Stephen Denmark was willing to transfer from wide receiver to cornerback for his final collegiate season at Valdosta State for one simple reason.
“I kind of figured there’s a lot of 6-3, 220 wide receivers,” Denmark said. “But there’s not many 6-3, 220 cornerbacks at all, really.”
As it turned out, that transition is what got Denmark drafted, even if it was on a seventh-round flier by the Bears. General manager Ryan Pace alluded to Denmark’s “ridiculous” measurables last weekend and said the Bears see “tremendous upside” in him.
If anyone around Halas Hall is dreaming big, could that upside be Richard Sherman — another lengthy receiver-turned-corner who’s put together an intriguing Hall of Fame case in his eight-year career?
“I look up to him,” Denmark said. “There’s plenty (of WRs-turned-CBs) out there but Richard Sherman, yeah, he’s pretty good.”
Of course, there are hundreds of metaphorical hurdles separating Denmark from one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He would’ve been higher than a seventh round pick had there been certainty he’d be the next Richard Sherman.
So this weekend’s rookie minicamp will begin a long, grueling process for Denmark to make good on his opportunity in the NFL. But he’s someone who, at the least, the Bears are fascinated to see develop.
“This late in the draft, it’s just a very interesting, intriguing prospect for us to take,” Pace said. “I can tell you this: When we go to the rookie minicamp, he’s going to be one of the guys I’m going to be most interested in watching, just because of the traits that he possesses.”
A different kind of learning curve
Duke Shelley has far more experience playing cornerback than Denmark, having played 37 games while picking off eight passes over the last four years for Kansas State.
But Shelley is changing positions, too, at the NFL level — only he’s moving from outside corner, where he played at K-State, into the slot. And that’s not always an easy transition.
“Nickel’s a hard position to play, just because of where you’re at on the field,” Shelley said. “There’s more grass, more field to cover. Guys have opportunities to go two-way go’s on you and things like that.
“But for me personally, my skill set fits it, being my size and how quick I am and the feet I have. Transition, I don’t feel like will be hard for me. Being out there now during walk-throughs I was able to get in there at nickel a little bit and just lining up, it feels a little different. But after you get going and you get a couple of reps, you’ll be fine. So you just put your best foot forward and rely on the things you’ve been doing your whole life, so that’s kind of where I’m at with that.”
While Shelley was a solid, productive corner in the pass-happy Big 12 — opposing quarterbacks had just a 52.0 passer rating when targeting him in 2018 — his undersized 5-foot-9, 180 pound frame and a season-ending toe injury last year led to him not being invited to the NFL Combine. And that led to him being perhaps under-scouted, though the Bears discovered they liked his traits as a projectable special teamer now and slot corner in the future.
“He’s so scrappy,” Pace said. “If it’s completed, it’s earned. He’s very sticky in coverage. He’s highly, highly competitive. He’s just very athletic.”
Still, Shelley will have some learning to do before he can be an NFL-ready slot corner. The good news for the Bears is there are two veterans ahead of him on the depth chart (Buster Skrine and Sherrick McManis), so Shelley should have some time to develop behind the scenes so long as he’s contributing on special teams.
“Nowadays everyone (is) going to nickel personnel, 10 personnel, so it's opportunities — you got to put guys on the field who can run and come up and make tackles,” Shelley said. “I’m loving it, loving the transition. Learning new things about nickel. But I'm definitely loving the transition.”