Three of the Chicago Bears' top four safeties from last season will soon hit free agency. Major Wright, Craig Steltz and Anthony Walters will all test the open market and it's unclear if any of the three will be retained. On top of that, Chris Conte is coming off the worst season of his three-year career and will become a free agent in 2015.
The Bears will likely look to the draft to find a young secondary player but odds are very good GM Phil Emery will look hard at this year's crop of free agents to find an experienced veteran to place on the back end. Chicago doesn't have a lot of money to spend under the salary cap but a few wise cuts could clear up enough space for Emery to be aggressive on March 11.
Let's break down the top free-agent safeties to find good fits for the Bears.
Financial Notes: The franchise tag for safeties in 2014 (the average of the top five salaries at the position) is projected at $8.02 million. The 10th highest paid safety in 2014 (Houston's Danieal Manning) is due $4.5 million; the 20th highest paid safety in 2014 (Minnesota's Jamarca Sanford) is due $2.5 million.
Jairus Byrd (5-10, 203) Age: 27
Byrd is arguably the top safety in the NFL. He's excellent against the run and very good in coverage, racking up nine interceptions the past two years combined. Byrd is a turnover machine. In five years with the Buffalo Bills, he's accumulated 22 interceptions and forced 11 fumbles. He's also racked up 3.0 sacks during that span, so there's really nothing Byrd can't do. He's going to command top dollar on the open market and will likely be priced out of Chicago's territory. But if Emery wants to make a big splash and fill arguably the biggest position of need on the defense, Byrd would be an ideal selection.
T.J. Ward (5-10, 200) Age: 27
Ward is a young, talented safety who has very few holes in his game. He's solid in run support and rarely gets beat in coverage. He's also a very physical player who can lay the lumber as a tackler (just ask Rob Gronkowski). Ward won't be as expensive as Byrd but he won't be cheap. Still, Ward would definitely be worth the investment.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty
Donte Whitner (5-10, 208) Age: 29
It feels like Whitner has been in the league for 15 years but he won't turn 29 until July. He's a veteran strong safety who can serve as an extra linebacker in the box. He's also one of the most physical cover safeties in the league who can handle today's crop of athletic tight ends in man coverage. Whitner is experienced (113 career starts) and durable (one missed game the past four years) and would be a big all-around boost for Chicago's defense.
Chris Clemons (6-1, 214) Age: 29
Clemons has started every game for the Dolphins the past two years, proving himself as a reliable and durable strong safety. He's not great against the run but Clemons can cover with the best of them. His presence would help the Bears limit the deep ball, a continual back-breaker for the defense last year. Clemons isn't at the same level as the top three players on this list and won't command the same type of money, which could drop him right into Chicago's price range.
Stevie Brown (6-0, 221) Age: 27
In 2012, Brown finished second in the NFL with eight interceptions, returning them for a Giants franchise record 307 yards. New York placed a restricted tender on him last year yet a torn ACL in the preseason knocked him out for the year. Before signing with the Giants, Brown, a former seventh-round pick in 2010, spent time on three practice squads his first two years in the league. The injury, coupled with just one good season in the NFL, means Brown may fly low under the free-agent radar. Snatching up Brown on an incentive-laden deal would instantly give the Bears a defensive playmaker with huge upside.
Louis Delmas (5-11, 202) Age: 27
The Lions have a ridiculous amount of money tied up in four players, which forced them to cut Delmas last week. Delmas is coming off a strong campaign in which he tallied a career-high three interceptions. He has started 64 games in his first five season and turns just 27 in April. When on the field, he's a very good free safety who excels in coverage. Knee injuries forced him to miss 13 games in 2011 and 2012 combined, so health is a serious concern. Delmas has already received interest from the Steelers, Vikings and Falcons, so he's in high demand.
Husain Abdullah (6-0, 204) Age: 29
Abdullah will be 29 at the start of the season but he's been a full-time starter in just one of his five NFL seasons. He served as Kansas City's third safety last year but was propelled into the starting role the final two contests. He intercepted the Colts' Andrew Luck twice in last year's AFC Wild Card game. Abdullah doesn't have much mileage on his tires and has played well when asked to start. He's a very cheap option who could pay big dividends for the Bears.
Mike Mitchell (6-0, 210) Age: 27
Mitchell is an intriguing candidate for the Bears. Predicted by most analysts as a late-round/undrafted free agent coming out of Ohio University in 2009, the Raiders raised eyebrows by selecting him in the second round (47th overall). It was later revealed the Bears were ready to take Mitchell two spots later (49th overall), so Chicago already has a book on him. He never earned the starting gig during his four years in Oakland but started 15 games for the Carolina Panthers last year and was very good in coverage, tallying four interceptions, eight passes defended and two forced fumbles. He's not very strong in run support but he's a quality coverage free safety and physically, he's a beast (6-0, 210 and he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash). Mitchell turns 27 in June and may be finally tapping into his potential. He's worth a look if the price is right.
Antoine Bethea (5-11, 206) Age: 30
Bethea is highly experienced (126 starts in eight NFL seasons) playing in a 4-3 for most of his career, as well as in a 3-4 the past two years. He's decent all around but he's not much of a playmaker. Still, he'd be quality veteran addition to Chicago's safety core and, due to his age, he won't cost an arm and a leg.
Brandon Meriweather (5-11, 197) Age: 30
I just wanted to give everyone a good laugh. Moving on.
Bernard Pollard (6-1, 225) Age: 29
Pollard is one of the most aggressive, hardest-hitting safeties in the league against the run and would immediately upgrade Chicago's run defense. He brings experience (101 career starts) and toughness. He's a bit of a liability in coverage but Pollard's presence in the box alone makes him worth a short-term deal.
Ryan Mundy (6-1, 209) Age: 29
Mundy is a career backup who fared well in nine starts last year, showing very well against the run. He's an average, low-cost player who would add good depth to Chicago's safety position.
James Ihedigbo (6-1, 214) Age: 30
A throwback strong safety, Ihedigbo is very strong in run support but is inconsistent in coverage. He could immediately upgrade Chicago's run defense. Despite turning 30 last December, Ihedigbo has only spent two NFL seasons as a full-time starter, so he has low mileage on his tires. On a two-year deal, the Bears could do a lot worse.
Nate Allen (6-1, 210) Age: 26
Allen was Philadelphia's first-round pick in 2010. He had a strong sophomore campaign in 2011 but other than that, he's been a bust. He hasn't lived up to expectations but he's still an average NFL safety who played well at times last season. He's only 26, so Allen still has room for improvement and would be worth a one-year, "prove-it" deal in Chicago.
Even if the Bears cut Julius Peppers, it's doubtful they'll have enough cap space to make a big investment at the safety position. Teams with more money to spend will easily outbid Emery for Byrd, Ward and Whitner.
Moving to the second tier, Clemons provides the best value for the price. He would be a big boost in coverage and he won't break the bank. At 29, Clemons could help solidify Chicago's secondary for at least the next two years.
The cheaper option is Husain Abdullah, who has low mileage and a very high ceiling. He's a risk but his playmaking ability makes him worth the gamble.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.