Fixing the Bears Defense (Part 4: NFL Free Agents)

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Safety:

The Bears need a complete overhaul at safety. Everyone knows that Major Wright and Chris Conte are terrible. Back-up Craig Steltz has been given a few chances to start and has embarrassed himself. Anthony Walters is so bad that the coaches signed a free agent off the street (Derrick Martin) instead of giving Walters a chance to play. I’m predicting the Bears sign one established safety, one back-up who can play special teams, draft one fairly early, and bring back Conte because he obviously has some blackmail material on the coaching staff.

FS:

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Jairus Byrd BUF (27): If the Bills are dumb enough to let Bryd go, the Bears should be on the phone immediately. Byrd missed the first 5 games of the season and still finished with the 8th best overall grade for safeties (PFF). Bryd is one of the top 3 safeties in the game and young enough that a long-term deal makes sense. Safety was a cesspool for the Bears this season and signing Byrd would immediately make it a strength. Bryd is great in coverage and no slouch against the run either. He’s a complete player and would make the Bears defense significantly better.

Mike Mitchell CAR (26): The former 2nd round pick by the Raiders was considered a bust and was a joke among GMs because Al Davis drafted him about 5 rounds before he was projected to go. Davis might get the last laugh (posthumously) because Mitchell still has elite speed and is starting to figure out how to use it. Mitchell finished his fifth season ranked a respectable 35th overall at safety and in the top 20 in pass coverage by PFF.

Rafael Bush NO (26): Hasn’t had a chance to play consistently with only 6 starts over the last two years, but has played well when given the chance with a 9.1 total grade over the last two seasons. Bush has good speed and excels in coverage, but isn’t strong against the run. Should be a solid special teams player who can play productive minutes in dime packages if needed.

SS:

TJ Ward CLE (27): If Bryd is too expensive for the Bears, which he probably will be, TJ Ward is a great consolation prize. Ward is comparable to Bryd in talent, but doesn’t have quite the name recognition or post-season accolades, which should lower his price tag. PFF had Ward graded as the 3rd best safety in 2013, 6th best in 2012, and 13th in 2011. Ward is a beast in the box and was the top rated safety against the run. After watching Major Wright miss tackle after tackle and Conte take abysmal routes to the ball carrier, Ward would be a major upgrade for the Bears.

Donte Whitner SF (28): As I’ve mentioned once or twice, the Bears defense needs to get a mean streak. Whitner is overly aggressive at times and isn’t great in coverage, but he is a big hitter who is feared by receivers when they go over the middle. No one is afraid of Chris Conte. Whitner has been a top-10 safety in 2 of the last 3 seasons according to PFF.

Bernard Pollard TEN (29): I’m getting redundant, but the Bears defense needs somebody who can intimidate opponents. Bernard Pollard can do that. He’s a big hitter and an excellent run-stopper in the box. His pass coverage leaves a lot to be desired, but pairing him with a FS strong in coverage could mask some of his deficiencies in the passing game.

Stevie Brown NYG (28): Missed the 2013 season with a knee injury, but was pretty good in 2012 finishing in the top 25 of the PFF safety rankings. Brown is a well-rounded strong safety. He has good instincts in pass coverage, which make up for a lack of top-end speed, and is a sure tackler. After watching Wright & Conte make so many mistakes, just having someone who is consistently decent would be a significant upgrade. Uncertainty over the health of Brown’s knee should keep the price tag relatively low.

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  • Erik Lambert

    If they’re searching for quantity over quality, they would serve themselves best by concentrating on reloading the defensive tackle position and adding some cheaper defensive ends as well to bolster the depth. If I were the Bears I’d pursue Wesley Woodyard. He is a very productive inside linebacker, athletic and instinctive. It would allow them to kick Bostic to the outside where he’s a much better fit. If they are going to pursue any big name guy I’d pursue a defensive back, either Alterraun Verner or Jairus Byrd. The defensive ends will simply cost too much.

    • Mike Flannery

      I would be happy if the Bears signed Woodyard, but I think Vincent Rey can bring similar (if not better) production for significantly less cash.

      Are you sure the Bears should throw big money at Verner when he’s only had one good year? I’d feel much better if they spent the money on Ward or Bryd who have been playing at a pro bowl level the last 3 seasons. Bears are ok at CB with Jennings and Frey. Safety is a clusterf#*k.

      • Erik Lambert

        Believe me, I would much prefer if we got Ward or Byrd but if not it’s important we bolstered the corner position because I don’t think Peanut is coming back and three other guys are also free agents. A Verner-Jennings combination would work awfully well, especially if they can properly reload the pass rush.

        Rey would be a more than adequate addition at MLB. He was pretty productive despite starting just three games and would come cheap by comparison. He has that Phil Emery-type free agent feel, the kind of uncovered gem.

  • Thompson Way

    I agree that we need to make room under the cap. The Bears should be letting Peppers, Bush, E.Bennett, and Hester walk. These guys are making to much for what they give the team. Great article. P.S. I hope the Bears don’t go to a 3-4. I think that you need a great D coordinator to make it work, and most can’t, and the Bears don’t have one.

    • SS Bob

      The better teams seem to be using a hybrid 3-4/4-3 depending on the situation. Not the best example but I thought I saw the Falcons use a “heavy” package for a goal-line situation this year. I hear Tucker has experience with both.
      It would be awesome to have a line of Wooten, Ratliff, Melton/Paea, FA/draft pick DE for pass situations and Melton, FA/DP DT, Wooten in the 3-4. you could also combine Ratliff with a big NT in a 4-3 as your “heavy” package in goal-line/run situations to stuff the middle.

  • Jeremiah Collins

    Finally a Linvail Joseph reference, now if we could start mentioning Chris Clemons, and Everson Griffen I would be a happy fellow. Arthur Brown should get a honorable mention too…

    • Mike Flannery

      Keep reading Jeremiah. Both Arthur Brown and Everson Griffen are mentioned in the DE section. Clemons just missed the cut on the safeties mainly cause he’s a bit older than the I think Emery is looking for. He’ll be 29 at the start of next season. I would be happy if the Bears signed Clemons though, he’s much better than any safety currently on the roster.

  • SS Bob

    The silver lining here is that the money saved from Tillman, Melton and Peppers (c’mon guys, the writing is on the wall) amounts to about $24mil. (this doesn’t include the $8mil to Pepp the Bears are on the line for if they cut him. However, it also doesn’t include what the Bears might have to pay to keep either Melton and/or Tillman). Throw out the money paid this year to Hester and E. Bennet, and you have some serious monopoly money to play with.
    Would be nice to see a twist on this article if you could play Monday morning GM and see how the savings above, coupled with the perceived asking price of said FAs could make things happen.

    • Mike Flannery

      That twist is coming next week SS Bob. I’ve got a couple articles queued for later this week on which defensive players the Bears should draft, then next week an in depth look at the Bears cap space, how possible cuts impact the cap (good riddance Bush!) and how many of these free agents the Bears can afford.