By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) In completing a successful search and fulfillment process for the Bears’ new coaching staff, Ryan Pace passed his first major test as a general manager.
Now the hard part begins — adding talent to a roster that desperately lacks it, particularly on the defensive side of the football.
Pace’s belief is that to sustain success, the Bears must build their foundation through the draft. It’s going to take a series of successful draft classes to close the talent gap that exists between them and the Packers and Lions. However, looking at the history of the New Orleans Saints, the organization in which Pace cut his teeth as a personnel executive, he will also rely heavily on free agency.
There are myriad activities concurrently happening in the personnel department at Halas Hall. Scouts and coaches are poring over both game and practice tape to familiarize themselves with the current roster, while others assemble scouting reports on pending free agents and draft prospects. As Pace oversees these processes, he’s also prioritizing positional needs and weighing the strengths of the free agent class against those of the draft class.
“What’s important and what I like doing,” Pace recently said at the NFL Combine, “is balancing what are the strengths of the draft verse what are the strengths in free agency, and kind of balancing that out. We’ll look at free agency, I’ll know the positions that are strong, areas that we can attack and do that when necessary. It will be calculated. In a perfect world, you address a lot of your needs in free agency to open up the draft to (drafting the) best player available.”
Free agency starts next week, on Tuesday, March 10. This Saturday, the “legal tampering” window opens, allowing teams to negotiate – but not come to agreements (wink wink, nod nod) – with players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. In reality, these discussions started in earnest during the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that concluded last Monday.
Currently, the Bears are set to return all 11 starters on offense, but things can change. Quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall have contract clauses that guarantee portions of their salary as of March 12, so there could be movement one way or another on those two players. However, it’s safe to assume the Bears will focus the majority of their resources – draft picks and dollars – on defense.
As it stands, taking out what the Bears will owe to their rookie class (just shy of $6 million), they will enter free agency with roughly $22 million to work with. That’s certainly enough money to address needs at every level of the defense, but what areas will they prioritize?
It’s a three-receiver league. Teams are in their nickel (five-defensive back) sub package more than ever. This is especially the case in the NFC North, with offenses led by Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford. Last season, Bears’ nickel cornerbacks were on the field for nearly half of the team’s defensive snaps. Thus, the third cornerback is essentially a starter.
Offenses are putting bigger receivers inside, so defenses can no longer hide smaller nickel corners inside to cover the slot. Playing the slot requires both intelligence and the ability to patrol and sift through the trash on the inside, and athletes need to possess lateral quickness and physicality.
The Bears invested in the cornerback position last offseason.
They extended veteran Tim Jennings through the 2017 season, giving him $11.8 million guaranteed. Jennings was durable in 2014, but he didn’t register a single interception. In the draft, the Bears selected Kyle Fuller, who was thrust into duty as a full-time starter early on after Charles Tillman suffered a triceps tear in the second game of the season.
The Bears’ original sub package plan was to play Fuller outside at the right cornerback spot and slide Jennings inside to the slot. Tillman’s injury forced Fuller to a full-time role at the left cornerback and forced players like Isaiah Frey (who was released after the Carolina game) and Demontre Hurst into more prominent roles, which they weren’t prepared for.
The crop of cornerbacks available in this spring’s draft class is full of long-armed athletes, led by Michigan State’s Trae Waynes. But following the money of the past few free-agent periods, teams are becoming more inclined to pay more for experienced players.
For teams with needs at cornerback, comparing the two avenues, it projects to be a competitive free-agent market.
Last season in San Francisco, new Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio experienced first-hand what injuries can do to a secondary, proving a team can never have too many quality corners on their roster. Fangio’s athletic profile for cornerbacks puts a premium on length.
Here are some free agent options who fit that profile.
Byron Maxwell (6-foot-1, 207 pounds, 27, five-year veteran)
A Seahawks’ sixth-round draft pick in 2011, Maxwell was thrust into a starting role in December 2013, when then-Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Playing opposite of the league’s top cornerback, Richard Sherman, whom teams game plan around, assures several targets for his counterpart. Maxwell consistently rose to the challenge.
Maxwell is a physical, aggressive and tough player. In the Seahawks’ cover-3 scheme, cornerbacks use man principles, pressing at the line of scrimmage to re-route, re-direct and disrupt a receiver’s release and the overall timing of a play. All zone coverage eventually ends up being man coverage at the end of a play — particularly on the outside — and Maxwell has both the physicality to press and locate the ball in the air to disrupt the play.
In 2014, per profootballfocus.com, Maxwell was targeted 71 times and allowed 45 receptions for 567 yards and one touchdown, while intercepting two passes. Given his length and experience on the league’s most dominant pass defense, he will be the most coveted player on the market and likely sign a deal with an average annual value of $10 million-plus.
Davon House (6-foot, 195 pounds, 25, five-year veteran)
A Packers’ 2011 fourth-round draft pick, House only has 14 starts, but given his play last season, he’s ascending at the right time. With Sam Shields and Tramon Williams entrenched on the outside, House played a prominent role in the slot this past season for the Packers and excelled in Dom Capers’ scheme.
House’s familiarity with Capers’ scheme is a boon. Fangio was Capers’ defensive coordinator in both Carolina and Houston and still utilizes several mixed-coverage principles. House has the size to play physically but also the feet and hips to flip his hips, backpedal, turn and run.
In 2014, per ProFootballFocus, House was targeted 47 times and allowed 22 receptions for 261 yards and three touchdowns, while intercepting a pass. House will be slotted in a lower salary tier than Maxwell and likely will sign a deal with an average annual value in the $6 million range. He could be a solid investment, as he’s young with room to grow and is already familiar with NFC North receivers and offensive schemes.
Chris Culliver (6-foot, 199 pounds, 26, five-year veteran)
A 49ers’ third-round draft pick in 2011, Culliver worked his way back from a torn ACL in 2013 and played a prominent role as the right cornerback in Fangio’s defense last year in San Francisco. Undoubtedly, Culliver brings off-field baggage and character concerns with him, but his physicality will garner a lot of interest.
Culliver is a press-man corner. He has the size, toughness and aggressiveness to line up on the line of scrimmage and get his hands on a receiver, as well as the feet and hips to play trail man coverage. He’s also a willing player in run support. In terms of ball skills, Culliver has had difficulties locating the deep ball at times, making him susceptible over the top, which forced Fangio to shade deep help to his side of the field at times.
In 2014, per ProFootballFocus, Culliver was targeted 73 times and allowed 37 receptions for 468 yards and four touchdowns, while intercepting four passes. If teams are convinced Culliver has learned from his past transgressions, he will likely sign a deal with an annual average value in the $7 million range.
Perrish Cox (6-foot, 190 pounds, 28, five-year veteran)
A Broncos’ fifth-round draft pick in 2010, Cox also played a starting role at left cornerback in Fangio’s scheme last season. Unfortunately for Cox, his parallel with Culliver doesn’t end at being a former teammate. He also dealt with an off-field issue that kept him out of the league for the 2011 season and has had his work ethic called into question throughout his career. He’s been cut three times, but he made the most of his 14 starts last season for the 49ers.
Cox primarily plays off-coverage technique. He shows great instincts and patience in coverage to read a receiver’s hips and not bite too early on moves. He has fluid footwork and doesn’t lose speed or spacing when transitioning on a route at the top of the stem.
In 2014, per ProFootballFocus, Cox was targeted 96 times and allowed 59 receptions for 830 yards and three touchdowns, while intercepting five passes. Cox should be a part of the middle tier of free agents and will likely sign a deal with an average annual value in the $5 million range.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.