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Small talent pool may spur Bears to select safety first or second

Louisville defensive back CalvPryor runs drill NFL football scouting combine Indianapolis Tuesday Feb. 25 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) ORG XMIT:

Louisville defensive back Calvin Pryor runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) ORG XMIT: INMC10

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WATCH LIST

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama, 6-1, 208: Raised in Nick Saban’s pro-style defense, Clinton-Dix is considered the most well-rounded of the elite safety prospects. Calvin Pryor is praised more for his jarring ­physicality.

Clinton-Dix, who had 52 tackles in 11 games before leaving after his junior season, said he can play “both deep field and inside the box,” but he started nine games at free safety last season.

“For me, what crystalizes it is I want the ball hawk,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said of Clinton-Dix. “I want the guy with range. I want the center-field guys, the Willie Mays guy.’’

Five more

Calvin Pryor, Louisville, 5-11, 207: After the Seahawks used Kam Chancellor as a tone-setter, teams are coveting a player such as Pryor, the draft’s most vicious safety who would add to the Bears’ defensive identity.

Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois, 5-11, 193: Fresh off a seven-interception season, the former Huskies star will appeal to teams drafting early in the second round.

Deone Bucannon, Washington State, 6-1, 211: Skilled with size, the three-time captain played on special-teams coverage, too. That could be appealing in Rounds 2 and 3.

Terrence Brooks, Florida State, 5-11, 198: Having started five games at free safety and eight at strong safety for the national champs, Brooks — who ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any safety at the NFL Scouting Combine — offers versatility in the third round.

Ahmad Dixon, Baylor, 6-0, 212: His four career interceptions in college and a disappointing combine should drop Dixon to the draft’s final day.

Thursday: Wide receiver.

Leading up to the NFL draft, which begins May 8, the Sun-Times will take a position-by-position look at the Bears’ needs and which players might be available to fill them.

Louisville’s Calvin Pryor is a thumper, and Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a more prototypical ballhawk.

While draftniks debate who the best safety is — most rank them 1 and 1A, in either order — the Bears likely would be thrilled to see either at No. 14. The team has researched both college stars.

“They said they were very interested in me,” said the hard-hitting Pryor, who visited the Bears earlier this month. “That they had a need at the safety position and they needed to improve on the defense as a whole.”

The two go hand-in-hand. The Bears had the league’s worst safety tandem last year.

Of the 86 safeties to play at least a quarter of his teams’ snaps, none graded worse than strong safety Major Wright, according to Pro Football Focus. Only four were worse than free safety Chris Conte.

While the team has patched, fixed or reinforced almost every other position since starting the offseason overhaul of its defense, the safety problem remains unresolved.

Wright left to be a backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Conte — whose blown coverage on Aaron Rodgers’ last-minute touchdown in Week 17 tortured fans all winter — will return, but not until around the start of training camp after he recovers from shoulder surgery.

The Bears have said Conte needs to re-earn his starting job. Veteran additions M.D. Jennings (26 starts in three seasons) and Ryan Mundy (15 in five) haven’t been promised starting positions.

There’s at least one job, then, to be won by a draft pick, particularly given the team’s emphasis on competition at the position.

A relatively shallow safety pool means the Bears have to act fast, be it drafting one in the first round or — should the team select a defensive tackle first — plucking Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward or Washington State’s Deone Bucannon in the second.

The Bears need to fix a position that had “a lot of issues” last season, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

He rattled off the woes from last year: “Guys taking poor angles to the alley, missing tackles and then lack of instinct in the back end, the ball sailing over their heads.”

Jeremiah slotted Pryor No. 15 overall, with Clinton-Dix No. 16.

“Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may be a little more rangey over the top, but I just love Pryor,” Jeremiah said. “He’s like playing with an extra linebacker. I just like those physical players. I think they provide an element to your defense that’s tough to find.’’

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley



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