Credit Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace for turning the team’s secondary from a weakness into a strength in just one offseason.
Pace bolstered his defensive backfield via the draft (safety Eddie Jackson) and free agency (Prince Amukamara), while also receiving contributions in the form of significant improvements from former draft picks at safety (Adrian Amos) and cornerback (Kyle Fuller). One year later, Pace has to do it again. Is he up to the challenge?
Entering the 2018 offseason with just two cornerbacks on NFL contracts leaves the Bears at risk at a position the team can’t afford to get wrong. Two starters (Amukamara, Fuller) are unrestricted free agents, while top slot corner (Bryce Callahan) is restricted. The Bears could start training camp in 2018 with what amounts to three new starters. But at some point, building a secondary every year simply isn’t feasible.
So while Pace was successful in building a productive secondary in 2017, he’ll need to do it again if the Bears are going to be a top-10 defense once again
WHO’S UNDER CONTRACT?
Marcus Cooper’s three-year, $16 million contract came as a result of the team missing out on signing A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore, who were the top free agent corners last offseason. Cooper didn’t provide many pleasant memories when lined up at corner. Things were so bad for Cooper, he ended up playing a higher percentage of special teams snaps (35.1%) than defensive plays (23.3%).
Cre’von LeBlanc didn’t play enough snaps to qualify for Pro Football Focus’ leaderboard, but his 77 grade was respectable. LeBlanc is a slot corner and has been one of the under-the-radar gems unearthed by Pace and the Bears’ front office as an undrafted free agent who flashed at Patriots camp in 2016 before missing the final cut.
Doran Grant and Jonathon Mincy were signed to reserve/future contracts this offseason. Grant spent time on the Bears’ practice squad, while Mincy played in the Canadian Football League in 2017.
EXITING FREE AGENTS
Kyle Fuller’s best season couldn’t have come at a better time for the Virginia Tech product. The Bears refused to pick up his fifth-year option after he missed the 2016 season with a knee injury, but produced a breakout season in which he started all 16 games and played the second most snaps on the defense. As far as we know, they’re making an aggressive push to sign him to a longer term deal (or, at least retain him for one more year via the franchise tag).
Prince Amukamara signed a one-year “prove it” deal and re-enters the free agent market coming off a pretty strong, but unspectacular season:
Prince Amukamara had a solid season for the Bears! pic.twitter.com/XKceOJqUoY
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 26, 2018
It’s fair to ask whether or not Amukamara’s productive season was a product of opposing quarterbacks trying to pick on Fuller early and often. Teams didn’t really challenge Amukamara, who picked up just seven passes defended and was held without an interception for a second straight season.
Bryce Callahan was the Bears’ second-highest-graded cornerback by PFF’s standards, coming up with an 82.9 grade that ranked 31st among 121 qualifying corners. Callahan represents another undrafted free agent find by this front office. Just check out his slot coverage stats from 2017:
Bryce Callahan's slot coverage statistics in 2017 👀 pic.twitter.com/LT1O0JArhM
— PFF (@PFF) February 21, 2018
Injuries have kept Callahan from playing a full 16-game season, but he has been a valuable defender.
Sherrick McManis is a cornerback by trade, but his main contributions have been as a special teams ace. If McManis returns, he will be the longest-tenured Bears player whose career will have spanned four different head coaches.
WHO COULD BE CUT BEFORE THE LEAGUE NEW YEAR BEGINS?
Marcus Cooper didn’t play enough snaps for his 42.5 grade from Pro Football Focus to qualify as the 13th worst among cornerbacks.
Estimated cap savings: $4.5 million ($1 million dead money)
HOW CAN THE BEARS ADDRESS/UPGRADE THE POSITION?
The Bears’ priorities should be re-signing Fuller and Callahan, a pair of cornerbacks who still have multiple prime years ahead of them. If the team decides to part ways with Fuller, then Amukamara becomes a priority – albeit one who should be signed to a short-term deal based on his injury history.
Malcolm Butler and Tremaine Johnson sit at the top of the free agent market and both appear to fit Vic Fangio’s defensive system. Both cornerbacks are excellent in man coverage and have shown to be willing defenders against the run. Pace has been active in trying to nab a big fish in the cornerback market, but missed on Gilmore and Bouye in 2017, as well as Janoris Jenkins in 2016. Considering the options at the top, the third time could be the charm for Pace and this front office.
The Bears could opt to address their cornerback conundrum via the draft. A dream scenario might be for do-it-all defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick to fall to the eighth pick. The Alabama product played in 19 different spots on the Crimson Tide defense. Deep zone as a free safety, covering receivers in the slot, running stride-for-stride with tight ends, coming off the edge with a blitz … you name it, Fitzpatrick has done it (and well!).
Ohio State’s Denzel Ward has been part of a group of prospects whose name has been most often connected to the Bears with the eighth pick. Even though he is listed at just 5-10 and 191 pounds, Ward is expected to be the latest in a line of stud cornerbacks developed by the Buckeyes.
Iowa’s Josh Jackson is another high-end caliber cornerback prospect who could be in play for the Bears at No. 8. Should the Bears opt to take a cornerback in Day 2, Auburn’s Carlton Davis was an All-American has size (6-1, 203) and a physical nature to his game. Florida State’s Tarvarus McFadden (6-2, 198 pounds) is another big, physical cornerback who could be plucked in the middle rounds.
Pace has struck gold by drafting safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson outside the first round. It’s long past time for this team to turn its attention to doing the same at cornerback.