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Bears GM Phil Emery’s duty: To project and serve

Phil Emery’s background gives him an edge when it comes evaluating college players. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Phil Emery’s background gives him an edge when it comes to evaluating college players. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 28, 2012 8:14AM

INDIANAPOLIS — Phil Emery navigated an atypical route to become the Bears’ general manager. The bulk of his 31 years in football has been spent — at least, in part — as a strength and conditioning coach.

But that unique background gives Emery an edge, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

“He has a very strong understanding of athleticism and movement because of his days as a strength and conditioning coach, which I think is very important,” Dimitroff said. “I think the understanding of being able to project football players from the college ranks to the pro ranks is a difficult task, and it’s an acquired talent.

“He has a really good mind for projecting players.”

It’s a specialized skill, perhaps the most important for personnel executives and scouts.

While at the Naval Academy, Emery distinguished himself by crafting custom-tailored workouts for every football player, then tracking and pushing each to fulfill or exceed the expectations.

“I had a decent career, but I attribute a lot to Phil, getting me to a point where I could be a decent player,” Navy receiver Astor Heaven said.

After his news conference last month, Emery provided insight on his philosophy for evaluating players. He said he’s careful about “pre-judging an athlete” because he has seen so many “do amazing things that people didn’t think they could do.”

“We call it in the scouting business, ‘Instant evaluation,’ ” Emery said. “ ‘Boy, he’s not going to do this.’ Watch the whole picture. Make sure you’re right. Watch the extra tape. Watch two extra tapes.

“If you see something, try to find out if he can do it again. Sometimes, that was an anomaly. But if a guy shows you he can make a spectacular catch or a great run, hone in on why that happened. What are the traits that allowed that to happen?”

There are numerous variables beyond the measurables and tests.

“It’s how the guy plays on film,’’ Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. ‘‘What kind of player is he? What does everyone say about him, the people that are closest to him? What does it mean to him? What kind of system was he in? Was it advantageous to his skill set? There’s just so many things that go into it. The hardest part is knowing what’s in the guy’s heart.”

Teams might overlook an off-the-field transgression. Or a player’s height or weight. Or an injury. Or maybe even a dip in production from one season to the next.

Receiver Ricardo Lockette didn’t produce much at Fort Valley State, but he posted a 4.37 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, tied for the fourth-fastest in 2011. Given his speed and size (6-2), the Seahawks decided to sign him as an undrafted free agent.

He appeared in the last two games of the season, catching two passes for 105 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown in the finale.

“You had to project,’’ Schneider said. ‘‘It was hard to see him play. Our staff was willing to say, ‘Hey, let’s go after this guy.’ Let’s develop him. Let’s spend the time. Then toward the end of the season, we really saw him take off.

“In recent memory, he’s probably a guy our whole group is proud of.”

Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said the key is to match a prospect’s abilities to a specific team’s system.

So, for example, the Ravens wouldn’t ask 349-pound nose tackle Terrence Cody to swing to defensive end and play in a “Wide Nine,” which emphasizes quick pass rushers.

“So you take the player, and you find his strengths and weaknesses and make sure he lives up to those strengths and coach around his weaknesses,” Newsome said.

And Emery and Newsome will never overlook a player’s desire and heart.

“You can’t substitute that,” Newsome said.

NOTE: The Bears informed defensive tackle Anthony Adams of his release Sunday. Adams spent five seasons with the Bears.

The team will save about $1.2 million in salary-cap space because he had a year left on his contract.

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