Although the heavy lifting portion of the offseason is over, every team in football has its fair share of outstanding needs. And of course, the Chicago Bears are no exception.
In an ESPN Insider piece, the folks at Football Outsiders highlight the biggest holes remaining for each of the NFL’s 32 teams. And when it comes to the Bears, their biggest perceived need is in a position group that probably isn’t top of mind right now … but maybe should be: the secondary.
It certainly comes as something of a surprise to see Football Outsiders circle the secondary as a position of need for the Bears heading into the 2018 season. The need at outside linebacker/edge defender is quite large, as the team wasn’t able to snag a top draft prospect or sign a top-flight free agent at the position. Then again, it wasn’t a great free agency group or draft class to pluck a high-end pass rusher. Still … the secondary as a position of need? Let’s explore this, because maybe it’s not that far-fetched of an idea.
This offseason, the team re-signed starting cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara to multi-year deals, retained restricted free agent slot corner Bryce Callahan on a one-year tender, and returned their starting safety tandem. Bringing back the starting secondary of a top-10 defense where no starter is older than 30 should be viewed as a strength. And yet, there is still a hint of concern surrounding the group. Why?
Well, the Bears’ short-comings when it comes to pass defense are fair and notable. Since the start of the 2015 season, Chicago’s defensive backs have a league-low 24 interceptions. And while the team was able to force more turnovers in 2017 than it did in 2016, the group still struggled to come away with takeaways in the air.
It’s not as though they didn’t have their opportunities, especially when you consider Fuller’s 22 passes defended last season were tied for second in the NFL, behind only Darius Slay. But Slay pulled down eight interceptions last season, and Casey Hayward – who also had 22 passes defended – snatched four picks. Fuller, compartively, had just two. Odds are he’ll have a high volume of chances next season – especially in NFC North games when he’s squaring off against Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins twice a year – so hopefully he can up that total.
On the bright side, Chicago added a building block for its defense by drafting linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round, before tacking on some rotational depth with a hint of upside by drafting linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe, defensive lineman Bilal Nichols, and edge rusher Kylie Fitts on Day 3. However, the 2018 draft marked the first in which GM Ryan Pace did not draft a defensive back. As a point of comparison, Pace picked five secondary players in his first three drafts.
It’s possible the Bears’ secondary will get a boost and come up with some more big plays while defending the pass with improved production from the front seven. In fact, that’s generally how it works. Pressuring the quarterback into making risky passes and taking advantage of those miscues is a recipe for success.
And to be even more fair, the Bears were aggressive in pursuing and signing a handful of undrafted free agent defensive backs who could work their way onto the roster at some point in the future. Remember, that’s how Bryce Callahan and Cre’von LeBlanc got their respective starts.
But while Pace has done a ton to revamp a roster that won five games and has just 14 victories since the start of the 2015 season, you really can’t have enough cornerbacks and safeties when your team is squaring off against three quarterbacks with a combined eight Pro Bowls under their belt.