Chicago Bears NFL Draft Needs: Defensive Backs

I started this NFL Draft needs with an analysis of draft-eligible receivers, and today I’ll pivot to defensive backs, an area where the Chicago Bears could really use a boost. Though there aren’t as many quality cornerbacks and safeties in this draft pool as there are wide receivers, GM Ryan Poles is still well-positioned to pick up an impact starter if he decides to go that route with one of his two 2nd round picks.

The Bears desperately need help at offensive line, wide receiver, and in the defensive backfield. Poles can fill two of those positions on Day 2, but unless he can trade for an extra pick in the first two rounds, one of those needs will need to be addressed on the final day of the draft. I’m just guessing here, but the free-agent addition of Lucas Patrick and the expected bounce-back season by Teven Jenkins probably means the front office will address the line on Day 3.

When a team finishes 6-11, it’s probably a little bullying to single out one group and call it the weak link, but it’s fair to say that the Bears had one of the weaker defensive backfields in the NFL last year. If the season started today, Chicago would line up with Jaylon Johnson and Duke Shelley at the corner with Eddie Jackson and DeAndre Houston-Carson manning the two safety positions. Obviously, they need help, but just as it is with this year’s wide receiver group, Chicago may be able to find first-round talent with the No. 48 pick they acquired from the Chargers in the Khalil Mack trade.

The keys are second-year cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. and recently-signed free agent safety Dane Cruikshank. If head coach Matt Eberflus believes each can be a key contributor this season, that may convince Poles to address the defensive backfield later in the draft and in undrafted free agency. Still, Shelley and Houston-Carson feel like depth pieces, and if they’re counted on to be starters, it could be a long season for Chicago’s defense.

The top of the draft is loaded with elite EDGE rushers, and it’s entirely possible that Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan), Travon Walker (Georgia), and Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon) could be three of the top four picks. It’s nearly a guarantee that the Jaguars will select Hutchinson at No. 1 and though the Lions are a wildcard at No.2, either of the remaining two defensive linemen would be a great choice. The odd man out is likely to land in New York with the Jets.

If Detroit doesn’t take a defensive back with their first pick, they could grab a starter at No. 31. The Lions have been attached to so many players at No. 2 overall, but it looks like they’ll choose among Walker, wide receiver Drake London (USC), or safety Kyle Hamilton (Notre Dame). For the purposes of today’s position assessment, I’ll assume they’ll take Walker. That means Hamilton is likely to fall to the Seahawks at No. 9 unless another team trades up with the Giants, who own the Nos. 5 and 7 picks and are rumored to be shopping one or both in an effort to acquire extra selections. The Giants and Bengals match up well for a potential trade, as Cincinnati could be interested in offensive linemen Ikem Ekwonu (NC State) and Evan Neal (Alabama).

The Commanders have the 11th pick, are looking for help at cornerback, and Sauce Gardner (Cincinnati) is a perfect fit. The shutdown cornerback has impressive length, strength, and speed and should be a day one starter.

The Vikings are rumored to be all over Trent McDuffie (Washington) at No. 12 but might pivot to Derek Stingley (LSU) instead. Stingley is bigger but McDuffie is one of the most intelligent players in the draft, a big-hitter, and a little more athletic. They’ll probably pass on Stingley if McDuffie is still there. On a needs basis, that means Stingley is likely to slide all the way to the Chargers at No. 17, though the Texans could trade down from No. 13 and if so, the Dolphins, Steelers, Raiders, and Rams might be inclined to move up. Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles won’t pick until the 3rd round.

I don’t like to predict trades, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that Pittsburgh trades their selections at Nos. 20 and 52 to Houston for a shot at Stingley, whom they love. With the Chargers sitting three picks ahead, they may have no choice. That’s a slight win for the Texans based on DraftTek’s Trade Value chart.

The Chiefs are in a position to get one of the fastest rising defensive backs in this year’s draft with their pick at No. 29. Kaiir Elam (Florida), who has been linked to the Bears at No. 39, won’t make it past Kansas City. Elam is a big, physical corner with 4.3 speed who fits the profile that head coach Andy Ried and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo covet.

In addition to having the No. 2 pick, the Lions own the final selection of the first round which they acquired from the Rams in the trade that send quarterback Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles last year. Detroit will probably address their secondary here and will have their choice among Dax Hill (Michigan), Andrew Booth Jr. (Clemson) Lewis Cine (Georgia), and Kyler Gordon (Washington). The guess here is that they take Hill, which will delight the team’s fanbase.

Some might consider it a shock that Minnesota would use their top two picks to address their defensive backfield, but they love Gordon, and he would fit perfectly with McDuffie to give the Vikings two lockdown cornerbacks. Gordon was on Feldman’s Freaks List in the 2021 offseason, and he reinforced his freaky athleticism with a strong pro-day performance that included a 6.67 three-cone time, a 39.5″ vertical jump, and a 128″ broad jump. If Minnesota passes on Gordon, Poles will probably forego a wide receiver and take the high-motor DB.

If Gordon is available at No. 39 and the Bears pass on him, he won’t fall to No. 48, but Cine, Jalen Pitre (Baylor), and Jaquan Brisker (Penn State) probably will be. Pitre is the biggest sleeper in the draft class, but he’s a little undersized for a safety at 5-11, 197 pounds. That said, he plays a lot bigger than his frame and will probably add another 8-10 pounds in muscle this summer. At one point he was considered a top-two safety in this draft class but with each mock, he continues to fall. He’s a first-round talent, and if he’s available the Bears will select him unless Gordon is still there or if Poles trades the pick.

The rest of the defensive backs should be ranked as follows, and most should be Day 2 and 3 selections or UDFAs. If an offensive lineman Chicago really likes is still on the board at No. 48, the front office may wait until Day 3 to address its secondary. Luckily, the draft is deep enough that Poles should be able to find a starter when his turn comes up at No. 71.

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