The Bears had a script heading into the final day of this weekend’s NFL draft.
In the fourth round, general manager Phil Emery was aiming to come away with a running back-safety combination, addressing two major needs on his roster. Only one problem: Emery began the day with only one fourth-round pick. So after selecting Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey with the 117th overall selection in Round 4, the Bears had to pull off a trade with the Broncos to move into the 131st slot. And once there, they added another secondary newcomer in Minnesota safety Brock Vereen.
Golden Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel, who helped develop Vereen for the past three seasons, remains one the of the young safety’s biggest fans. In a recent phone conversation with the Tribune, Sawvel dissected Vereen’s strengths and detailed the areas where he’ll need to improve to become a significant contributor in the NFL.
Q: Brock played all over the secondary last season. He started the year at safety, then in midseason made the move to cornerback. What all went into that?
JS: We started him off the season at safety and we had really, in my mind at that time, three pretty good corners. But what happened is one of them tore his ACL the second game of the year in Briean Boddy-Calhoun. And one of our other corners, Derrick Wells, was just continually hurt. … We get to Michigan (on Oct. 5) and Derrick got hurt again and the guys that came into play for him just didn’t play very well. And I’m standing there watching this happen knowing full well what we’ve got to do to help fix our defense and that’s to move Brock Vereen to corner. … It was something I talked to Brock about after that game. I didn’t say anything about, hey, this is definitely going to happen. I said, ‘You’ve got to be on board with this too for us to make the change.’ And to his credit, here’s a guy who’s in his senior year, trying to become an NFL player who is all of a sudden, middle of the season, being asked to play a position that he hasn’t played for a year-and-a-half. And Brock willingly did it. There are a lot of guys out there who would have been resistant to that, thinking that, ‘Well, I’m not going to play as well if you move me to a different position.’ But that wasn’t him. He was on board with it. He said that was the best thing we could do for our football team to win. … So we’ve moved Brock to corner and really the rest of the season, if you look at us defensively, we played really, really well. Brock stabilized us.
Q: A lot of the folks that talk about Brock point immediately to his leadership skills, his passion for the game, his positive energy. How did that stand out to you during your time with him.
JS: When we got to Minnesota (as a coaching staff after the 2010 season), he was really eager. … He was eager to learn, he wanted to be coached, you could coach him hard. He spent extra time watching video. And his leadership, there’s a lot of things in the summer that as coaches we can’t do with our players. And so it was real easy for me. Because I could get together with Brock Vereen and say ‘Brock I want you to do this, this, this and this.’ And he’d do it and he’d probably do it every bit as good as I could have.
Q: Obviously, his older brother Shane is in the NFL with the Patriots and his dad played in college and a little bit professionally. Brock said since he was younger that really allowed him to learn and understand football at an advanced level. Is that something you noticed?
JS: Yeah. That did strike me. You can move Brock around and we could really do a lot of different things with him. I think he played a lot at nickel for us, being on an inside receiver, blitzing, playing like an outside linebacker in certain zone coverages. He was a good run defender in doing those things. He tackles well. He understands where the ball needs to be, uses his hands pretty good. He’s a good football player. And the thing is, sometimes as a really good football player, you may not do one thing singularly great. He just does a lot of things really, really well. And because of that he makes a big impact. It’s really easy to see that we’re significantly better when he’s out there. … I think that’s the thing that Brock brings. Brock isn’t dynamic. But he’s consistent. Pretty much every game, you’re going to get the same thing from Brock Vereen as what you got the week before. And there’s a lot to be said in the NFL and at any level of football for a guy that’s that consistent.
Q: The Bears have him pegged as a safety. What strengths does he have at that position?
JS: We ended up playing a lot of field and boundary and we had him in the field because Brock was able to effectively do a lot of things on a No. 2 receiver to the field side and cover guys and do things that allowed you to maybe press a corner. You didn’t have to feel like you needed to have help upside of him on certain routes. He can hold up in a variety of different situations. I think that was the thing that he learned as a corner. Even his last couple games as a corner as a sophomore in 2011, he had a great game against Illinois playing against (receiver) A.J. Jenkins, who was a first-round pick. Now I know A.J. flamed out as a pro. But Brock had a great game playing corner on him. So this was a guy who brought really good cover skills and had a really good feel for the game. You could plug him in a lot of different ways and he can function really well. He gets it. He understands it. Whether you want him to take zone pass drops or get up and cover somebody man to man, he’s just really good at a lot of things.
Q: What are the areas for improvement that need targeting?
JS: I think he can become a better blitzer. I think that’s one thing that he’s got to be able to do with some of the things that the Bears are going to ask him to do. He’s had some issues there, false-stepping and things like that, getting off the line on his blitzes and stuff. As a safety, for him, he became really effective. He had a good year at safety (in 2013) until we had to move him. He tackled. He’s surprisingly good in the box. You roll him down in the box and he’s better than average at that. ... But I’d say the biggest things with Brock is that he can continue to develop his ball skills. I think there are times out there when he fights a higher, deeper ball. That’s something he’ll need to continue to improve on. He does track balls pretty well. He does break on balls pretty well. And he’s a really disciplined player. So the one thing about him is if he gets beat on a play, he’s going to be there. You’re just going to have to beat him on that play. That’s the biggest thing. That was a very big relief as a coach. And he helped our other players with that.
Q: So it’s an overall reliability that you’re talking about in terms of being in the right spots and understanding his fit in the defense?
JS: Exactly. I’d go to bed every Friday night and could put my head on the pillow knowing what we were getting from Brock Vereen the next day. That’s a great feeling as a coach. I enjoyed coaching him. He’s a guy I truly loved coaching and he’s an eager-to-learn guy, a professional. They’re never going to have to worry about him when he’s away from the Bears complex that he’s going to be in places that he shouldn’t be, doing things he shouldn’t be. He’s just a good kid. There’s an all-around solidness to him and I think he can develop and become better as a special teams player. He was solid for us on special teams. But I think there are even better things ahead of him as a special teams guy.
Q: Size-wise, he certainly doesn’t have elite length for the NFL and he’s coming into a division with guys like Calvin Johnson darting around making plays. What’s the biggest challenge for him in compensating for that?
JS: You’re going to have to be in the right spot. And you’re going to have to play really physical when you do that. Because there is going to be a time when you go up against a Calvin Johnson where you’re going to have to make him complete a really good play. You don’t want it where you weren’t quite in position and he made a catch that was pretty routine. You want to make him make a great catch. And I do think Brock gives himself a chance at those sorts of things. So when you go back through our season, it’s not that receivers didn’t catch balls on Brock from time to time. They did. But when they did, they had to execute a really good throw and a really good catch to do it. There wasn’t any time where you looked and said, ‘What was he doing? Where was he at? Boy, he didn’t cover that very well.’ Those times are rare. Non-existent even. So that’s the biggest thing. He’s going to have to now adjust to that level of being able to put himself in the same positions he did in college to give himself a chance. Even if he doesn’t force that interception, he can force an incompletion on some of those plays against some of those elite people.
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