Thanks to a potential salary cap crunch, the Chicago Bears have an important offseason decision to make regarding the future of their secondary: Do you keep the quality safety … or the quality cornerback?
On the one hand, Adrian Amos has been as reliable as they come since his rookie season. Indeed, his effort next to Pro Bowler Eddie Jackson has helped put a stop to the revolving door of poor safety play that plagued Chicago for far too long. That certainly shouldn’t be ignored as he enters free agency.
Meanwhile, Bryce Callahan has provided high-end production at the slot cornerback position since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015. As the need for a third starting-caliber cornerback has been on the rise, Callahan has met the challenges opposing offenses have thrown his way. Unfortunately, Callahan hasn’t been healthy enough to contribute a full 16-game season. That is a cause for concern for the free agent, who would otherwise command big bucks on a multi-year deal.
As it stands, it appears as though the Bears have enough cap room to bring back either Amos or Callahan, but not both. And while the team can get creative in coming up with space, it’s most likely that the choice will come down down to bringing back one, but not the other.
Of course, going outside the box for the solution is not out of the question. Which brings us to Tyrann Mathieu, a free agent who could fill both roles in one fell swoop. That’s right, instead of re-signing Amos or Callahan, both quality options at one position, the Bears could let both walk in free agency, while signing one player who can be a quality option at both.
In a recent Pro Football Weekly mailbag, Hub Arkush, a long-time Bears analyst and observer, addresses a question from an inquisitive mind in search of a free agent target the Bears could sign without breaking the bank and chewing up a ton of cap space. Arkush circles around to Mathieu, a player he believes is a legitimate Pro Bowl talent who can provide an upgrade at safety (and possibly even cornerback, in my opinion). In fact, I tend to believe he could probably be close to elite, if he dedicated himself to any one position, but that’s some different value-calculus.
In any case … Mathieu played all over the Texans’ secondary while on a one-year “prove it” deal that was worth $7 million last season. He came away with 89 tackles, 5 tackles-for-loss, 4 quarterback hits, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Most importantly, the do-it-all defensive back did so while playing in all 16 games and getting in on a team-leading 1,045 snaps (or 97.8%). Versatility and production are key, but the ability to be that guy over that many snaps is of the utmost importance – which makes him a free agent worth keeping an eye on should he hit the open market.
Now to the nitty-gritty: Arkush believes the Bears can afford to hand Mathieu a three or four-year deal with an annual average value of $8-9 million per year with $20 million guaranteed. Not only does Arkush think Chicago can make a deal like that work, he believes it would be worth it for them to get it done.
We explored Mathieu as a possible fit for the Bears last season after the Cardinals cut the ultra-popular (and wildly successful) defensive back last offseason. And everything we wrote then remains true: “Mathieu is listed as a safety, but that’s just a technicality. Honey Badger is a defensive mismatch across the board with multi-position versatility. He has speed, deep coverage skills, man coverage ability, a willingness to tackle against the run, and a non-stop motor.” All of those things still apply today. The only difference is that the Bears are clearly in a competitive window and should be rounding out their defense with playmakers who provide clear upgrades.
To be sure, Amos is a steady hand who makes all the plays in front of him and Callahan has a knack for making special plays (even if he’s never been healthy enough to show off those skills on a full-time basis). But Mathieu, well, he does all of the above. His addition to the Bears could theoretically knock off two birds with one stone and possibly even come with an upgrade. With that in mind, his free agency will be watched over very closely around these parts.