Don’t be fooled by the mediocre games from Bear safeties Chris Conte & Major Wright on Sunday against the Lions, they have been a weak spot on the Bears defense for most of this year and really the last two seasons. Thinking back, Mike Brown and Mark Carrier are the only two safeties that Bears have had in the last twenty-five years that played at close to a Pro Bowl level. It’s been a problem to say the least.
This was the year that safety was supposed to morph from a weakness to a strength. Conte is in his 3rd year and Wright in his 4th, around the time that players reach their peak in the NFL. Both have shown flashes of skill the last few years but have been plagued by inconsistency and mistakes that most fans assumed would disappear with experience. It’s probably a bad sign that I wish they were as playing as well as they did last year. They’ve both regressed to the point that they have the two lowest aggregate grades of all the Bears defense starters (per Pro Football Focus). Weak spot is an understatement, they are a gaping hole in the Bears injury plagued defense.
So what can the Bears so about it? Let me step back a bit and look at where the Bears are in their season. At 5-4, tied for 2nd in the North with GB, and a game (& tiebreaker) behind the Lions, they are certainly still in the hunt for a playoff spot. It’s not that simple though, Cutler is out for at least a week and maybe longer, defensive captain Lance Briggs is out for a few more games, two of the Bears top 3 DTs are out for the season and most recently the Bears lost all-pro CB Charles Tillman for the rest of the year with a triceps injury. The Bears defense was struggling with Tillman and certainly won’t be any better without him, so is it worth doing something about the safety position? Even if we brought in Doug Plank & Gary Fencik in their primes would it be enough to stop the bleeding on defense and get the Bears to the playoffs? It’s a relevant question because the Bears need to decide if they are serious about winning this season or are just going play out the string and restock next year. If they are truly trying to win, it makes sense to try and improve the safety position.
Before I get to Ed Reed, here is where Conte & Wright rank on Pro Football Focus’ safety rankings just in case you disagree with me about their effectiveness this year.
The rankings end at 85. That’s right, Major Wright is 85th out of 85 NFL safeties. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point that the Bears need help at safety.
Nine time Pro-bowler Ed Reed was released yesterday by the Houston Texans. The Texans once promising season has been submarined by injuries and a Matt Schaub meltdown, so they are cashing in their chips and setting their sights on 2014. They are going to use the rest of the season to evaluate their younger players and hopefully improve their draft spot in the process, which leaves no room for 35 year-old safety Ed Reed. Here is a quick refresher on Ed Reed in case you forgot how good he is:
9 time Pro Bowler
2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Two longest interception returns (106 yards /2004 & 108 yards /2008) in NFL history
Most interception return yards (1,506) in NFL history
Most postseason interceptions (9) in NFL history
Reed is a notorious “ball-hawk” who is famous for luring opposing QBs into throwing interceptions; All the Bears safeties are famous for is falling for pump-fakes. At 35 Reed is not the same player fans are used to seeing take interceptions to the house or laying out receivers over the middle. According to the rankings above, he is only a little better than Chris Conte statistically (73rd overall), but he plays the same position as Major Wright (FS) so anything is better than last. Reed made the Pro Bowl as recently as last year and was the starting safety on last year’s Super Bowl champs, so it’s hard to believe he is no longer an effective safety. This is Reed’s worst statistical season so far and his playing time has decreased gradually throughout the season until he lost his starting free safety spot in week 9. Rumor has it that his benching has more to do with his negative comments about the Texans coaching staff than for his performance, but regardless stats don’t tell the whole story of Reed’s impact.
Reed is one of most instinctual safeties I’ve ever seen, with a knack for being in the right place at the right time (the opposite of Major Wright) and making plays when his team needs them the most. He may have lost a step or two since his Pro Bowl days, but speed was never his best asset. He ran a 4.57 at the combine which is middle of the pack as far as safeties go and that was 11 years ago. Just on instinct alone I think Reed is an improvement over Major Wright, he’s not going to be fooled be pump-fakes and a QB’s eyes like Conte & Wright consistently are. He might be a step slow in getting to the right spot, but at least he knows where that spot is and can still make a play when he gets there. At the end of the day, by whichever stats you believe in, Major Wright is one of the worst safeties in the NFL and if the Bears have a chance to replace him with one of the greatest safeties of all time, who is looking for once last shot at glory, the Bears have to make the move.
The addition of Reed would help solve one of the Bears problems at safety, but what about Conte? He’s a year younger than Wright so I guess there is still some hope he will improve and he hasn’t been quite as bad this year, but if the Bears wanted to bring in an upgrade there is one more safety available who could help:
Kerry Rhodes – According to PFF, Rhodes was the 4th best safety in the NFL last year with the Arizona Cardinals. They decided to decline his $3M option in the off-season and there are plenty of rumors about why Rhodes is still unsigned including his salary demands, decline in play, and questions about his sexual orientation (yeesh). Regardless, he played at close to a Pro Bowl level last year and would improve the Bears defensive backfield (as would Reed).
All the injuries on the Bears defense this year have forced multiple rookies onto the field before they are ready and the Bears need their healthy veterans to step up. Unfortunately, both of the Bears safeties have regressed this year and if the Bears have a chance to bring in veteran upgrades, they need to at least consider it an option. The Bears are still in the mix for a playoff spot and if they get there will be facing elite QBs (Brees, Rodgers, etc). I know I would feel better about the Bears chances in those games with Ed Reed at safety than I do now with Wright or Conte. Let’s see if the Bears management feels the same.