As a hulk-like safety with legitimate 4.5 40 speed, Brandon Hardin certainly has the measurables to get people excited. Through the first couple weeks of camp last season, Hardin looked as though he might be a factor in the Chicago Bears’ two-deep.
However, on August 18, while trying to tackle tight end Logan Paulsen in a preseason game against the Washington Redskins, his season came to an end. It was a scary moment, as Hardin's neck appeared to jam and contort, leaving the former Oregon State star lying motionless on the field for a period of close to ten minutes before being immobilized and carted off the field.
Luckily, Hardin was released from the hospital the next day. He'd spend the remainder of the season, however, on injured reserve, reinforcing the injury-prone stereotype he earned at Oregon State.
On Sunday, Hardin donned the pads for the first time since that injury, and he begins his 2013 season with hopes of dispelling the injury-prone moniker.
"I'm feeling great, health-wise. I'm 100% in every way," Hardin stated after practice on Sunday. "I've had more than enough time to recover, and there are no lingering side effects whatsoever. Now, I'm really just looking forward to proving my worth on this team and showing that I can contribute."
However, having missed his last two seasons in their entirety (he missed his senior season at Oregon State due to injury but played in the East-West Shrine Game), Hardin's biggest obstacle is — and may always be — staying healthy. Whether it's a shoulder, a neck or a knee, if Hardin can't stay on the field, confidence will wane and he'll eventually find himself out of a job.
He spent the entire offseason getting himself into peak physical condition in hopes of preventing further injury, but until he can prove otherwise, he'll likely always be looked at as a fragile guy.
Yet, looking past the injuries, Hardin has other obstacles standing between himself and his goal — being a starting safety in the National Football League.
First and foremost, the Chicago Bears are probably as comfortable with their depth at safety as they have been in years. Chris Conte and Major Wright established themselves as the clear starters at safety last season, and Craig Steltz and Anthony Walters provide returning depth. Finally, the addition of former Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts safety Tom Zbikowski and former Cincinnati Bengals reserve Tom Nelson gives the Bears six veterans at the position.
Meanwhile, Hardin not only has to battle back from injury, he still has to learn the position. As I documented in this story from camp last year, Hardin never played safety before last fall, and he only got two preseason games in before he was lost for the season.
Athletically, it's clear that Brandon Hardin belongs. He's imposing, and he has the kind of athleticism that doesn't just raise eyebrows, it makes them jump off your forehead and ask how it is possible for somebody that big to move that fast. However, despite being a third-round draft pick just over a year ago, he's going to be under the microscope all camp.
He seems to understand that, though, and nobody has higher expectations than himself.
"My No. 1 goal is to be healthy. Obviously, I have to shake that 'injury-prone' tag," he said. "I just want to go out there and play football like I know I can, and once that happens I know everything else will fall into place as far as playing time, and eventually I hope to prove I can be a starting safety here."
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