Phil Emery said he loves the extra weeks before the 2014 NFL Draft, and now with the extra time, Bears followers can scout another type of player in the final days.
Cornerbacks that can play safety.
“We’ve looked at every corner that has length as a possible safety,” Emery said Thursday during his pre-draft press conference, admitting an "honest" answer during a week GMs around the league try to keep many things under wraps.
Emery proclaimed the position battle for safety as “wide-open,” not even new signing Ryan Mundy is guaranteed a starting spot, and it’s likely a draft pick enters that competition.
The two safeties considered first-round prospects are Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor. Emery didn’t name any players, but he noted the “drop-off in terms of perceived level of ability between the first few safeties in the draft and the next grouping. Out of necessity, we have looked at them from all different angles in terms of their positional flexibility.”
And that’s where the cornerbacks come in.
“We’ve looked at [long cornerbacks] as a scouting staff and I reassigned them again to go look at that equation. I asked our coaches to do that, and I continue to give them lists for players to look at their position versatility,” Emery said. “The problem is, in fact, what you talked about: you have to project. Again, to take a college corner and make a safety out of him, that’s a big jump. You have to feel the player has the intelligence to do it; more importantly that he has the instincts to do it.”
The reason for that kind of position switch — as opposed to looking for "tweener" linebackers who could play strong safety — is the way the position has evolved over the years, and how the tight ends in this game require coverage from safeties.
“A lot more coverage responsibility,” Emery said about how scouting of safeties has changed. He discussed the ideal situation of having an interchangeable safety who could play in the box to help in run support — “That part of it hasn’t changed,” he said — but the cover men seem to have more value.
“People are sacrificing a little bit in the size area in terms of getting players that can be more active and successful in coverage,” he said.
The current example of a corner-to-safety success story, according to Emery, is Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who began his NFL career as a cornerback.
“I think he’s a 5-10 or 5-11, 190-pound player. He’s been up to the task. Some players can handle that at that size. Some cannot,” he said.
This year’s schedule features tight ends Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis, and the Bears need to have the right personnel to match up.
“There’s a number of what we would call receiving tight ends that are really challenging teams, cause you to spread out and some that can challenge you over the top,” Emery explained. “You have to have players that can match up length-wise or come close to it to play those types of players that you create mismatch opportunities. You have to find guys with length at safety or at corner that you can bring inside and cover those types of players.”
In terms of the cornerback-to-safety transition, keep an eye on Utah’s Keith McGill, a 6-foot-3 college cornerback who has the size and athleticism to potentially play either corner or safety — he played safety in junior college. Other long corners include Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Virginia Tech's Antone Exum.
Early-round corner prospects like Justin Gilbert or Kyle Fuller may have the size, but a position switch would likely involve a mid-to-later round pick.
Studying long corners who could play safety also would lend one to wonder if the Bears are thinking about the college safeties with corner cover skills.
Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward, who is built like a corner (5-11, 193), a lot like McCourty, has good ball skills, but Ward could sneak into the first. Wisconsin’s Dezmen Southward is bigger than Ward and has great speed and athleticism, but is raw. Western Kentucky’s Jonathan Dowling, who is 6-foot-3, was very productive in college making plays on the ball from safety. Wyoming's Marqueston Huff has the McCourty-size, spent his first three years in college as a corner and had a great 40-time. Brock Vereen is another corner/safety "tweener" with good cover skills who had a very impressive Combine.