By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) Back at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Bears general manager Ryan Pace expressed caution with treading through the “dangerous waters” of free agency. The initial waves of free agency have washed, and Pace has practiced what he preached.READ MORE: Chicago Culture Celebrates The City While Giving Back To Youth For Black History Month
Rather than opting for a big splash signing, the team’s plan was to cast a wide net and address its myriad needs. Financial resources have been spread across multiple positions, with the primary focus centered on upping the talent level on defense.
Undoubtedly, the Bears are a more athletic and experienced group along their defense front seven than they were two weeks ago. However, needs remain on their rush and coverage units, and new needs have emerged on offense.
When you overlay the current roster in conjunction with who the Bears aim to be defensively, the most glaring hole on the roster is at the cornerback position.
Let’s clarify something before we go any further: Every team in the league could use more pass rushers. The Bears are no exception, so there’s no need to state the obvious.
But the pass rush doesn’t always get home. Thus, the coverage unit must have playmakers as well who can make a play on the ball. At this point, the Bears don’t have enough of them in their secondary.
In 2015, the Bears’ eight interceptions was the second-lowest total in the league. Only half of that total was generated by their secondary. Opposing quarterbacks averaged a 99.1 passer efficiency rating, the seventh-highest average in the league.
Veteran cornerback Tracy Porter overproduced in what amounted to be a “prove-it” year last season. He signed for the veteran minimum, betting on himself, and won as he was rewarded with a three-year contract with a maximum value of $16.5 million and $4.25 million guaranteed.
Porter emerged as the team’s cover cornerback. The confidence the coaching staff had in his abilities crystallized in the team’s matchup against the Oakland Raiders, when Porter shadowed rookie phenom Amari Cooper and shut him down. That was a statement from the coaching staff that they had no loyalties to the past, like Phil Emery’s 2014 first-round selection, Kyle Fuller.READ MORE: Mother And 10-Year-Old Daughter Dead, 4 Family Members Hospitalized After House Fire In Auburn Gresham
Despite Porter getting a pay bump that exceeds Fuller’s compensation in 2016, he comes with risk. During his eight-year career, he’s only played a full 16 game season once, in 2013 with the Raiders. The Bears were his fifth team in five years, but he’s found a place where his talents are trusted, utilized and maximized.
One-possession games late in the fourth quarter require plays to be made by the rush and secondary. Porter’s performance down the stretch against the Packers on Thanksgiving night earned him the nickname “Fourth-Quarter Porter,” which the team hopes he can live up to.
Opposite of Porter is Fuller, who has struggled with consistency, technique and physicality throughout his NFL career. He rebounded from a disastrous start to the 2015 season, playing well down the stretch. But at this point, his inconsistencies should force the team to consider alternatives.
Nickel (five-defensive back) packages have become the base personnel grouping for most teams. With the number of three-receiver packages (’11’ personnel) teams deploy, a third cornerback is a starter in today’s NFL. The Bears need more talent at the cornerback position to compete.
Having a sound pass rush allows cornerbacks to be risky. If they know the pass rush is bending the edge and muddying the pocket, they can jump more routes. But it works the other way as well. Sticky coverage in the secondary gives the pass rush an extra click to get to the quarterback.
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio plays a lot of man coverage. This requires cornerbacks to be sturdy on an island, physical with their jams in press technique, fluid enough to flip their hips and bail and versed with opposing passing schemes to read an opponent’s hips to pattern match and take them to the ball.
Neither Porter or Fuller is a No. 1 cornerback. At this point in free agency, there aren’t any players left who would fill that role either.
Pace has done a nice job in free agency giving the team flexibility heading into the draft next month. Truthfully, no position group should be out of consideration when the Bears pick at No. 11 overall, but they would be wise to give priority to playmakers who will help make life more difficult for opposing quarterbacks in the early rounds.MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Warm But Wet Sunday Morning Ahead Of Cold Front
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.