Bears' defense could get the upgrade it needs
On a disappointing Bears defense in 2015, it was the absence of big plays and play-makers in the secondary that stood out as much as anything.
The defense was a surprisingly stingy No. 4 in passing yards allowed last season and a respectable 18th in average gain allowed per pass play. But the Bears had just 8 interceptions, and only 4 came from the secondary. The Ravens were the only team fewer picks. And only four teams had fewer take-aways than the Bears' 17.
But help could be on the way. This year's crop of defensive backs includes at least three potential draft choices capable of supplying the big plays that were missing from the Bears' defense last year.
Cornerback Kendall Fuller is the younger brother of Bears starting cornerback Kyle Fuller, a first-round pick (14th overall) two years ago. Oklahoma's Zack Sanchez is a riverboat gambler who had 13 interceptions in the past two seasons. And Su'a Cravens, who played mostly as a hybrid linebacker/safety at USC, could be a difference-maker as a full-time safety in the NFL.
It's possible all three could still be on the board when the Bears make their second-round pick (41st overall).
Fuller has three older brothers, all of whom preceded him at Virginia Tech and into the NFL. Corey is a backup wide receiver with the Lions. Vincent, the oldest, played seven NFL seasons as a defensive back.
Kendall credits their father, Vincent Sr., with starting all four brothers on the right path.
"He set the foundation for us," the youngest son said. "He always had us in basketball, football, track -- every season. We weren't getting any breaks. And he always pushed us to be the best, not only in our neighborhood or in the state, but in the country.
"That kind of stuck with us and drove us to always work on being the best."
Kendall Fuller, who just turned 21, says he's the best football player and the best trash-talker among the brothers. But he was limited to three games in 2015 because of a knee injury. He had 6 interceptions as a true freshman in 2013 and started all 13 games in 2014 despite playing with a broken wrist.
The rehab from his micro-fracture knee surgery prevented Fuller from participating at the Combine or at Virginia Tech's pro day on March 16 and could drop him down on many draft boards.
Sanchez will get downgraded because of his slight frame, minimal run support and what critics would call "undisciplined play." But he considers his daring style an asset. In addition to his 15 career interceptions, he had 28 pass breakups.
Asked what stands out about his game, Sanchez said: "My play-making ability. My ability to create turnovers -- how many times I get my hands on balls. That's the biggest part of my game.
"There are obviously things I need to work on, but that will be the thing that sticks out the most -- my ability to create and get my hands on balls."
USC's 6-foot-1, 226-pound Cravens would be a small NFL linebacker. But he could dominate physically as a safety, where he has shown the ability to make plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage and also down the field in coverage.
Without the benefit of a redshirt year, Cravens had 9 career interceptions in just three seasons. Over his last two seasons, he also had 32 tackles for loss, including 11 ½ sacks.
Cravens' versatility would give Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio a weapon he could deploy from various launching points.
"I know the role of being a big safety is beginning to change," said Cravens, who's just 20 years old. "A guy who can run with slot (receivers) and guard tight ends and then come into the box and be that extra linebacker without having to sub, it's pretty big nowadays.
"With the league becoming a passing league, you're going to need guys like that, so I think I'm at an advantage."
Top 10 defensive backs
Name, school Ht. Wt. 40-time
CB-FS Jalen Ramsey, Florida St. 6-1 209 4.39
Big and strong enough to jam WR's off the line with speed to catch up and win in trail technique. Rare athlete with great route anticipation.
CB Vernon Hargreaves, Florida 5-11 204 4.50
Lacks great speed but is sudden and explosive with quick twitch. Lacks ideal height but has 39-inch vertical. Complete cover CB and Day One starter.
CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson 5-10 190 4.47
Short but well-built and confident 3rd-year soph. Will not turn down contact. Will trash-talk but backs it up. No career INTs but wasn't targeted much.
CB Eli Apple, Ohio State 6-1 199 4.40
Third-year soph. Excellent size-speed ratio. Strong work ethic and technically sound. Slow reactions to double moves sometimes result in P.I. calls.
Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech 5-11 187 4.49
Missed most of '15 after knee surgery. Superb ball athlete with great instincts and good feet and twitch. Willing tackler but prone to gamble too much.
CB William Jackson, Houston 6-0 189 4.37
Boom or bust characteristics. Nice height-speed combo but technique, recognition and anticipation lacking. Makes plays on the ball but inconsistent tackler.
CB Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma 5-11 185 4.49
Makes a lot of plays on the ball; 15 INTs in 3 years, but can be a liability vs. the run. Lacks size and will get burned deep but a lot of his gambles pay off.
S Vonn Bell, Ohio State 5-11 199 4.51
Instinctive ball athlete with man-cover ability projects to CF-type FS, but lacks size and physicality to factor in the box as a SS.
CB Artie Burns, Miami 6-0 193 4.46
Track star who's a project in need of better technique and discipline. Nice size-speed combo and play-making ability. Effective in press and aware in zone.
S Darian Thompson, Boise St. 6-2 209 4.69
Experienced leader had 19 career picks but alarming propensity to get beat deep. Lacks catch-up speed but has size and physicality to be an in-the-box SS.
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