Bears Top Picks Signal Defensive Metamorphosis

One of the buzz words commonly used when describing prospects during last year’s draft was “scheme versatile”.  I didn’t hear it once yesterday but if I did, it would have described the first half of the Bears draft reasonably well.

The Bears started the draft by taking Boise St. linebacker Shea McClellin.  And “versatility” was the word McClellin used when comparing himself to Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel:

In fact, it was suggested (not by the Bears) that McClellin might find his way onto the field as a strong-side linebacker on first down while using him as a rush defensive end on passing downs.  He could eventually even be a replacement for Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker down the road.

In any case, New England was on a lot of people’s minds on Thursday as it was rumored that they were interested in McClellin and might have even moved up to get him.  Via Sean Jensen at the Chicago Sun-Times:

“That versatility is one of his greatest assets, the reason 3-4 teams such as the New England ­Patriots and Green Bay Packers were among those intrigued by him, the reason why he skyrocketed the last couple months from a potential third-rounder to a first-rounder.”

Dan Pompei at the Chicago Tribune also noted this, possibly thinking that Lovie Smith may be replaced after next year:

“There is a hidden advantage with McClellin. If the Bears change their defensive scheme, he will adapt.

“He will fit in almost any defense. You can’t say that about many defenders.

“In the pre-draft process, he was linked most often to teams such as the Packers and Patriots, who could have used him as an outside linebacker in a three-man front. When Emery was with the Chiefs, he evaluated McClellin as an outside linebacker for a 3-4. At the Senior Bowl, most of his work came as an outside linebacker.”

Flexibility was also apparently on the Bears’ mind when it came time to make their third round pick.  They took Brandon Hardin, a big hitting player who the Bears apparently have in mind for strong safety.  But unlike the ones the Bears already have, Hardin was also known as a reasonably good cover corner for his size in college.  That means they might very well put Hardin to covering pass catching tight ends:

So in Hardin’s case, the magic word comes directly from Mark Potash at the Sun-Times:

“Like 2011 rookies Chris Conte and Dom DeCicco, Hardin, at his size, is a hybrid-type player with versatility the Bears are looking for under Emery.”

Its not surprising that the word “versatility” would come into play when it comes to teams like New England who are known to value it and know how to use it.  But it isn’t ordinarily connected to head coach Lovie Smith’s defense.  However it may be now and New England might be indirectly responsible for the change.

Most of Smith’s years with the Bears have been characterized by the cover two defense.  Smith’s attitude was, “We’re going to do what we do and we’re going to do it well.”  Then in November 2010 the Bears played New England at home and got whipped 36-7.  WR Wes Welker burned the Bears over and over again as New England moved him around and created mismatches against a zone defense that simply couldn’t handle him.

That game may have been a turning point for Smith.  The only way to beat teams like the Patriots is to match up with them in a man-to-man defense.  Smith eventually realized that and tried to do it but his personnel was drafted to play the cover two.  It became obvious that if he wanted the team to compete at an elite level, they were going to have to do at least a passable job of changing things up.  Enter 2011 where the Bears began to effectively disguise coverages and play more man-to-man defense.

But if the Bears are going to excel, they need to do more than switch up coverages.  They need to acquire personnel who can play effectively in multiple defenses and schemes.  They aren’t there yet but we may look back at the 2012 draft as having been the first step towards doing that.

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