Finding the Fits: Does Brandon Hardin finally solve Bears' woes at safety?

By Rob Rang | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
The Bears expect bigs things from their third-round pick. (US Presswire)
Over the next several weeks, NFLDraftScout.com will be reviewing some of the more intriguing picks made during the 2012 NFL Draft through a series called “Finding the Fits.” The goal of the steries is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and therefore more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.

If the 2012 NFL Draft is any indication, the Chicago Bears appear to be in good hands with new general manager Phil Emery, who took over for the fired Jerry Angelo and promptly addressed several of the Bears' biggest concerns.

One area in which the Bears did not address -- the offensive line -- remains a concern. However, the team is confident that the adjustment from Mike Martz as offensive coordinator to Mike Tice will pay off with better pass protection. Whether it does or not, of course, will play a huge factor in whether head coach Lovie Smith's Bears are able to leap back into the playoffs this year.
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While the Bears gambled by not improving their talent level on the offensive line, the club reinforced one of their strengths by adding a high-motor speed rusher to complement Julius Peppers on the defensive line with first-round pick Shea McClellin at No. 19 overall. While certainly overshadowed at Boise State, McClellin was a consistent difference-maker there, moving back and forth between the defensive line and linebacker depending on where the Broncos needed him on that particular play. This same versatility caught my eye at the Senior Bowl, where McClellin was used strictly at strongside linebacker. I wasn't the only one impressed. Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, who now coaches the position for the Minnesota Vikings, worked with McClellin throughout the week of practice and was quite taken with the Boise State star.

Bears' fans should be equally excited about the team's second-round pick, South Carolina wideout Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery posted spectacular numbers against elite SEC competition but due to limited speed and agility as a route-runner, he's best suited to operating as a possession receiver on the outside and as a complement to a playmaker. The trade for 2012 Pro Bowl MVP Brandon Marshall, of course, gives Chicago that playmaker, which will take pressure off of the rookie and allow him to do what he does best -- beat one on one coverage due to his extraordinary body control and sticky hands.

McClellin and Jeffery should contribute immediately. For the Bears to improve against the terrific passing attacks they'll face with the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions twice a year, however, the team may need impactful play from their third-round pick, Brandon Hardin of Oregon State, as well.

The selection of Hardin was likely a surprise in Chicago. Despite boasting impressive physical traits, the 6-3, 217-pound Hardin was not invited to the Scouting Combine after missing virtually the entire 2011 season with a shoulder injury. Hardin did miss every game in 2011 for the Beavers but he was invited and played well at the East-West Shrine Game easing concerns about the shoulder's health.

Despite his natural safety-like frame, Hardin lined up exclusively at cornerback for the Beavers, emerging as a standout in 2010. While he never demonstrated the type of ball skills scouts would prefer at the position in college (one career interception in 38 games), Hardin showed surprising straight-line speed, fluidity and instincts in coverage. He was at his best defending the run, easily fighting through receiver blocks to consistently make forceful hits on the perimeter. His physicality, aggression and reliable open field tackling skills were also evident on special teams, where he led the Beavers in tackles in 2009-10. These traits, along with a strong work ethic, should make his conversion to safety in the NFL a relative smooth one.

And let's be clear, the Bears need help at safety. Chicago has drafted a safety in each of Smith's eight years as head coach, including one in the third round of each of the past three drafts. Inconsistency and durability issues have been a constant problem at the position for the Bears. Of course, these factors make the addition of Hardin a bit of a gamble. After all, Hardin only started 15 of his 38 career games and not only missed the 2011 season with the shoulder injury but has suffered various other injuries over his career, including playing through a broken left hand in 2008.

Hardin is every bit as physically gifted as Chris Conte, Major Wright and Craig Steltz -- the three veteran safeties he'll likely be competing with to see playing time at either free or strong safety this season.

Pass protection and defending the deep middle against opponents' passing will be two areas in which the Bears must be successful in 2012 to get back into the playoffs. Hardin, of course, won't be able to help protect Jay Cutler. Don't be surprised, however, if he's able to leapfrog some of the more experienced safeties on this roster and make a significant contribution early in his career in the deep patrol.

The rest of the Bears' picks:

1st Round - No. 19 overall - Shea McClellin, DE, Boise State
2nd Round - No. 45 overall - Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
3rd Round - No. 79 overall - Brandon Hardin, S, Oregon State
4th Round - No. 111 overall - Evan Rodriguez, FB, Temple
6th Round - No. 184 overall - Isaiah Frey, CB, Nevada
7th Round - No. 220 overall - Greg McCoy, CB, TCU

Read more about all of the Bears' picks here.
 
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