NFL Draft: Alabama's Fitzpatrick makes sense for Chicago Bears at No. 8

Versatile S-CB could fill multiple roles in Bears secondary

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Photo: USA TODAY Sports

There is some debate as to whether Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick or Florida State’s Derwin James is the best safety in this draft, and both could be claimed in the top 10.

Stanford’s Justin Reid could sneak into the first round, but if he doesn’t, he won’t last long on Day Two. Fitzpatrick’s teammate, Ronnie Harrison, seems destined for Round Two, and Wake Forest’s Jessie Bates belongs there as well. After that, there’s a steep decline in a class of safeties that lacks depth.

Bears depth chart

Eddie Jackson

Adrian Amos

Deon Bush

Deiondre Hall

DeAndre Houston-Carson

Bears draft need: Moderate.

Bears draft picks

Round 1 (eighth overall)

Round 2 (39th)

Round 4 (105th) and (115th)

Round 5 (145th)

Round 6 (181st)

Round 7 (224th)

GM Ryan Pace has done an outstanding job of unearthing gems in the middle-to-late rounds of his three drafts with the Bears, especially at safety.

Last year’s fourth-round pick, Alabama’s Eddie Jackson, was a 16-game starter who scored two defensive touchdowns of 75 yards or longer – in the same game (one on an interception and the other on a fumble recovery). He appears capable of becoming the playmaker the Bears’ secondary has been missing for years.

Adrian Amos, a fifth-round pick in 2015 who started 30 games in his first two seasons without distinction, didn’t begin the 2017 season as a starter. But, when Quintin Demps went out with a fractured arm, Amos reclaimed his old job and turned in his best season as a pro. He pilfered his first career interception in 2017, which he returned 90 yards for a touchdown, but he’s much better in run support and as an open-field tackler than as a playmaker. Amos may never be a Pro Bowl player, but he wasn’t a weak link on the NFL’s No. 10 defense.

There is no proven depth behind the starters. The Bears cut their losses with Demps after one season, leaving them with a trio of 2016 draft picks still seeking significant roles. Bush, who had a reputation as a big hitter coming out of Miami, started six games as a rookie but took a step back last year, when he rarely saw the field.

The 6-foot-2, 201-pound Hall has intriguing size and could factor in at cornerback at some point, but he regressed in 2017 as well, spending most of the season on I.R. with a hamstring injury. When he returned, even with the Bears decimated by injuries at safety, Hall still couldn’t get on the field.

Houston-Carson at least appears to have carved out a niche on special teams, where he was third on the team last year with 10 tackles.

2018 salary-cap situation: The Bears are 25th in the league in spending on their secondary at $22.413 million, according to spotrac.com, and less than $5 million of that money goes to safeties. Amos, at $1.965 million, is the only safety making more than $800,000.

Day One: Fitzpatrick makes a ton of sense at No. 8, and Pace is sure to love his versatility. He has a rare size-speed-cover combination that could make him a Pro Bowl player at cornerback or safety – and right away. Fitzpatrick is an elite playmaker, who took four of his nine career picks to the house and averaged 30.4 yards on his interception returns. He had 35 career pass breakups and 22 special-teams tackles. 

Fitzpatrick brings an intensity level that elevates the entire defense, and he can be deployed at multiple positions from slot corner, to deep safety, to sub-package linebacker. If Fitzpatrick has a weakness, it might be that he is sometimes overaggressive, and if we’re picking nits, he could probably add a little bulk if he’s going to be strictly a safety.

James, who is a third-year sophomore, doesn’t possess the versatility of Fitzpatrick, but he may be the better safety. He ran a 4.47 40-time at 6-2 and 215 pounds – Fitzpatrick ran 4.46. James out-benched Fitzpatrick in reps 21-14, his 40-inch vertical was seven inches better, and his broad jump of an even 11 feet was 11 inches longer than Fitzpatrick’s. 

But James had just three career interceptions, and he’s not nearly the player Fitzpatrick is in coverage. James might be limited to strong safety, but he can terrorize opponents near the line of scrimmage as a run defender and blitzer.

Day Two: Stanford’s Reid is the younger brother of 2013 Pro Bowl FS Eric Reid, and he showed his versatility last season with 99 tackles and five interceptions. Reid has 4.40 speed, a high football I.Q., great instincts, and he demonstrated solid ball skills when frequently asked to cover slot receivers. But he’s also big and physical enough to handle tight ends. He can be too aggressive when coming up in run support, lose his technique and fail to break down properly.

Day Three: Evaluations of Texas A&M’s Armani Watts are all over the board. Some have him as high as the second round, while others believe the fifth round is too soon for an undersized player with impressive cover skills for a safety. 

There could be a high bust potential for teams considering him early on Day Two because of concerns regarding his effort level, especially as a tackler. Watts has shown CB cover skills, and he had 10 career interceptions, including four last year. But, at 5-10 and 202 pounds, he’s undersized at safety and would likely have to play free, where his lack of height could be a concern. 

He has drawn comparisons to Tyrann Mathieu because of his limited size but excellent play-making ability. Watts did not run the 40 at the combine, and his 3-cone (7.25) and 20-yard shuttle (4.37) times were among the worst for all defensive backs.

Sixth in a series. Next up: defensive line.