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Why the Chargers Should Select Malik Hooker With the 7th Overall Draft Pick

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Hooker could be a cornerstone in the Chargers’ changing defense.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

To me, drafting Ohio State free safety Malik Hooker would be a no-brainer if he’s on the board. To many others, it would be an all too familiar move for a team that has been plagued with tackling issues for quite some time.

It’s a debate that has been going on for quite some time, considering the Chargers’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the team’s perceived needs in free agency and the upcoming NFL Draft. Here, I do my best to explain why drafting Hooker makes so much sense for the team now based in Los Angeles.

Gus Bradley, the Chargers’ new defensive coordinator (with Antonio Cromartie’s stamp of approval) will likely implement the same scheme he ran as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, which is both good news and bad news for Los Angeles.

On one hand, he has a handful of talented players who fit Bradley’s system and would dominate in virtually any defense — namely, Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward and Joey Bosa.

On the other hand, there are very noticeable holes on paper for what Bradley’s defense will looking for. Running a defense predicated on single-high coverages requires not only a player capable of playing center field (something the Chargers don’t have on the roster) but also a strong defensive line that can rush the passer. There are some pieces there, but some are missing. (Re-signing Melvin Ingram would certainly help, but even if he were to come back, the argument could be made that more should be done on that front.)

When Pete Carroll (Bradley’s head coach in Seattle) took over for the Seahawks, the two players he took in first round of his inaugural Draft were Russell Okung, a franchise left tackle, and — more importantly, for the sake of this blog — Earl Thomas, a ball-hawking safety who would become one of the rangiest defensive backs in NFL history.

Granted, Thomas and Hooker are different players. KP outlined this in what will probably end up as the best post published on BFTB this entire offseason. But there’s a defining quality in both Thomas and Hooker that Bradley — like Carroll, Dan Quinn and many defensive coaches who operate out of Cover 3 — have. They’re speedy, athletic, rangy safeties.

Is my argument still not enough to convince you coaches who have spent time in Seattle have a strange but understandable infatuation with rangy safeties? Look no further than the Quinn’s Falcons, who drafted free safety Keanu Neal (in a move many considered a reach at the time) in the first round of the 2016 Draft, or Bradley’s Jaguars, who shelled out big money for Tashaun Gipson in free agency.

Because safeties with Hooker’s range don’t come around very often — it took Quinn two years to find a centerfielder he liked in Atlanta, and it took Bradley four years to find one in Jacksonville — it’s safe to assume Bradley will, at the very least, take a long, hard look at Hooker. One talent evaluator I read last season (I think it was Andy Benoit of the MMQB, but I’m not entirely sure) said something that really stood out to me. He said to look for what a player can do, not what he can’t, insinuating that if you have a good coaching staff, the player can learn what he needs to learn. The good news with Hooker: most of what he needs to improve on is completely coachable.

Drafting Hooker will by no means magically solve the Chargers’ problems, even if he turns out to become the player peopled hope he’d become when comparing him to Ed Reed. Even if he’s everything you could want at free safety, the team would still need to bolster its front seven and establish a reliable pass rush, by making moves in free agency and later on in the Draft.

That being said, Hooker could be a cornerstone to build on in the Chargers’ defensive re-vamping. Having a rangy free safety allows guys like Verrett, Hayward and Brandon Flowers (assuming he doesn’t get the ax this offseason) to become more aggressive in coverage and make plays on the ball. (Richard Sherman and Desmond Trufant can only be the aggressive playmakers they are with the confidence that the guys on the back end can bail them out should things go wrong.)

Bradley, like most coaches who have spent time in Seattle, places a heavy emphasis on forcing turnovers. He said as much this week in an interview with Ricky Henne. Getting a rangy playmaker in Hooker takes some of the pressure off the team’s corners, which could potentially give them the confidence and assurance they need to become even better than they already are. (That’s great news if things go right.)

At the end of the day, Hooker — like every other prospect in this year’s Draft class — presents both positives and negatives. (Go check out KP’s piece on Hooker for a film-oriented approach to Hooker strictly as a player, if you haven’t.) But the scarcity of athletic, playmaking safeties with elite range in itself is enough to warrant being selected with the seventh overall pick in the Draft. Now that Gus Bradley has the reigns on D, it shouldn’t be surprising at all to see the Chargers take Hooker in the first.