While the Bears did address what I and many others thought was their top need (safety) in the fourth round, taking Minnesota’s Brock Vereen, there was a sentiment that it should have been addressed sooner. While I certainly wouldn’t have complained if the Bears had taken a safety earlier, nor would I have been upset had they attempted to improve the position with some higher-profile free agents, I think Phil Emery’s offseason strategy has been apparent.
Rather than throw money at the secondary, Emery decided to overhaul the defensive line. Veterans Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and Izzy Idonije were brought in to help stabilize a beaten-down, ineffective defensive front. (The Bears also retained Jeremiah Ratliff, a midseason acquisition last year; in many ways, his signing was the first step in the rebuild.) To go along with this free agent spending push, the Bears spent two high draft picks on defensive tackles: Ego Ferguson in round 2, Will Sutton in round 3. Ferguson was viewed by many draft analysts as a project, but buried in most of that analysis was praise for his abilities against the run. Some called the second round selection of Ferguson a reach, but I think it’s those run-stopping skills that moved him up Chicago’s draft board.
Last year’s defense was historically bad against the run, allowing 161.4 yards per game. (Nearly 30 yards more than the 31st-place Atlanta Falcons.) Lamarr Houston is known for his ability to stop the run on the edge, and he was the Bears biggest target once free agency opened. Shea McClellin, who graded terribly against the run last season, was moved back to linebacker, where he’ll likely see a reduced role. It’s a completely revamped unit, and this level of targeted improvement seems to hint at a combination of two factors:
1.) The Bears viewed the defensive line, not the secondary, was most responsible for last season’s ineptitude. This makes some sense; the depleted defensive line struggled to prevent massive holes for opposing running backs while also failing to generate any sort of consistent pass rush. Once opponents realized that they could run at will (5.3 yards per attempt!) the Bears were forced into committing more defenders in an effort to slow down opposing runners. That left the secondary vulnerable.
The lack of a pass rush meant that even when the Bears faced passing downs, the opposing quarterbacks had plenty of time to let receivers work open; no secondary can cover for an infinite amount of time.
2.) The Bears viewed the defensive line as a better value to target given the players available, both in free agency and in the draft. Safeties like Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward were certainly attractive targets, as evidenced by the very large deals they secured from the Saints and Broncos, respectively. The Bears were linked to a few safeties, and indeed signed Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings to relatively minor contracts. Those are players who are more rotational pieces, as opposed to stars. The Bears did draft a cornerback in the first round, but then took two defensive tackles and a running back before trading up into the fourth round to draft Brock Vereen. (I’m guessing the Bears viewed Vereen as the last safety on a certain grading tier, meaning it was worth it to trade up for him, as he represented the best value left at the position.)
They certainly didn’t completely overhaul the secondary, and it’s nothing like what they did on the defensive line. But cap space is finite, and teams are forced to maximize the value of their dollars. If the Bears looked at both markets and saw a better opportunity to improve the overall defense by rebuilding the defensive line, then I can’t fault them for not splurging on safeties as well.
As I said, I think it’s a combination of those factors. Being better against the run had to be the first priority, and in theory, improvements can trickle down from there. All of this is not to say that I think the Bears had competent play in their defensive backfield; Chris Conte and Major Wright were a very disappointing tandem. But just because the Bears didn’t make the position their top priority this offseason doesn’t mean they didn’t address it; Fuller, Vereen, Mundy, and Jennings could all represent improvements. Acquiring players on cheap contracts who might be able to contribute at even an average level represents a potential for improvement.
In short, I really like what Phil Emery has done this offseason. He’s focused heavily on the defensive side of the ball, without neglecting a few other areas of need (backup RB, backup QB, punter.) He’s rebuilding the defense by focusing on the defensive line, while still providing depth and cover in the secondary. And he’s done it all with a nice mixture of veterans and younger players. The Bears will likely have at least five new defensive starters relative to last year’s opening roster, and it could very well be more. (While keeping the top defensive talent like Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, and Tim Jennings.) That’s a very impressive one-year turnaround, assuming it works out on the field.