PHOENIX — When John Fox coached the Giants defense from 1997-2001, he employed safeties who stood 6-3, 220 pounds — as bulky as Jordan Howard, but taller.
It seems quaint now.
“The league has shifted toward passing quite a bit,” the Bears coach said this week at the NFL owners meetings. “I think largely because a lot of the rules of the game, for a long time, there has been more yards per pass than more yards per rush. Because of that, you don’t need in many cases a big, banger, box safety.”
Now, tight ends are more specialized pass-catchers. More offenses employ empty backfields.
“So you have to be more corner-like to play safety,” Fox said. “As far as cover ability, range, defending passes way more than runs.”
History says the Bears won’t take a safety third in next month’s draft. No team has drafted one above No. 5 since the Browns took Eric Turner second 26 years ago.
Today’s safeties, though, have as much in common with 1991 as our phones do.
A centerfielder with good ball skills — harder to find than a box safety — is a rare antidote to a pass-happy scheme.
More so than ever, it’s worth the third pick.
While Bears GM Ryan Pace could trade back in the draft and still hunt a safety, few would blame him to taking one third overall — if he’s become infatuated.
LSU’s Jamal Adams intercepted five passes in three years, and is considered perhaps the most well-rounded safety in the draft.
Ohio State’s Malik Hooker only started one season but had a whopping seven interceptions during it. He played only two seasons of college football and two more in high school, however, and has spent most of the offseason recovering from hip labrum and sports hernia surgeries.
Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers makes more sense on a team that employs the oh-so-popular hybrid linebacker/safety spot made popular by the Cardinals’ Deone Buchanan.
Pace won’t set his draft board for a few weeks, but he seems likely to draft a defender with the third pick: either a safety or linemen Jonathan Allen or Solomon Thomas. Pace attended the Texas A&M pro day Thursday after he was scheduled to meet privately with edge rusher Myles Garrett, the presumptive No. 1 pick.
“We’ll have an elite group of names that we’re confident will be there,” he said. “Three names, yeah. But beyond that, OK, there’s some pretty good depth in this draft, too, so are there scenarios – and it’s easier said than done – where we can trade back. Those things will be discussed.”
Pace wouldn’t commit to drafting a passer at all.
“We’re going to draft the best players available, wherever that may be,” he said. “And if it’s a quarterback, it’s a quarterback.”
To revamp their secondary, the Bears signed former Jaguars cornerback Prince Amukamara, who Pace called a “veteran, savvy consistent pro.” He could play opposite ex-Cardinals cornerback Marcus Cooper, who Pace said was a “raw player that I think is still ascending.”
Throw in safety Quintin Demps, who had six interceptions for the Texans last year, and the Bears could have new starters at all four defensive back spots next year.
That is, if they draft a safety.
“I think some of the acquisitions we’ve made this offseason already in free agency, we’ve addressed our secondary,” Fox said. “We hadn’t really done much from that standpoint prior to, whether it was in free agency or really currency in the draft.
“I think those are areas (are) where we’re not done yet. “
The Bears had only 11 takeaways last year, tying the NFL record for the fewest.
Fox spoke — in the future tense — as though the overhaul isn’t over.
“That’s what is encouraging is about the striking distance thing I’ve been telling you,” Fox said. “We can finally address it.”