With eight interceptions and three fumble recoveries, the Bears finished dead last in the NFL with 11 takeaways in 2016. That represents a glaring need the Bears began to address with a free agency overhaul of their secondary.
The prevailing thought has been that if the Bears draft a defensive back with the third overall pick on Thursday, it'll be LSU safety Jamal Adams. But there's another safety with top-10 hype that could serve the Bears' desperate need for takeaways: Ohio State's Malik Hooker.
[MOON'S DRAFT PREVIEW: More secondary upgrades needed]
Hooker picked off seven passes as part of Ohio State's outrageously good secondary in 2016. His elite range and knack for interceptions make him a tantalizing prospect, especially for a team that needs that center fielder-type safety.
"Any ball that's in the air, it's my ball," Hooker said. "I feel like I'm a playmaker. Any time I had a chance to make a play or change momentum of a game, I took it upon myself to do so."
But while Hooker has that ballhawking skill (and returner-like vision once he has the ball in his hands) that Adams perhaps doesn't, he doesn't appear as "safe" a pick as Adams.
Whereas Adams played all three of his years at LSU, Hooker redshirted 2014, barely played in 2015 and then exploded last fall. One year of tape isn't much — even if it's excellent tape — which makes Hooker more of a projection.
And it's worth noting that Hooker played hurt at the end of the year and underwent hip surgery to repair a torn labrum and sports hernia surgeries on both sides in January, too. While Hooker said at the combine he's expecting to be ready to participate in rookie minicamp in mid-May, he carries risk for a team like the Bears picking in the top five.
Adams, on the other hand, is one of six or seven prospects ESPN's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay described on their "First Draft" podcast as "clean" — as in, without injury-related red flags — among the top 20 prospects in this year's draft. Hooker and fellow Ohio State defensive back Marshon Lattimore have injury concerns, as does Alabama's Jonathan Allen, the defensive lineman who's been mentioned as a possibility for the Bears at No. 3.
[Check out Malik Hooker's Draft Profile]
Hooker pushed back on questions about his health in Indianapolis, explaining that he elected to have the surgery with an eye on being healthy for his first football activities with whatever team drafts him.
"The film says what it says," Hooker said. "I feel like a lot of teams will want me to be healthy for the year coming in because surgery was my decision. It wasn't like I needed the surgery, I decided to do that because at that point of the season, I knew I made the decision I was going to declare for this upcoming draft. It was moreso preparing myself to get ready for rookie minicamp coming up."
Draft history shows it's rare for a safety to be a top-five pick, let alone a top-three one. But as the NFL continues to be more and more of a pass-oriented league, why not reach for someone who can command a defense like Adams or create game-changing turnovers like Hooker?
"I feel like we're both very good players," Hooker said. "I feel like we're definitely capable of going top 10, top 5."
If the Bears think a safety is worth their highest pick since 1972, then the prevailing question becomes: Would the payoff for Hooker be worth the risk?