By Dan Durkin-
Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series that takes an all-encompassing look at the state of the Bears’ roster.
(CBS) Entering the 2014 season, safety was one of the biggest question marks on the Bears’ roster, as it had been for several seasons prior. Given the minimal contributions made by the position as a whole during the season, it once again remains one of the primary positions of need heading into the 2015 offseason.
Looking back to the 2014 offseason, former general manager Phil Emery eschewed a strong free agent class and allocated the majority of the Bears’ available funds to bolstering the defensive line. Emery made a modest investment in Ryan Mundy, who had 14 starts over his previous five seasons in the league, four with the Steelers and one with the Giants.
Furthermore, when it was Emery’s turn to pick in the first round of the 2014 draft, despite having his choice of any safety on the board, Emery opted for cornerback Kyle Fuller, which may turn out to be the wiser selection in the long run. Emery traded back into the fourth round — sending a 2014 fifth-round selection and a 2015 fifth-round selection to Denver — to select Brock Vereen from the University of Minnesota, who made five starts as a rookie.
Here’s a breakdown of the safety position from 2014 looking at basic info, salary and statistics. (You can click to enlarge.)
The position can quickly be summarized as, “You get what you pay for.” The Bears willfully de-prioritized safety, despite its continued schematic importance and emergence around the league.
The middle of the field is the biggest area on the field for an offense to attack. The tight end position has experienced a renaissance. Teams are identifying bigger and stronger athletes who are coverage mismatches from both a leverage and speed perspective against safeties to win one-on-one matchups.
Looking ahead, the Bears only have three players under contract at the position — Mundy, Vereen and Anthony Walters. Of that group, only Vereen is under contract beyond 2015. Both Chris Conte and Danny McCray are headed for free agency. Conte fits the athletic profile teams seek at the free safety position, but he’s drawn the ire of fans while enduring numerous concussions and shoulder injuries and may benefit from a change of scenery.
When you consider where new general manager Ryan Pace (Saints), coach John Fox (Broncos), defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (49ers) and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell (49ers) came from, it’s safe to assume the Bears will place more importance on the position.
Over the past two seasons, the Saints have prioritized the safety position. In 2013, they used their first-round pick (15th overall) on safety Kenny Vaccaro. In 2014, they signed the gem of the free agent class in free safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54-million contract with $26.3 million guaranteed. Given the caliber of receivers in the NFC South and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s preference for using three-safety schemes, a talent upgrade was essential in New Orleans.
The Broncos also invested in a safety in the 2014 free agent class, signing T.J. Ward to a four-year, $22.5-million contract with $14 million guaranteed.
Under the guidance of Fangio and Donatell, the 49ers had a pair of Pro Bowl safeties in 2012 — Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Goldson signed a lucrative contract with Tampa Bay in 2013, while Whitner signed with the Browns in 2014. In turn, the 49ers spent back-to-back first-round picks on Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward. Fangio is another coordinator who uses three-safety schemes, which gives nickel defenses more sure tackling by subbing in a safety instead of a cornerback.
There will be some viable options in free agency for the Bears to consider. If he hits the open market, New England free safety Devin McCourty will be the most coveted, followed closely by Buffalo strong safety Da’Norris Searcy. But second-tier options like free safety Will Hill (Ravens) and Rahim Moore (Broncos) could be value signings.
In the draft there are likely two prospects who will earn first-round grades — strong safety Landon Collins (Alabama) and Gerod Holliman (Louisville).
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.