Houston-Carson, while Chris Prosinski and Harold Jones-Quartey are not long-term options.
GM Ryan Pace signed Quintin Demps, who had six interceptions last season, in free agency but Demps is just a rental 32-year-old. The Bears are so thin at safety, the team will reportedly test out Deiondre Hall on the back end this off-season.
Clearly the need for a cornerstone young safety still exists, so expect Pace to again address the position during the 2017 NFL Draft.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the top safeties in this year's class.
Jamal Adams, LSU (6-0, 214 pounds)
Adams is the standout safety in the 2017 class. He was named first-team All-SEC in 2016, finishing with 76 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Adams is an interchangeable safety who brings a linebacker mentality at the line of scrimmage and is also very good in coverage. He has great size and is an excellent tackler in the open field, which cannot be overstated. Adams is an impact defender and leader who would immediately elevate the Bears defense, both on the field and in the locker room. Safeties usually aren't selected with one of the top picks in the draft but Adams is a rare talent and could be exactly what Pace needs to hit a home run with the third overall pick.
Projected: Top 5
Malik Hooker, Ohio State (6-1, 206)
Hooker was outstanding during his one year as a starter for the Buckeyes, finishing the season with seven interceptions, which tied for second nationally. He's drawn comparisons to Ed Reed due to his playmaking ability on the back end. The Bears need a free safety who can cover sideline to sideline and attack passes thrown deep down the field. Luckily for them, that’s Hooker's specialty. He's not the most reliable open-field tackler and did not participate at the combine due to two recent surgeries for a torn labrum and hernia suffered last season. Hooker isn't a realistic option for the Bears at third overall but he'd make for a very attractive trade-back candidate.
Projected: Top 10
Jabrill Peppers, Michigan (5-11, 213)
Peppers did it all for the Michigan Wolverines in college, serving as a running back, kick returner, slot corner, safety and linebacker. In 2016, he was named the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year. While he’s projected to be a safety in the NFL, he could move around depending on where he lands, while providing immediate impact as a return man. Not only is Peppers versatile, he's also extremely athletic, as his combine numbers demonstrate (4.46 40-yard dash, 35.5-inch vertical jump). His lack of ball production (one career interception, no forced fumbles) is a concern, as is his lack of a defined position, making it extremely unlikely the Bears will reach for Peppers in the first round.
Projected: 1st round
Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut (6-4, 224)
While the talk centers on Hooker and Adams as the best safety prospects in the class, there are some who believe Melifonwu has a higher ceiling. He had an outstanding showing at the NFL scouting combine (4.40 40-yard dash, 44.0-inch vertical, 11-9 broad jump) which, combined with his elite size, might have raised his stock to a first-round pick. Melifonwu's athleticism is off the charts, which could allow him to develop into a Kam Chancellor-type defender. If Melifonwu is still available when the Bears pick in the second round, Pace may not be able to pass on that level of upside at a position of real need.
Projected: Late 1st round
Budda Baker, Washington (5-10, 195)
Baker might not have ideal size at the position but that doesn’t take away from the fact he’s a playmaker (at least 6 PBUs in each of his three years as a starter). Baker has excellent speed (4.45) and is a great blitzer coming off the edge. Baker’s aggression stands out on film, as he plays bigger than his size, often delivering heavy hits to receivers that dare cross his path. He will need to bulk up and get over 200 pounds to avoid injury in the NFL but he fits the Bears' need for a Day-2 need at safety.
Projected: 2nd round
Desmond King, Iowa (5-10, 201)
A physical safety, King doesn’t back down from receivers on 50/50 balls. He showed off his speed at Iowa’s pro day, running a 4.5 40-yard-dash, and showed good quickness at the combine, putting to rest those who questioned his athleticism. In addition, King is very instinctual on the back end and plays with a lot of intelligence. He brings both kick- and punt-return experience as well, which is a big plus for the Bears. Early second-round might be a bit early for King but if he drops to the third, Pace would be wise to snatch him up.
Projected: 2nd round
Josh Jones, NC State (6-1, 220)
Jones played both safety spots at NC State, as well as cornerback and even linebacker for the Wolfpack. His overall skill-set and speed (4.41) should allow him to play both strong and free safety at the next level. Beyond his top-tier athleticism, his play recognition is one of his biggest assets and he's a good open-field tackler. Jones would make a quality fit for the Bears if he’s still available when they pick on Day 2.
Projected: 2nd round
Marcus Williams, Utah (6-1, 202)
Williams finished with 10 interceptions on 44 targets his last two seasons at Utah, showing his elite playmaking ability. He has very good size and athleticism (43.5-inch vertical jump), and isn’t afraid to challenge for 50/50 balls. Williams is a ball-hawking safety who was also earned academic all-conference honors (4.0 GPA in high school). Williams' tackling is suspect, as his physicality, which will relegate him to free-safety duties in the NFL. As a third-round option, the Bears could do a lot worse than a big back-end centerfielder who knows how to make opposing quarterbacks pay for trying to throw over the top.
Projected: 3rd round
Marcus Maye, Florida (6-0, 210)
Maye has a good frame and moves well laterally, allowing him to patrol the field sideline to sideline. He finished second-team All-SEC in 2016, showing his versatility by playing both safety and in the slot. Maye can play both free and strong safety, as he brings a downhill mentality in the box. He shows good instincts and leadership on the field, yet he gave up 10 TDs during his collegiate career. He'll need to improve in coverage but Maye has the speed, size and on-field intelligence to be an eventual NFL starter, and an immediate contributor on special teams.
Projected: 3rd round
Eddie Jackson, Alabama (6-0, 201)
Jones could have left after the 2015 season but decided to return for another year. The worry is that Jones is a product of having elite talent surrounding him in every direction, which is why he's projected a third-round pick. Jones isn't a physical player but he’s good at reading opposing quarterback and finding the ball in the air. He also brings added value as a punt returner. He might make for decent value in the third but his soft tackling issues would be maddening for Bears fans.
Projected: 3rd round
Bear Report Pick: Budda Baker
UConn's Obi Melifonwu would be the ideal pick for the Bears in the second round but it's unlikely a 6-4, 224-pound safety who runs a 4.40 is going drop out of the first round.
If Melifonwu is gone, Baker would make a very good Plan B. A three-year starter for the Huskies (39 starts), he recorded 80 tackles, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 6 PBUs and 2 forced fumbles as a freshman. In 2016, Baker tallied 70 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks. 2 INTs and 1 forced fumble.
Baker does not have elite size, which will hurt him when asked to man up against big, physical tight ends in the NFL. Yet his size doesn't prevent him from being one of the hardest-hitting safeties in this class. He plays downhill against the run and is a solid tackler.
He also has 4.45 speed, giving him the speed to cover a lot of ground in center field. He also has experience in the slot, where he's able to fully utilize his quickness and instincts.
Baker is an on-field leader and high-character athlete with the skill set to be a Week-1 starter for the Bears at a critical position of need. In the second round, that's very good value.